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Meeting of the Minds

By PAUL NOLAN, SMM Editor

It would be easy to drag out the age-old conflict between sales and marketing teams— the one that says marketing is too focused on cranking out strategic messages that don’t pique customer interest, while sales continues to fail to make good use of the materials that marketing produces to sell with and doesn’t follow up on leads, either.

It would be easy rehash that argument and finagle some new means to conquer it. But John Golden, President of the global sales performance improvement firm Huthwaite, says things have gotten a bit more complicated than that.

“We’re entering a phase now where I’m not sure whether all sales and marketing professionals understand the kind of paradigm shift there has been in buyer behavior,” he says. “Shifts that require sales and marketing to work more closely together than ever before.”

In fact, says Golden, it actually requires that marketing tackle some of the buying tactics and become involved in the buying process themselves. Whether you’re a billion-dollar company with large and clearly defined sales and marketing teams, or you record annual sales under $1 million and the line between sales and marketing in your company is blurry or non-existent, Golden says steps that have traditionally fallen under the marketing umbrella  need to extend deeper into the sales process.

“It’s going to require that both sales and marketing look at each other differently and realize they are not separate and distinct,” he says. “They are actually all part of the buying cycle and the revenue continuum. They play different roles at different times, but they need to understand that they have to partner together in a much more meaningful way than they ever have before.”

There’s No Controlling the King

This collaboration is less about sales and marketing teams understanding what each other does, and more understanding the customer better. It’s a fundamental reassessment of how the customer or prospect wants to be interacted with — the way they want to receive product information, who they want to receive it from, and at what point in the buying cycle they want it.

What the collaboration is not about is marketing collecting prospect names, contact information and a bit of information on their use of certain products or services and simply passing that along to sales for follow-up. It’s not about posting a demo online and gathering names and e-mails from viewers to generate follow-up phone calls.

“The days of trying to control the customer are over,” Golden says. “Buyers today engage in the buying process on their own terms and often only allow a salesperson into that process once it is quite far down the track.”

That is not to say that your organization cannot engage with and influence the buyer earlier in the process. You can, Golden says, but to

do so you need to understand the concept of the revenue continuum and align your sales and marketing organizations to be able to play effective roles in this continuum at the right time and in the right way.

“The real challenge is for marketing folks to gather as much information as possible so the salesperson can elegantly involve himself

in the sales process in a way that can bring value to the table. The key is making a seamless handover from marketing to sales with the whole idea of value creation. It has to serve a purpose,” Golden emphasizes.

 For sales and marketing teams, it’s work together or die fighting

3 questions

#1 Does it shorten the sales cycle?

Pulling marketing further into the sales process should affect your salespeople’s actions — and could shorten the sales cycle, says Huthwaite’s John Golden. It should also impact the skill of the salesperson.

“If you have to get involved in the sales cycle later than you traditionally would have, it means you need to be well-versed in conversations that have occurred, so when you engage with the prospect, you can go deeper faster. You can have a focused and targeted conversation. Once upon a time, you may have had three or four conversations to do that. Now you may have two,” he said.

Ultimately, it’s driven by the buyer. How people are conditioned to act as consumer goods purchasers is bleeding over into how they like to buy in the business-to-business arena, Golden says.

“We want information quickly and if we don’t see value in the interaction with the organizations that we’re considering and if they can’t bring us value beyond the products or services they’re selling, we’ll look elsewhere.”

#2 Do you need to be wary about harvesters of competitive intelligence?

The important thing organizations need to ask themselves is whether they truly know their buyer and how that buyer likes to buy. “This is a critical time for organizations to re-evaluate how customers like to buy and how they are supplying them with the information they need,” Golden says.

A lot of the work on educating the prospect doesn’t need to be done by the salesperson anymore. Buyers gather much of that information on their own before ever contacting a salesperson. For the marketing team, however, this trend has huge implications for what content to upload to a corporate website. Product demonstrations and case studies that may have been proprietary sales tools as recently as five years ago almost certainly should be accessible to interested parties without the need to reach someone at your company first.

“Let’s be honest: Anybody can get whatever information they want if they really want to get it,” Golden says. “Everything comes with some kind of risk. I would prefer having some competitors having additional information about me than risk 10 customers passing me by because they couldn’t get the information they needed easily.”

#3 Does marketing’s extended role make the salesperson inconsequential?

It is a mistake to assume that because marketing is going further with the buyer than before, the role and skills of the salesperson are diminished. “On the contrary,” says Golden, “the new reality requires that salespeople become more highly skilled because they need to be able to have well-informed, business-focused discussions from the start and quickly build targeted solutions. The probability that their opportunities for direct engagement will be reduced means that those interactions need to be of the highest value possible.”

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The emergence of the invisible shopper

It took awhile, but eventually big box electronic retailer Best Buy realized one of its main functions had become serving as a showroom for Amazon. Shoppers kick the tires on a device at the store before going home and ordering it online for less.

“To venture into a Best Buy during the last days before Christmas is to see land-based retail hastening in its own demise, as if lambs were born with jars of mint jelly tied around their neck,” wrote David Streitfeld, the “Bits” blogger for the New York Times. 

Silent shoppers are invading the b2b world, too. Huthwaite’s John Golden recounts the story of a current customer (to the tune of seven figures annually) who told Huthwaite they had started their training review process of about 20 sales training providers about 12 months before they even contacted any.

“They assessed all of them off of websites, YouTubes, white papers and professional networking with people who had experience with these companies. Over time, they narrowed the field to three they were going to speak with. Fortunately, they spoke with a Huthwaite salesperson first and were convinced they didn’t need to speak with anyone else. The larger point is there were 20 companies involved in a sales cycle that they didn’t know they were involved in.”

The sales cycle is happening even when no one in your company is aware you’re involved in it. Information delivery is an important part of marketing/sales alignment.

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Marketing’s deeper dive into sales

A series of focus groups Huthwaite conducted with customers during 2011 confirmed that organizations are beginning to realize that marketing now has an increased selling role as they help the buyer through more stages of the process than in the past.

In an aligned approach there is a careful balance between being proactive and reactive. Marketing can help in this process by using the ever-increasing array of communication platforms to prompt and probe the buyer. Blogs, whitepapers, podcasts, webinars, e-newsletters and case studies can all be used for this purpose. Huthwaite President John Golden says this can be like fishing — trying different kinds of bait until you get a bite.

“Once marketing gets a bite,” he says, “the challenge is not how quickly it can be turned over to sales, but determining what the bite represents. This is traditionally the moment when organizations start to apply gateways and attempt to control the flow of information to the prospective buyer in return for information to help engage the seller. But bartering information with a prospect is not a buyer-focused approach. All we are doing is frustrating prospects and driving them to look elsewhere. This is the moment to relinquish the idea of control and replace it with enablement.”

This is why marketing teams must be prepared to go further into the buying process — and why sales teams should welcome that. Under traditional models, once a lead was “hot,” it was turned over to sales and that led to a phone call.

“The real issue is that neither marketing nor sales understood what the customer needed at that point,” Golden says. He argues that it would be far better to provide easy access to an online demo, for example, and ask which parts are more interesting so you can supply the prospect with more like it.