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The Real Struggle of Aligning Sales with Marketing

<Almost> Everyone wants to bring about world peace and recent efforts to unite sales and marketing teams by sharing the same goals and KPIs with processes and technology are a good step in the right direction. However, as I wrote in a post for CIO in 2016

“Marketing will always consider Sales to be lazy bonus-driven zealots who would sell their grandma to hit their sales target this quarter. Sales on the other hand, will always regard Marketing as money-burning idealists who like to make the company logo look pretty and deliver shabby leads.”

It was my opinion that merging sales and marketing into a single unit  has, at best, a slim chance of succeeding. Has anything changed in the last 3 years? 


Can sales and marketing teams coexist in harmony?

There are typically two types of sales and marketing team set ups in B2B tech companies:

  1. Early stage start ups recruit a combined C-level or VP Sales and Marketing.
  2. Clear divisional separation between sales and marketing from day one. 

Option 1 inevitably transpires into role-induced schizophrenia making goal achievement nigh on impossible.  

“Show me a company with a VP Sales & Marketing, and I guarantee there is one team that is getting far more love, attention and success than the other.”

Combining sales and marketing teams or giving them shared goals doesn’t balance out the power struggle, but shifts them to take place within the department. One side will always gain the upper hand.

And so, after participating in multiple sales <> marketing convergence projects over the past few years, my opinion has matured. It’s time to update my earlier post with newer observations. 


2020 battlegrounds for sales vs. marketing

To cut to the chase,  rivalry is still rife between marketing and sales teams but it’s shifted gear, often with an over-reliance on technology and processes to help bridge the gap. Key areas of conflict include:

1. Who owns the SDR/BDR role?

The roles of Sales Development Representative (SDR) and/or Business Development Representative (BDR) are key in every company. They are the gatekeepers between sales and marketing teams; the success of campaigns and achieving targets hinge on their qualification of leads. 

As a result, whoever owns the SDR/BDR role(s) essentially owns the entire sales and marketing process, and can set the agenda going forward. If the SDR/BDR “sits with” marketing, the criteria to become an MQL or SQL will be somewhat looser in order to ship over to sales as quickly as possible. If the SDR/BDR “sits with” sales, the MQL acceptance criteria will be far more stringent. This leaves sales and marketing teams vying for the role of SDR/BDR in order to retain control over the combined department.

2. How leads are scored

Sales and marketing teams are in constant disagreement over how to score leads. Sales are typically dissatisfied with the quality or quantity of leads, so the barrier keeps being pushed higher and lead scoring becomes ever more complex. 

With ongoing changes to lead scoring frameworks, sales and marketing teams end up batting ownership of the problem back and forth between them. Whichever team is in ascendance gets to write their own definition of MQLs and SQLs. This risks causing a lot of confusion and disconnect within the departments and diverts attention away from acquiring leads and towards scoring them instead. 

3. The role of technology 

MarTech has led to the development of very useful marketing and sales tools which have made a significant business impact. Marketing automation tools such as HubSpot, Marketo, Pardot, and Eloqua enable teams to nurture leads like never before, set goals and KPIs and provide the much needed visibility that suspicious opponents crave. However, this has also led to an overreliance on tech to bridge the gaps between sales and marketing.


Typically, this overreliance leads to the following points of failure:

  • Overdosing on MarTech tools: Companies tend to use a  minimum of 5 - 6 marketing tools, including a marketing automation platform. These often do not integrate well enough with each other, making real attribution of leads, visibility and real ROI calculation impossible.
  • Armageddon of alerts: Marketing teams often believe that sending more alerts to the sales team will make them more responsive. That’s a mistake. What actually happens is that sales reps develop “alert fatigue.” Far from becoming more responsive, they instead end up ignoring all the alerts. 
  • Overdoing it on email automation: Both sales and marketing teams are guilty of sending “just one more email” to a lead, and if there’s not enough collaboration then both teams could send “just one more” email, leading to email overload which then results in the opposite of lead nurture; folks get fed up and unsubscribe to communication altogether.
  • Hyperfocusing on attribution: In an effort to find a quick fix, both sales and marketing teams risk hyperfocusing on getting specific lead attribution. They’re hunting for a mythical silver bullet that can guarantee more leads if they keep pressing that trigger, but the hunt is futile. There’s no quick fix, and by trying to find one, they are missing the forest for the trees. Yes, that lead may have downloaded your ebook because you targeted her on LinkedIn, but chances are it was her friend’s recommendation and that conference that she saw you present at that drove her to check you out and ask for a demo. Marketing and sales need to work together as a holistic marketing-sales engine which focuses on long-term ROI rather than the intricacies of attribution. 

Takeover, NOT merger

In my experience, sales <> marketing convergence generally ends in a takeover. Sometimes, marketing takes over the sales department by setting all the goals, delineating marketing and sales processes, defining target audiences, and establishing lead qualifications. This leaves sales as effectively a subsection of the marketing department. In other cases, there are effective sales-led takeovers, where the sales teams call the shots, and marketing becomes a  lead-up to the sales process. 

It’s also increasingly common for companies to have only one C-level or VP level position, like either a CMO working with a VP Sales or Sales Director.  Or the other way around, whoever secures the highest rank is the commander of both sales and marketing teams. And guess what, it’s no surprise that whoever is generally closer to the CEO gains the higher rank.

A few years down the line, sales <> marketing convergence projects haven’t brought utopia for tech marketing or sales. Marketing and sales teams continue to try to squash each other while they vie for control over the marketing and sales funnel, whether that’s ownership of the SDR/ BDR roles, or the right to define lead scoring methods. But now with the addition of an over-reliance on tech to pick up the slack.

Does this sound too familiar for comfort?


What should be happening to align sales & marketing teams

  • Accept that sales <> marketing rivalry is healthy: Instead of trying to force harmony between the teams, management should take into account that competitive environments are not always detrimental to goal achievement. The opposite is often true. Keeping a healthy competitive environment adds excitement and purpose for many sales folks and marketers. It’s in their DNA.
  • Insist on continuous testing of processes, scoring and lead scoring as part of the sales <> marketing alignment: Aiming to reach the perfect process or scoring that transitions a lead from first touch point to MQL >>> SQL >> Opp >> a customer, is futile. There will be multiple ways to reach this conversion and what works once for a specific campaign in a specific timeframe for specific buyers may not work again. Keep testing and analyzing. If you do this well, patterns (and gaps) will emerge, but this takes time.
  • Don’t force sales and marketing teams into one department: You may be saving money in the short term by having one head but this will cause more tension than harmony. In the medium to long term you will be splitting them up and reverse engineering.
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