Real-world Strategies for Strong Sales and Marketing Alignment

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“Building a strong and productive partnership between sales and marketing is easy,” said no one ever. In fact, a recent survey conducted by OpenView all but proves the contentious relationship. Across a survey of more than 500 SaaS marketing leaders, only 22% claim to be fully aligned with their sales counterparts. The idealist in me says the response should be 100%, but based on my experience, I was surprised the number was even that high. And I have a feeling that had we posed the same question to sales leaders; the number would have dwindled further.

While sales and marketing leaders are ultimately playing for the same team and working towards the same goals, their individual perspectives and focuses often send them careening in opposite directions.

So, instead of simply complaining about this sometime tumultuous relationship over a Friday afternoon beer, what can sales and marketing leaders do to drive alignment? Zak Pines, VP of Marketing at Bedrock Data, knows a thing or two about building cohesion. He’s spent more than 15 years creating sales and marketing partnerships that work.

“The buzzword is a-lign-ment,” Pines says, distilling his broad experience and best practices into three syllables. “The question is, how do you get there?”

That is indeed the question, and it’s one that Bedrock Data is helping its customers answer with an integration platform that’s tailor-built to help marketing, sales, customer success, and operations teams connect, clean, and synchronize data across disparate SaaS systems.

This alignment of critical information across and within departments gives the sales team better visibility into key marketing interactions and enables marketing to improve targeting within CRM databases.

Technology, however, is only one part of the alignment equation. As Pines explains, a successful sales and marketing partnership depends as much — if not more — on the human side of the relationship.

Define What’s Driving Growth

I think we all can agree with Pines, when he states, “There has to be alignment on goals and defining success. It starts with having a rationale around the targets, meaning we agree — at a leadership level — that as sales and marketing we have a specific bookings or revenue number as the key goal, and here’s why. Being aligned around these key goals builds a natural sense of teamwork between the groups.” Teamwork helps to develop mutual respect which is another thematic key to successful alignment.

It’s also critical to ensure that the alignment is more than just skin deep. “There’s an even broader alignment required outside of sales and marketing,” Pines says. “Those teams must not only be aligned with each other, but also with finance, the CFO, the CEO, and the board.” In fact, Pines emphasizes, that’s where the alignment needs to start. “It’s the responsibility of the leadership team, whether that’s one person or multiple executives, to create that broader alignment. Once the overall target and growth strategy are in place, sub-goals for specific programs and channels will fall into place.”

This is where most companies miss the mark. It is “easy” to define a KPI and a specific target goal, but the more challenging part is determining how you’ll get there and staying in sync as you adapt to what it’ll take to achieve the goal. Pines recommends focusing on one question to gain and maintain clarity around your goals. “A key to success is being able to define what’s driving your growth,” he says. “Which things do you all agree are the keys to growth? Is it key partnerships? Is it developing those partnerships and producing more leads, pipeline, and revenue through them? Is it new products? Is it building on proven success by scaling out more leads through proven channels?”

For every SaaS company, the answer will be different, and you’ll be tempted to list 87 things that are the “key” drivers of growth. Here at OpenView, we have seen time and time again, that the most successful companies are the ones who are constantly forcing marketing and sales to answer this question, reach an agreement and stay focused on prioritizing the top three, not 87, drivers of growth.

Map Out the Path to Purchase

But it’s not enough to align around just the big idea. Another, often overlooked, point of alignment is agreement on exactly what you’re selling. It seems like what you’re selling should be so obvious that you wouldn’t need to define it, but it’s easy to confuse the issue. “When I talk about aligning around what you’re selling, I’m asking about the path to purchase for your product,” Pines explains. “For example, are you all about free trials – getting more and more people to try the product? Or are you selling to specific use cases – the specific problems a customer can solve by using the product?” How you answer that question defines the path people take to buying your product. Once you’ve answered it, then the integrated customer buying experience you create – from your website to your marketing programs to your sales conversations and even your customer on-boarding – needs to align around this.

