Improving Marketing and Sales Alignment

Social media and the availability of new channels have shifted the balance of power in sales relationships—often dramatically, sometimes more subtly—and it's a shift that chief marketing officers are often ill-prepared to handle.

Even if these shifts leave you feeling overwhelmed, the challenges they present are not insurmountable. Companies that transform their sales and marketing alignment are prepared to take advantage of these changes, and increase market share and profits.

Companies with a higher degree of marketing and sales alignment are in a far superior position to sell products and services with a solutions-oriented perspective, which, in this era of social media and new channels, needs to supersede traditional marketing based on features and benefits.

What are the ultimate payoffs for a solutions- or segment-based orientation? Consider the following benefits of this approach:

  • effective offerings based on customer priorities and buying preferences, as well as value to the seller;
  • value propositions that articulate benefits and differentiation while linking offerings and price to uncover and reinforce mutual value;
  • consistent delivery of customer promises; and
  • the ability to identify future opportunities to increase mutual value.

To some, mastering new channels through marketing and sales alignment seems like a pipe dream. It's no surprise many sales and marketing professionals feel that way. An IBM study indicated that more than half of chief marketing officers are unprepared for the growth of social media, new channels and devices, demographic shifts, and other trends.

Prospective buyers are often signaling their intent in venues far removed from face-to-face meetings with a sales representative. They're posting clues on online forums, Twitter, and even Facebook, as well as on a host of other, nontraditional sales channels.

What's even more intriguing about these channels is that not only may buyers indicate if they're going to buy, but also how they're going to buy and how you're going to need to sell to them. Your customers have evolving ideas about effective purchasing, and the evidence is there to discern these changes.

If online communities and access to company information make it easier to identify and select vendors that have new ideas and a proven track record, it's incumbent upon companies to meet buyers' or prospective buyers' high expectations. Companies need to use social media to their advantage, providing tailored, customized solutions that truly deliver value.

Saying that you offer customized solutions is not the same as actually being able to deliver them, of course. We have found it is only companies with sales and marketing alignment that can define and sell customized solutions with any regularity.

From Alignment to Value to a Done Deal

Value-based selling (VBS) is a key element in making sure that companies can deliver the promise of solutions based on customers' true needs. However, VBS requires focused alignment between sales and marketing that, in turn, depends on shifting away from a marketing approach based on product features and benefits in favor of an approach that markets solutions.

Because most marketing organizations are product- or line-of-business focused, their marketing efforts tend to be product-oriented too. The sales team is often product-focused as well.

The most successful sales organizations are organized around customer needs, with account segments that include industry, customer size, total opportunity, and other important criteria like—as mentioned above—buying processes and preferences. An effective segmentation strategy indicates key points of alignment for the marketing and sales organization.

However, traditional divisions between marketing and sales simply don't allow for the coordinated strategy and execution you need for effective VBS. Far too often, siloed marketing and sales teams result in uncoordinated efforts. Typically, marketing defines a strategy, develops a value proposition, executes a series of campaigns, and hands off collateral and leads to sales. Sales is often left to pursue the leads, which may not have been well qualified, with minimal enablement.

Of the leads that sales doesn't accept, many fall by the wayside, since a lead nurturing program either doesn't exist or is inadequate, as the roles of marketing and sales are not defined.

So how can sales and marketing improve alignment—or align at all?

Ensuring Alignment

The best way to deliver value starts with bringing the marketing and sales organizations closer together in the planning process, starting with customer insight.

Marketers with a firm grasp of the issues, influencers, and decision-makers for each customer segment are positioned to help develop strategies and content that enable their counterparts in sales to communicate and deliver the unique value the company can provide to its customers.

The marketing team needs to enlist and enable the sales team to gain and provide insight. This can be done through roundtables with sales (in person or virtual), participation in account team meetings or review of account plans, or win/loss reports. Marketing can develop value propositions and messaging that reflect customer needs. Marketing can enable the sales team with tools and collateral that reflect these insights and can be used in a prospect or customer's preferred engagement method.

Technology can enable this collaboration and support sales interactions with customers. What is essential is to tie together these technological tools to ensure a unified customer experience.

No One Said It Would Be Easy

So while it's essential for companies to have marketing and sales aligned, it's obviously not as easy as wishing it were so.

There are plenty of cultural and business concerns to address. For instance, companies need to determine who is accountable for customer messaging. In a product-oriented world, content development is left to a product marketer, but in a solutions-oriented world, a segment marketing professional—whose perspective is aligned with segments instead of products—handles content development.

There are more challenges, such as knowing who will lead sales enablement, the amount of flexibility sales teams need to tailor value propositions, and how sales and marketing will collaborate on lead nurturing with a customer who's not yet ready to purchase. Overcoming organization inertia can be another enormous challenge.

But in markets where social media is flourishing as a messaging platform and new channels proliferate, sales and marketing alignment, and the value-based selling model that comes with it, is no longer optional. Those companies that can commit to changing the culture and take advantage of technology won't find the massive changes in the market so painful after all.

Ashish Vazirani is a managing principal at ZS Associates and leader of the firm's high-tech practice. A 15-year consulting and sales and marketing management industry veteran, he has led major sales and marketing organization transformations and large engagements with global technology and healthcare leaders.

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