Sales and marketing conflict: a marriage that should have been made in heaven

At two recent roundtable breakfasts, senior marketers discussed the crucial role CEOs and directors play in the alignment or misalignment between sales and marketing. Michael Valos and Andrew Haussegger explore the insights shared.

This article is the first of a two-part series. 

The phrases that come to mind when one thinks of conflict include: ‘working at crossed purposes,’ ‘incompatible goals,’ ‘being obstructionist’ and ‘lack of mutual appreciation and respect.’

On the other hand, the phrases that come to mind when I think of collaboration include: ‘collective goals,’ ‘mutual understanding,’ ‘shared resources’ and ‘esprit de corps.’  

Research and experience tells us that sales and marketing teams continue to struggle to collaborate for the better good of the company and – importantly – the customer. To use common vernacular, they don’t align. Here are two critical customer-facing groups not singing from the same songbook. There often exists no unified lead management process and a lack of clarity of deliverables from one to the other. There is no shared goal sheet.

The 2019 Green Hat/AMI ‘B2B Marketing Research‘ study found that while 47% of respondents claimed that sales and marketing are ‘strategic partners’, most did not have an aligned strategy, coordinated lead generation process or management process in place.

Customer experience is growing in importance as a competitive differentiator. To win the CX battles, these teams need to organise and share their customer data and insights to optimise personalisation and responsiveness in the engagement with the customer. Ultimately, they need to share pipeline KPIs. We are slowly seeing more CMOs with ‘revenue’ on their goal sheet (either as sourced revenue and/or influenced revenue) and more sales leaders with marketing-related KPIs on theirs. These KPIs are often supported by service level agreements that support the day-to-day operations and expectations.

Andy Lark, CEO of GroupLark says:

“It’s too easy to dismiss the frequent battles and misalignment between sales and marketing as either functional or personal. The conflict is more than often a result of broader business strategy being handed down from above with insufficient capability or capacity for either to fulfil each other’s ambitions. CEOs have to put more emphasis on determining the ability of any strategy to be fulfilled by their respective leaders and then ensuring alignment exists. At that point, sales and marketing need to align and operate in sync.”

Two very vivid estimates of the cost of this conflict include:

  • B2B firms with tightly aligned sales and marketing operations achieved 24% faster three-year revenue growth, and 27% faster three-year profit growth, according to SiriusDecisions.
  • Highly aligned organisations achieved an average of 32% year-over-year revenue growth – while their less aligned competitors saw a 7% decrease in revenue, according to an Aberdeen Group Study. 

Sometimes you wonder whether the proximity and how closely sales and marketing need to work with each other through the sales funnel are the very causes of conflict? But really they have some common characteristics compared to other functional areas. For example, they are both customer facing, they are both externally facing, and each plays its part in getting a customer through the conversion funnel from unaware to loyal. 

We recently conducted two focus group breakfasts of senior marketers and comments were made such as that ‘conflict between departments is endemic to organisations and it’s not just a “marketing sales thing’.” When you think about it, the scale of organisations has meant different departments specialise in a different area and it’s so easy to develop a tribal mentality and deride what others do when you’re only aware of what you’ve contributed. It’s so easy to say, “we don’t need marketing as our products sell themselves” or “anyone can do marketing” and this mindset reduces the respect and ultimate authority of the marketing function. 

One comment made at the focus group by Mike Harley, managing director at Xpotential is very apt. “The key drivers of marketing and sales conflict start at the top. If the CEO is not 100% clear on the role of the marketing and sales functions in delivering the right brand and customer experience as well as revenue growth, if objectives don’t align with these roles and behaviours don’t focus on the customer demand team winning together and not on which function is more important, then conflict undoubtably ensues.” 

Other comments made by executives at the focus groups highlighted problems such as “the blame game,” “poor communication,” “rewards that favour a department’s selfish interests” and “lack of clarity about what our Department should be accountable for.” Malshe (2010) in the ‘Journal of Business Research’ identified the following sources of the problems “goal differences, turf barriers, cultural differences, physical separation and thought world differences which lead to prejudice, disrespect and distrust.”

If the functions were cooperating and collaborating, you would see a better sharing of information both aggregate – from the marketer to the salesperson – and individual, subjective and qualitative from the salesperson to the marketer. You would also see a blending of the different perspectives such as customer versus product and short-term versus long-term. If devil’s advocacy can be done in a spirit of goodwill, better decisions will be made. Previous research has indicated marketing doesn’t believe sales wants to contribute to strategy formation and sales feels marketing doesn’t value its insights. 

Two views on the importance of culture and collaboration seemed to sum up the consensus at the end of the breakfasts. Ric Navarro, author of Marketing with Purpose: a C-Suite guide to being truly customer-centric, says the disconnect is often cultural. “The CEO needs to create a synergetic culture that fosters an environment where sales and marketing cooperate in symphony – this has been proven to work successfully when the CMO, or head of marketing, is empowered to own the entire sales and marketing funnel.”

“Functions that operate in a silo mentality, without appreciation and respect of other departments are often reflective of a larger culture problem within a company” is the view of Sarah Gale, executive leadership development coach. She believes “focusing on the culture of the business first is paramount, before tending to solutions which are more process and methodical in nature, in order to build cross functional departmental collaboration.”

In summary, compared to other inter-relationships such as CMO with CIO, CMO with CFO and CMO with HR director, these heads of marketing and sales appear to have the greatest need to work closely together and depend on each other. In part two, we will look at potential solutions – both academic and practical.

Michael Valos is senior lecturer in marketing at Deakin University.

Andrew Haussegger is cofounder and CEO at Green Hat.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash