Play nice

Oct 01, 2006 9:30 PM  By

At some business-to-business catalogs, if you were to ask a salesperson what he or she thinks of the marketing folks, you might hear that the marketing staff is concerned only with creating glitzy ads that are likely to win awards, even if they do little to actually boost sales. On the other hand, those in marketing might say that salespeople spend most of their time taking clients out golfing and eating — in addition to picking up their commission checks, of course.

To be sure, neither stereotype holds up. But the perceptions show how deep the disconnect between the sales and marketing departments can become. And the entire organization suffers when sales and marketing don’t get along. Rather than act with the good of the company in mind, employees in these two channels begin to focus on actions that will make them or their area look best.

For example, marketing may try to generate a huge number of leads without considering whether the leads are actually any good. Sales may try to capture a customer by pushing through terms that hurt the company’s bottom line.

Consider the results of a 2005 survey of 300 companies with sales of $10 million-$600 million conducted by Waterhouse Group, a Scarborough, ME-based sales consulting firm, and McSweeney & Antman, a corporate branding firm headquartered in Chicago. Only 20% of respondents said that their sales and marketing departments were integrated and worked well together. More important, 95% indicated that their firms’ sales would increase if the two departments worked more closely together. “It was clear that there was a problem between the two organizations,” Steve Waterhouse, president of Waterhouse Group, says of the results.

Emphasizing operational aspects

While many companies struggle to get sales and marketing to work effectively together, many others have had success in linking the efforts of both groups. One example comes from Block & Co., a manufacturer/distributor of money-handling supplies, such as coin sorters and deposit bags, based in Wheeling, IL.

Key to the two groups’ working together is marketing’s ability and willingness to focus on the operational aspects of promoting products — such as ensuring that promotional materials are developed and get out the door on schedule so that the salespeople have the support they need when calling on customers — as well as on managing the brand.

At Block & Co., employees in marketing and product management “are as much schedulers as they are concerned about the customer message,” says vice president Barry Litwin. This sort of mentality may require a shift in thinking for marketers, who typically concentrate on managing their company’s brand and delivering a message, Litwin says. Fewer marketers consider the operational aspects of marketing campaigns.

Each month Block & Co. features a different product group for its Bonus Buys campaigns. One month it might be organizational tools; another month, financial forms. The marketing department prepares the marketing plan and the collateral, including the creative that runs on the Website and in the catalog. The team has to ensure that all promotions offer the same message. “We spend a lot of time coordinating the marketing messages between the three major channels: direct sales, telesales, and the Internet,” Litwin notes.

This coordination is particularly important when a company is planning a product launch. In August, for instance, Block introduced an application that enables customers to purchase and customize financial forms via the Web. As the product management people started talking about the launch, they increased the expectations of the sales force, Litwin says. Had the promised campaign or launch been delayed, the salespeople would have been upset, particularly those who had already discussed the upcoming service with interested customers. Salespeople don’t want to have to inform clients or prospects that a release has been delayed.

What’s more, because most salespeople are held to strict quotas, they may use a hiccup in the marketing program as an excuse for falling short of their goals. “When the program is not there on time, it creates friction,” says Litwin.

The cross-departmental coordination extends beyond the sales and marketing channels into the distribution center. Block’s marketing department has worked with distribution to ensure that all packages to first-time customers include a direct marketing piece encouraging a second purchase. “You have to look at operations and execution and build it into your direct marketing planning,” Litwin says.

In the three years since he joined Block & Co., Litwin has made it a priority to increase and strengthen the links between sales and marketing and to enhance the ability of the marketing department to execute promotions on schedule. The results are showing up on the bottom line: This year the $90 million Block & Co. is experiencing double-digit growth in both sales and income.

Marketing on calls

Another way to strengthen the links between sales and marketing is to have marketing participate in sales training or accompany salespeople when they call on customers. Typically, marketing people experience an “a-ha” moment when they participate in sales training or go on a sales call, says Waterhouse. They might not have realized that the salespeople weren’t clear about the target market or that the marketing materials didn’t support the sales effort.

Brady Corp., a Milwaukee-based manufacturer/marketer of industrial signage and safety products, a few months ago began putting its marketing staffers through a sales training program, says Mark MacDonald, director of sales for people identification products. The marketing and product management team participate in a course that shows them how to open a sales call, ask probing questions, demonstrate the product, and close the call.

“We wanted them to understand what a professional salesperson does to accomplish goals and how to build a sales call,” MacDonald says. “They would know up front what sales is up against.”

The training helped the marketing people realize when their promotional materials should focus on customers’ needs rather than on how Brady’s products differ from the competition’s, MacDonald says.

For instance, one recent marketing effort had emphasized that one of Brady’s products, a cabinet used to hold padlocks and other safety devices, was smaller those of its competitors. By working with the company’s salespeople during training, the marketing staff realized that customers really wanted a cabinet that they could carry around the plant floor; while size obviously was a factor, it wasn’t the only one. So Brady ended up placing a handle on the top of its cabinet and promoting that feature.

“We were too focused on ‘We’ve got a better mousetrap,’” MacDonald says. “We had lost sight of the customers.” Also, many salespeople are uncomfortable starting a sales call by criticizing their competitors, a consideration that the marketing team had never thought about until it began working in the trenches with the sales staff. Another previously overlooked consideration: If the customer hasn’t seen the competitor’s product, pointing out the differences won’t mean much to them.

Brady also assembles a sales council, made up of four salespeople, each from a different region, for all its product groups, MacDonald says. The council’s role is to act as a sounding board for the tactics and promotions that marketing is developing. The council may, for instance, ask for a sample marketing piece they can take on sales calls to gauge customers’ and prospects’ reactions.

The time commitment required of the council members is minimal. Typically they’ll get together once or twice a year; the meetings often occur during a trade show or a sales conference, when Brady’s salespeople and marketing employees are already together. Other than that, the salespeople might receive an e-mail from the product manager about the merchandise line or promotions under way once every week or two. The sales staff can respond with any suggestions or insight. “This makes the programs better. The salespeople know that the programs are thought through and not just made up in the conference room,” MacDonald says.

The results of these efforts show in Brady’s financial performance. MacDonald says that the groups in which he’s been involved have averaged 15% growth in sales during the past five years.

Using product managers, as Brady does, to act as liaisons among sales, marketing, and product development can be highly effective, says Jennifer Beever, president of NewIncite, a marketing consulting firm based in Woodland Hills, CA. The product manager is responsible for championing the product. As a result, he or she needs to pay attention to customers’ needs and relay this information to product development and marketing.

Some organizations also are changing their compensation plans to align marketing and sales employees’ interests, says Beever. While most marketing employees are paid a flat salary, they might receive a bonus that’s tied to some measure of sales growth. At Brady Corp., for instance, both the marketing and sales departments can be eligible for a bonus based on a predetermined sales goal, such as an increase in the market penetration of a product.

The fact is, for sales and marketing to work effectively together, management has to require it. “Companies have to make sure that the people managing the two departments have an incentive to work together,” Beever says.

When that happens, as the experiences at Block and Brady show, the benefits can be significant. Together companies can do a much better job “of making sure that they’re in front of the right people and bring in faster, more profitable business,” Waterhouse says.


Karen M. Kroll, a freelance writer based in Minnetonka, MN, writes for American Way and Business Finance magazines, among other publications.

Sales vs. marketing

How did the divide between sales and marketing become so deep? Brian Goonen, vice president of the customer strategy practice with Chicago-based consultancy Inforte Corp., traces the disconnect back to the growth of advertising channels, such as newspaper, radio, and television. That’s when many companies separated sales and marketing into two areas.

Until the past decade, most marketing departments continued to focus on creating advertisements and other promotional materials, Goonen notes. Then, as the business environment became tougher, marketing had to become more strategic. Marketing teams had to learn how to analyze differences between customer groups and to determine which segments to pursue and the sales approach that would work best with each. The marketing folks then had to communicate this information to the sales department.

But not all salespeople have welcomed the change in marketing’s role. “Sales may say, ‘Give me the brochures, and don’t tell me to do things differently,’” Goonen says. “But while good salespeople typically are effective in dealing instinctively with customers, some could benefit from using a more fact-based approach in their sales efforts. That doesn’t mean eliminating intuition from the process but using it more effectively.

That’s not to say that all the blame for the differences between sales and marketing lies with the salespeople. The notion that marketing is interested primarily in creating glitzy ads is often rooted in fact.

“Marketing people come from a creative background,” says Jennifer Beever, president of NewIncite, a Woodland Hills, CA-based marketing consultancy. “They don’t always understand the business aspects.” Salespeople, on the other hand, are in front of customers every day. As a result, they have no choice but to understand their customers’ concerns.

At the same time, some salespeople are kept from offering their insight to the marketing department because their managers don’t want them spending time on anything other than working with customers and generating sales, says Beever. This makes it more difficult for marketing to provide the support that sales needs to better target its efforts.

Also contributing to the disconnect is that sales and marketing employees are usually measured on different goals. “Sales is measured on the sales they bring in,” says Jill Konrath, a sales consultant based in St. Paul, MN. “Marketing may be measured on the number of leads they bring in.” But just handing over thousands of leads — some good, some not so good — doesn’t help the salespeople make the most of their efforts and can in fact keep them from pursuing the business they should.

What’s more, it’s increasingly important that marketing offer intelligent, insightful support. The intensified competition of the past few years has made it more difficult for salespeople to capture the time of decision makers, Konrath notes. “They really need marketing to help them open doors with a strong value proposition.” — KMK