Marketing's Interest in the Sales Function: A New Understanding of the "Whole Product" | SalesAndMarketing.com
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Marketing's Interest in the Sales Function: A New Understanding of the "Whole Product"

On the one hand, both marketing and sales functions want the same thing—transactions that produce the revenue and the profits that satisfy the requirements for the viability of the business. However, they go about achieving that in different ways. In a company large enough to have both functions, the marketing people are not making daily sales calls and the salespeople are not developing branding campaigns. The tactics are obviously different despite the fact that the final objective is the same.

What is evident, moreover, is that the tactics used by the marketing function in a business-to-business world all have something in common. They are geared toward achieving an objective that is not short-term focused. With the possible exception of an ad that has a near-term offering, marketing campaigns are designed in terms of frequency of exposure, as well as reach (how often how many people view it). Actions like this take time to have an impact since their persuasiveness is a function of purposefully repetitive and, therefore, cumulative effects. Consequently, these are not drivers of short-term behavior as much as they are promoters of patterns of perception around either the company or its offerings. In simple terms, this is a battle for the attention of a potential buyer as opposed to an effort to close a near-term sale. This, of course, implies the sales function is not considered a marketing tool.

A salesperson may use to his advantage that attention and awareness marketing has engendered, but the sales tactics used will be geared toward facilitating a buying decision in as short a time frame as is feasible given the buyer's disposition. Examples of this more immediate collection of tactics are: statements of product or service benefits, then questions asking for reactions to benefit statements, "closing" questions related to the perceived value, as well as many leading questions that are designed to move someone closer to revealing their level of interest in buying and, of course, the timing of the buying decision. All of these are used to get agreement on the value of the offering to the buyer, clarify to the buyer sufficient interest in the offering, and finally facilitate a buying decision.

This results in two groups of people whose interests intersect only over a span that is of no immediate curiosity to one group (salespeople) and only in a cumulative fashion to the other (marketing). Is there a way, however, that this difference in time horizons can be capitalized on more effectively by the marketing organization rather than become a source of conflict?

In Philip Kotler's textbook on marketing, he states: "Marketing has evolved from its early origins in distribution and selling into a comprehensive philosophy for relating any organization dynamically to its markets." If there were any definition less likely to attract the interest of salespeople, it would be hard to find. On the other hand, if one were to reword, as well as narrow, the focus of the same statement to "an approach to creating a closer relationship between salespeople and their prospects," you might get some salespeople to take notice.

What might other marketing principles look like if put in a "sales" perspective? To explore this, one only needs to start with understanding one of the critical concepts in modern marketing theory, the "marketing mix."

Product, Place, Promotion, and Price

According to Kotler, "Marketing mix is the set of controllable variables and their levels that the firm uses to influence the target market." He considers four variables: "Product, Place, Promotion, and Price," although some marketing strategists like to include "Packaging," as well.

For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on "Product." Theodore Levitt's marketing text titled, "The Marketing Imagination," offers the first instance of someone describing a product as a layered concept starting with the core or "generic" center without which one cannot compete, i.e., what is covered by the purchase agreement, and successively adding more layers, which include the "expected" product, i.e., price, payment terms, delivery, technical support, and anything else that comprises the minimally expected features necessary to the customer; the "augmented" product, i.e., unrequired reporting, helpful advice, special delivery, or anything the customer perceives to be surpassing its minimum expectations but still key to successfully selling the product; and finally, the "potential" product, which is anything that may be added or changed, a product-related variable that is possible depending on changing circumstances in the marketplace and existing primarily to grow the product's viability over time.

It's important to understand what professional marketers think the "product" consists of. This is what the generally accepted marketing experts believe is the most effective and useful way of looking at what it is salespeople sell. Note the salespeople themselves are not considered part of this paradigm. They don't fall into any of the concentric circles of the product concept, although special delivery and technical support do.

Direct selling, however, is considered by these same authors to fall into the category of "marketing communication." This includes advertising, sales promotion (samples, coupons, contests, and buying allowances), and publicity (public relations). However, direct selling, sometimes referred to as "personal selling," is believed to have certain unique qualities. Kotler describes personal selling as having three unique attributes:

1. "Personal confrontation. Personal selling involves an alive, immediate, and interactive relationship between two or more persons."

2. "Cultivation. Personal selling permits all kinds of relationships to spring up, ranging from a matter-of-fact selling relationship to a deep personal friendship."

3. "Response. Personal selling, in contrast to advertising, makes the buyer feel under some obligation for having listened to the sales talk or using up the sales representative's time."

Psychological Aspect

Beyond Kotler's description of the distinctive aspects of personal selling, it also should be noted that many authors of "how to" sales books discuss some of the psychological aspects of buyers who prefer to buy from salespeople they identify with or they believe represent "success," however they may define that. This could mean preferring to buy from someone who drives an expensive car or someone whose fashionable dress projects success or someone whose network includes other successful people. Clearly, no matter how one looks at this form of marketing communication, some powerful forces are at play here—more powerful in persuading a buyer to buy than the simple communication of product benefits or even the purported subliminal appeal to psychological predispositions inherent in some advertisements.

Do these differences between personal selling and other marketing communication tools suggest taking a different perspective? Is it sufficiently different to have us rethink the traditional view marketers or marketing professors have promulgated since the first printing of Philip Kotler's "Marketing Management" in 1980? In my opinion, yes, it does.