It’s a deceivingly small detail that actually makes a huge difference. “If marketing and sales are aligned on what they’re selling, you can build everything around that — your marketing programs, website content, everything,” Pines says. “If you’re not aligned on this point, then the way marketing generates leads can result in a lot of wasted effort because it won’t deliver the kinds of leads sales is looking for.” Alignment here is critical to creating an optimized lead funnel.

Use Metrics as a Conduit, Not the Sole Source of Truth

One of the most common mistakes Pines has seen around building a working sales and marketing partnership is the misuse of metrics. Even when a company manages to get leadership buy-in, align around shared goals, and correctly position BDRs within the organization, they can still be tripped up if they apply metrics incorrectly.

“Metrics should be used to provide visibility into progress, guide collaboration, and allow for fluid decision making,” says Pines. “They shouldn’t be used to cast blame without context. For example, if lead numbers are viewed in a vacuum, that may cause friction. Rather than casting blame on one group or another, use the data as a guide to make good decisions.”

Too often, Pines has seen teams assume that a performance problem is indicative of a specific function being ineffective, but there’s almost always more to the story. “You can’t reach the right conclusions without the right context and collaboration,” he says. “For example, some lead sources may convert higher than others – but both have value. That’s what I mean by context.”

On a related point, Pines cites the backlash against MQL. “Metrics can become overly black and white. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the MQL metric, but it has been abused by some who have placed too much weight on it,” he says. “Instead of making MQL (or any other metric) the sole point of measurement, metrics should be used as a conduit to create a dialogue between marketing and sales leadership.”

“Ultimately, if the marketing and sales leadership teams stay focused on looking at everything from the perspective of solving for what you need to do to grow, good things will result.”

Tactical Tips for Getting Started

Another way to ensure positive results is to establish good rapport between sales and marketing. “I’d say start by helping them spend time in each other’s shoes,” Pines suggests. “If you’re a marketer, offer to shadow a sales rep for a deal cycle, listen in on a sales call, or spend time in the field.” Pines also encourages teammates to be curious and ask a lot of questions so they can gain a deeper understanding of day-to-day sales challenges.

Having previously led a team of B2B marketing analysts at Wayfair, I’d have my direct reports shadow 2 to 3 reps informally during their first 30 days on the job. This turned out to be a critical part of onboarding and was a real eye-opener both for the new team members and for me. As a marketer, it’s easy to make an impact and see results right away. But for a sales rep, to make an impact (close a deal), much of the process can be out of their control. Learning about the day to day tasks of my counterparts made me a more compassionate marketer.

I’d also urge marketers to spend time with customers and lost prospects. You’d be surprised to hear what people are willing to share when they’re not fending off a “sales pitch.”

Pines concurs, “Customers are a great point to align around. Spend time with them. Interview them. This will not only help you generate insights about customers and the problems they’re facing, but it will also build credibility with your sales team.” Ultimately, the insights will help marketing teams develop more effective prospecting and engagement strategies, which in turn will accelerate the buying process.

From my own experience, it’s been easier to have a conversation with sales based on “consumer insights” instead of funnel data metrics alone.

Finally, it’s important for marketers to do a thorough and proactive job. “Be diligent and genuine about solving for growth,” Pines says. “Don’t think that just because you’ve generated leads, you’re done. Continuously evaluate how you can help your company and your sales organization grow. That’s what will help you generate appreciation and respect with the sales team so you can strengthen that critical relationship.

While creating true sales and marketing alignment is neither easy nor something that can be done once and forgotten, it’s a worthwhile effort with very tangible benefits for sales, marketing, customer success, and your company’s overall potential for growth.

About Zak Pines

Zak has worked in MarTech and marketing automation for nearly two decades. You can follow Zak’s marketing musings at MoneyballMarketer.com and on Twitter @MoneyballMktr.