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5 Indicators of Healthy Sales and Marketing Alignment

by Doug Davidoff | Dec 10, 2015 12:00:00 PM

sales-marketing-alignment.jpgCan you believe that 2015 is already almost over? Time flies when you’re having fun (or getting old). As the year winds down, here’s an important question to ponder: what have you learned?

For me, it’s probably that the single biggest difference between companies that sustain fast, profitable growth and those that don’t, has little to do with the tactics or even the strategies that are implemented. In fact, I can point to multiple organizations that are “doing the same things” that highly successful companies are doing, but aren’t getting the same results.

I’ve learned that the difference is actually an invisible force that doesn’t show up directly on any income statement, balance sheet or even strategy document. The difference is the alignment between sales and marketing. In a study by Aberdeen Group, highly-aligned organizations achieved an average of 32% year-over-year revenue growth - while their less aligned competitors saw a 7% decrease in revenue. (Source: Sales Enablement: Fulfilling the Last Frontier of Marketing-Sales Alignment, Aberdeen Group, September 2013).

The tricky thing about alignment is that it’s an easy thing to talk about, but it’s a really hard thing to take hold. You can’t achieve it with motivational speeches and goal setting. It requires discipline and focus to create the environment for alignment, and fanatical execution to maintain it. In many ways, the difficulty of achieving it is what gives those that do such an advantage.

It’s one of those things that when it’s there, you know it. In my experience, these are the five signs that tell me if there’s true alignment between sales and marketing.

1. They speak the same language and use the same definitions

The fastest way I can tell whether or not alignment exists is to ask a sales rep to define a lead, then ask a marketer and then compare the responses. It’s actually a bit of a trick question, because the right answer is, “It depends on what stage the lead is at.”

What happens most frequently is that I either get a lot of business-speak or very different answers. When the sales and marketing sides of an organization aren’t using the same language and the same definitions to describe their revenue/demand generation process, it’s virtually impossible to get the traction that is needed for sustainable growth.

It’s crucial that there is only one version of the truth when building alignment. When marketing sees things through one lens and sales through a different one, bad things are certain to ensue.

2. There’s accountability…on both sides

The first sign of health in any company is accountability, and the same is true here. The biggest complaint I hear from salespeople about what the marketing side does is something along the lines of, “They don’t understand my world. I have to meet a number. I’m held accountable to hitting revenue targets. They’re not. So they come up with ideas and some of them are really good, but they’re all theoretical. They don’t understand that if it doesn’t create revenue, it doesn’t matter.”

The fastest way to solve that problem is to make sure that marketing is accountable to revenue, by delivering leads that meet clear definitions that are tracked to revenue. When this happens, marketing stays focused on activities that drive buying decisions and salespeople don’t have to worry about theory.

At the same time, the sales team needs to be accountable to activities and results in terms of how leads are managed. The biggest complaint I hear from marketers about salespeople sounds like this, “They’re too focused on closing business today. Sure, today’s business matters, but we’ve got to make sure we are taking care of the mid-term and long-term as well. Plus, if all we do is focus on making a sale today, we’re going to get commoditized and our margins will suffer. They need to understand that all this stuff matters.”

Articulating expectations for both sides through a clear service level agreement (SLA) addresses this issue and ensures that both groups work together in a complementary manner driving better results.

3. There’s conflict

I once met with a CMO who had just started with his company that took offense with my take on the natural conflict and misalignment between sales and marketing. He insisted that there’s never been such conflict anywhere he’s been and that my take was totally off base. He was fired six months later.

The second fastest way I know there’s no alignment is that there’s no conflict between sales and marketing. Alignment is not a kumbaya, can we just all get along pursuit. As Pat Lencioni shares in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, where there’s no conflict, there’s no trust.

Healthy conflict, originated by differing takes and viewpoints, makes an organization and a process stronger. The goal of alignment is not to create a Stepford Wives situation, but to create the clarity that unlocks the creativity and constructive tension that make the sum of the growth effort greater than the parts.

4. There’s consistent, mutual feedback and you’re closing the loop

I had a dinner with a top producing sales rep recently and he asked me what he should do differently in 2016 that would make him better. I told him that he should embrace his ability to be the voice of the customer. He needs to consistently share what he’s hearing, the objections he’s dealing with and the general vibe he’s experiencing with the marketing team, and to do so with no immediate expectations.

Sales insights like these are the raw material for lead generating and decision influencing content. Too often, salespeople view their role in a vacuum and don’t share valuable feedback and insights.

On the flip side, marketing needs to share the intelligence they’re gathering. I’m shocked how often I find marketing departments that have created great buyer personas and but never shared them with sales. They track data on what content is resonating, what converts and what contributes to successful sales, yet never share that data with sales. Then they’re shocked that salespeople aren’t staying on point.

There needs to be constant, consistent feedback between marketing and sales to include the stories, narratives and data that enable everyone to make better decisions and to take more effective actions. Closing the loop (and sharing the insights) is crucial to success.

5. There’s shared success

When you look at a company like HubSpot that has scaled and sustained growth and you ask their sales team how they do it, one of the first things they’ll tell you is that their marketing team is filled with rock stars that make the impossible possible. When you talk with marketing people, they’ll tell you how awesome the sales team is and how easy they are to work with.

Now they certainly don’t agree on everything and they have their fair share of disagreements and arguments. What they understand is that they can only succeed together, or they will fail. They’ve built a world-class sales and marketing organization because they dive into everything as one unit.

And this is probably the most important thing to focus on. If you want a bigger and better future you can only do so as one unit. You succeed together and you fail together. When you hear people use “I” instead of “we" the seeds of failure have been sewn.