Several years ago an Australian consumer goods company decided to introduce a new fizzy drink, targeting the teenage and young adult market. Determined to meet the needs of this very discerning group, the marketing team conducted lengthy and painstaking research, talking to hundreds of young people between the ages of 13 and 25 in an attempt to gain insight into what they wanted.

The marketing department immediately responded to the challenge and after months of hard work came up with an orange flavoured drink in a funky new bottle with a long slender neck – a total departure from the traditional shorter, stouter bottle.

The team felt it was onto a winner. Not only did the product and bottle appeal to a test group of consumers, but it was very different to anything else out there. While developing and refining the concept, the marketing team worked closely with the operations team and finance. They needed these divisions to be on board in terms of production requirements and the costs associated with launching the new product. The marketers had mentioned the new product in passing to sales, but had never sought their input. They figured it wasn’t necessary and they’d just hold things up.

The big day arrived. The product was to go down the line and be launched internally to sales for the first time. Expectations were high.

The new package was unveiled and instead of the standing ovation the marketing department had anticipated, there was an embarrassing silence, followed by members of the sales team shaking their heads and commenting out loud. They were concerned about the bottle, which was much taller than standard competitor products. After much coercion, however, they reluctantly agreed to introduce the new concept to their customers.

Things went pear-shaped after that. The sales team returned from visiting their customers with the news that they were not interested in stocking the new product. The bottles could not stand upright on their shelves or in their coolers and they had no other way of displaying them. They refused to invest in something they couldn’t display properly. The new product was scrapped.

The marketing department had committed the cardinal sin. It had not done the things critical to influencing a successful outcome.

Firstly, it had not fully identified all the people – both inside and outside the organisation – critical to the launch of a new product. Its extensive consumer research should also have been extended to retail customers.

Nor had it engaged and collaborated effectively with its stakeholders prior to completing the prototype. Had it spoken at length to sales about all aspects of the new product, including size, it would have had a much better understanding of the implications of the new design and may well have had the opportunity to modify the size of the packaging without impacting significantly on its design. Effective engagement and collaboration would also have increased the chances of widespread acceptance, making the implementation process all the easier.

Instead, the marketing department was left with a hefty design and launch bill, but no new product to justify the spend. It also left the marketers feeling more alienated than ever from the sales division.

Although the marketing department’s design work was second to none and its conclusions were based on diligent research, ultimately it had failed to influence the support of its stakeholders.

A universal problem

Marketing professionals are not alone in their failure to secure ‘buy-in’ through effective influencing. It is a universal problem across business, according to a new study by Australian learning and development company, the Opic Group, with 70 percent of management professionals across corporate Australia requiring further development in order to lift their game.

Management professionals are not good at connecting with people who are critical to their success – particularly those they don’t get on with or who come from other parts of business. They don’t take the time to understand what inspires and motivates these people and usually don’t get their input and co-operation when it comes to getting ideas and initiatives off the ground. They don’t build and maintain their networks especially well and when it comes to handling difficult issues and dealing with conflict, they run a mile.

While they may have the expertise and skills necessary to do the job, their inability to take the influential high ground prevents them from being truly effective in their roles.

More than 1500 middle and senior professionals (including CEOs) were interviewed for the study, including marketing, sales, IT, HR, accounting and engineering professionals. According to the study, 74 percent of IT professionals require better influencing skills, followed closely by marketers at 72 percent. Marketers’ key failings were their inability to collaborate with stakeholders and their failure to influence at a more strategic level.

How to become a better influencer

To become better influencers, we recommend marketing professionals follow this step-by-step process:

  • Build stakeholder networks

    Identify all the people – both inside and outside your organisation – who impact on your area of business and who are important to your success and to the success of your projects and initiatives. In the case of marketing managers, the key stakeholders would be salespeople, consumers, customers, your direct team, managers from other business units such as operations and finance and people in the community on whom your business impacts. Make sure your network includes all the relevant stakeholders – not just the ones you like. Just because there is occasional or even ongoing friction between marketing and sales, don’t leave them outside your network. They are very important to you (as our case study marketers discovered) and could be the ones who make or break a campaign.

  • Engage with stakeholders

    Once you know who is important to you, actively initiate meetings in order to understand what your stakeholders do and the challenges they face. Also show a willingness to engage in conversations outside your expertise. These meetings will also provide you with an insight into where you could potentially collaborate or share resources. It is not good enough to simply meet on one occasion. Networking with people needs to be an ongoing activity. These meetings need not necessarily be one-on-one cosy fireside chats, but should also take the format of formal information swapping sessions with entire teams. Meetings with the sales team will enable your department to share consumer insights gleaned through research while at the same time gaining a greater understanding of retail customers’ challenges, needs and opportunities.

    In our case study, the marketing department could have engaged with sales much earlier in the process to gain their thoughts about the consumer research. They may have also worked with the key accounts team to present this type of data to key retailers to gain their buy-in. This process would have built trust with the retailers and made them more likely to range the new line when it was presented.

  • Collaborate with stakeholders

    Involve your key stakeholders as early as possible in the collaborative process. Simply including them at the end point of the decision-making process is not enough. You need to do find out what their ideas or views on issues are well in advance. Don’t be prescriptive; listen to what they have to say first before offering your own views.

    Collaboration means asking questions. It means finding out how your stakeholders perceive an initiative and what their challenges and difficulties are. Collaboration is the process of finding common ground and getting agreement; however, it does not mean compromise. It means creating a product or campaign far superior to the one you originally devised.

    Marketing professionals rely heavily on being creative and on rigorous market research to support their case, sometimes unaware of the practicalities of the product they are creating and that it needs to meet customer requirements. In our case study, collaboration with sales early on would have resulted in a product that was a winner with consumers while at the same time meeting retail customer requirements. Collaboration with retailers would also have meant greater in-store support and the certainty of greater success.

    To become a better collaborator, learn the difference between an expert way of influencing (‘telling’) and a broader selling approach, which tends to be more favoured by salespeople. This involves working with stakeholders to take an idea from start to conclusion, with stakeholders often reaching the same conclusion as you. The process is important, however, because it gives the other party a feeling of control, contribution and ownership. One of the great challenges for marketing professionals is that while they are often right because they base their ideas and conclusions on facts and procedurally accurate research, imposing this view on someone creates natural resistance. The resistance is not because the idea is wrong; it comes from the other person’s sense of loss of control. Make them feel part of the process – you’ve got nothing to lose!

  • Manage conflict

    Deal with conflict directly. It is a normal part of the collaborative process, but most people avoid it at all costs. We aren’t prepared to talk about the elephant in the corner. As a result we leave the ‘undiscussables’ undiscussed. Good influencers don’t avoid conflict – they seek out any areas of disagreement and discuss these openly, in a positive and constructive way. They see conflict as normal and work effectively to resolve it. Where they are unable to deal with it themselves, they call in the experts. Remember, being right is not as important as getting the right outcome.

  • Strategically influence

    Strategically influencing not only involves identifying strategic opportunities that are mutually beneficially to all those involved, but also involves engaging with stakeholders at a much deeper and more personal level – building trust as well as creating a strong ally.

    In our case study, had the marketing department nurtured these more personal relationships with one or more people in sales, they would – as a matter of course – have sought their valued opinion about the product well in advance, averting unnecessary heartache.