Why? Well, if we could simply say a sales call can be quantified in some way consistent with the frequency, reach, and other statistical formulations associated with advertising, public relations, and other promotional efforts, then perhaps there wouldn't be the qualitative differences that cause the traditional categorization of personal selling to potentially have less value. The fact that a sales meeting can be a "stressful encounter" and that it can build a "relationship" that also may induce a buyer to feel an "obligation" to respond in some fashion should make it clear we are dealing with an entirely different situation than that engendered by other forms of marketing.

How different is this? What new way should anyone, no less a marketer, use to view the role of the salesperson? What are the implications of this new perspective for hiring salespeople, managing them, and facilitating their effectiveness?

Since I believe personal selling cannot be lumped together with advertising, promotion, and other forms of marketing communication, it, therefore, must be placed in some other conceptual space that is more appropriate. What might that be?

First, let's look back at the concept of the "whole product." Note the "expected product" area. This layer describes that part of the whole product where the customer's minimum expectation of features, capabilities, or support beyond that of the generic or core product are met. As Theodore Levitt wrote, "Every customer has minimal purchase conditions that exceed the generic product itself."

Examples that have been given of this "minimal expectation" include things such as delivery terms, payment terms, and technical support associated with product offerings; a suitable office for the customer to meet with a realtor; and a pleasing personality in an attorney when associated with a service offering. These examples suggest a close connection with the core product and although not an integral part of the "core," still are required to make a sale. Along these lines, aren't there personally sold products or services where a particular sales approach, personality, or expertise also is required for the sale to take place?

For an appropriate example, let's look at the outsourced software development business, which is a technically focused service described using idiosyncratic language to people who have an understanding of its principles. Selling this service requires a facility with terms such as "software development life cycle (SDLC)," "waterfall methodology," "SCRUM," "prioritized feature lists," "code reviews," "bug levels," and much more. These words describe the particular processes used to develop software and how the outcome of the programming effort is evaluated and measured. Without knowing this unique language, a salesperson would have no effective way to communicate how the service is differentiated, no less described in ways similar to a competitor's.

Additionally, due to the significant cost associated with software development, the financial risk associated with outsourcing this activity is considerable. Moreover, if the outcome of the outsourced project exceeds the budget and/or time frame it was allocated, or in the worst case—which happens more frequently in this business than generally recognized—a complete failure occurs, people's careers can be tragically impacted.

Consequently, the degree to which the prospective customer trusts the salesperson's portrayal of a positive outcome perforce becomes a significant factor in the decision-making process. The track record of the firm, the track record of the particular methodology of development used, the reputation of the developers and managers, and, of course, the passion with which the salesperson describes the firm's dedication to the success of his or her customers all play a role in the purchasing decision.

To say the facilitation of a sale in the aforementioned service industry requires personal selling rather than another form of marketing communication is so generally accepted that I have yet to find a company selling this service for the purpose of doing non-trivial information technology projects without a direct sales organization of some kind. Outsourcing software development to lower cost labor centers such as India, Vietnam, China, and Eastern Europe for enterprise-level applications still involves a personal selling effort whose characteristics mirror those just described.

Effectively, personal selling in the example above has become part of a customer's minimal expectation for the "product." The question then becomes whether or not this alters the ways in which firms in industries where personal selling is actually a component of the "expected product" hire and train their salespeople.

Salesperson Selection

So, if salespeople could be considered in any given instance part of the minimum expectations the potential customer has for what is included with the product or service, then what might happen to the selection process for these salespeople? Would the marketing department be involved to make certain its view of the service or product's positioning was an influencing factor in the hiring decision? Would the hire be viewed by executives as more important and, therefore, suggest they become part of the interviewing process?

Once hired, would the salesperson's training be any more extensive than would otherwise be the case? Would the positioning of the product or service be taught any differently? Would the salesperson become part of that positioning? Would the dress, speech, demeanor, or target of the sales call be altered in a meaningful way?

Responses to these questions, of course, will tend toward situational, industry-specific, and company culture-oriented answers. However, the prospect of focusing more on these questions as a result of a new perspective regarding the relationship of personal selling to the whole product concept should produce different and potentially superior results. Realizing there are more powerful forces at play in the salesperson—more prospect interaction than could ever exist in the interplay between other marketing communication vehicles and the prospective customer—makes for a different and potentially much more effective selling process. Taking greater care of the implications for personnel selection and training are an obvious consequence.

When sales is viewed more as an integral part of the "expected product," marketing's view of the role of personal selling in the marketing mix will have to change, and with it, the importance of understanding the value of the salesperson. Although a simple hypothesis, a change in thinking about the nature of the "whole product" may have powerful repercussions for the place personal selling has in businesses where effective direct selling is crucial.

Cliff Chirls has held a variety of sales management, marketing, and general management positions in his 30-year career, including the role of marketing director at Aldus Corporation (which merged with Adobe), where he managed the company's $60 million graphics products business, and chief operating officer of SolutionsIQ, a $50 million IT services firm. He currently is managing partner at the Effectiveness Institute, a global training and consulting firm based in Redmond, WA. Contact him at cliff@effectivenessinstitute.com.