How to Improve the Relationship Between Sales and Marketing

This is part of a series of interviews with B2B revenue leaders. This interview is with Christina Ellwood, CEO of Tempathic.

Note: at the time of the interview, Christina was working as an interim CMO.

Who are you and what do you do?

I'm Christina Ellwood, and I'm a technology CMO, entrepreneur and angel investor. I love helping companies to build market traction for new technologies and that's what brings those three things together. Sometimes I do that from my role as a CMO, sometimes I do it from the role of advising an entrepreneur, or being an entrepreneur myself and building companies that are built on new innovation. 

What are some of the common problems that you see stem from sales and marketing misalignment?

Well I think the first and most significant problem from the misalignment of sales and marketing is that we annoy prospects.  We also delay deals and waste resources. 

I'm sure you've heard complaints on both side — sales complaining about marketing, and marketing complaining about sales — what are the common complaints?

The two most frequent are sales complaining about the number of quality MQLs, and marketing complaining that sales is not following up on leads at all (or not following up quickly enough). 

Sales teams also often complain about insufficient communication from marketing about the road map, campaigns, and other marketing activities. You also hear complaints from marketing that sales doesn't communicate about what they learn in conversations with the buyer and the deal obstacles that they’re running into. Marketing also complains sales is not entering all the data into Salesforce which makes it difficult for the digital marketing team. 

So there are plenty of complaints to go around but the biggest issues boil down to the interface between the self service portion of the buyer's journey (which marketing largely owns) and the engagement by sales with the buyer to help them complete the buying process. 

So this is an area that everyone wants to improve on. What makes it so tough to be able to improve on and master?

Well it's been a problem for as long as there has been sales and marketing organizations, it's just that we've been able to surface the cost of that misalignment in the last few years and that's why it's getting some different attention than it has had before. 

It's the lack of focus on the buyer. The buyer is who sales and marketing have in common, and if they were both focused on the buyer and doing whatever it takes to help the buyer be successful, they would never be out of alignment. Misalignment happens because the two sides start focusing on the internal efforts instead of focusing on the buyer. They get wrapped up in "What is a quality MQL?" and "Are we generating enough of them for the pipeline?". When you focus on your own internal measures like MQLs, SQLs, and quota, then your roles are somewhat misaligned and end up with conflict. 

One solution for is getting metrics in alignment. If there's a measurement of marketing’s contribution to revenue, and conversion statistics, then the internal measures for both teams are the same. 

Sales teams today have a very different role in the buyer's journey than they did even just ten years ago. The buyer does a lot of self service in the early stages of the buyer journey and at that point the only one they’re engaged with is marketing. When sales gets engaged, the buyer is already in midway through the sales process. Sales needs to perceive themselves as entering into an existing process rather than starting from scratch — when they don't do that and they open a conversation with a buyer like they know nothing about them — it's very frustrating to the buyer. 

Is there a position or team that could be added to a company's hierarchy that could help improve things?

I think you're eluding to the Sales Development Rep (SDR) function. I'm a fan of having a bridge role between the stage when the buyer is apparently ready to engage with sales because it's hard to tell from someone's digital footprint whether they are really ready to engage wtih sales or not. It’s a guessing game to some extent. So an SDR has the role of offering to help the buyer.  That personal help — as opposed to a document or digital help — is much less threatening to the buyer. If the buyer is ready to engage with sales, the SDR can create a nice tight connection and can handoff to the right salesperson to help them. So it's a very valuable role. 

They typically make less money than the Sales Executive that would do the closing. Closing is a very particular skill, one that most SDRs are not specialists in. You can have an SDR handle a large number of MQLs for qualifications, and handoff only those that are qualified to the people who are in the best position to get them across the finish line. So I think it's an efficient, and highly effective way to handle it (but it's not the only way to handle it). You could have your regular sales people play that role, it should only be a separate role in my opinion after you've determined that there is a good reason not to use your regular sales teams, such as the volume of MQLs is too high to handle. Otherwise you're just adding more complexity. 

So depending on the situation you could have a multi-level approach to sales with a SDR to Sales Exec handoff, or having the Sales Exec handle the entire sales process. What about on the marketing side, how would you structure your ideal marketing hierarchy?

I believe that your marketing and sales needs to reflect your business model and your target market. There isn't a one size fits all. Depending on the size, complexity, and type of target market, you need a different approach to how you organize sales, marketing, and the other adjacent teams. Your business model should drive the organization of your company, including sales and marketing.

So it sounds like a part of that is redesigning the descriptions of the different sales and marketing roles to include goals that support both teams.
Well it's really to support the business model and the buyer, but yes, I think that's right. Marketing is probably the most fungible team in that its role changes most dramatically as your business model changes. As you move into new markets, new sales strategies, and new partnerships, the marketing team changes quite a bit to accommodate each of these. 


Many companies today are structured in a way that creates silos — marketing has no idea what sales is doing and vice-versa — what are your thoughts on running the teams as one?

Of course this has been tried in a number of different ways, having a Head of Sales and Marketing, and having the two functions report to the same C Level Executive. Generally speaking, the reason it doesn't work is what I was speaking to earlier. Marketing is a complex function, and has strategic and tactical responsibilities whereas sales is much more straightforward with a heavy tactical component. It's all about bringing the revenue through the door. When you try to blend strategic and tactical together, you generally get whichever function is the core background of the leader. 

Really, the problem is not organizational, the problem is relational. It's a communication and relationship problem, and that's really how it's going to be best solved. 

So it's coming down to finding the healthy medium between the two and then focusing on the relationship and the communication at that point...

Yeah. Let the organizational structure follow from the business model, and then build the strong relationships necessary to close any gaps. 

Not saying either side is at fault, do you think either sales and marketing needs to kind of step up, and close the gap, leading the change within the organization?

I think so. Marketing's strategic role means that they have a cross functional view of the organization. They have a market buyer oriented view, so they look inside-outside, and they look across the organization. They are in a very good spot to lead any change within the organization whether that be moving into a new market, or strategically positioning differently, or adding additional sales channels. These are all changes that are well led by marketing because of that landscape view. That isn't saying sales doesn’t lead a change in a organization, of course they do, but marketing is the more likely candidate for facilitating an organizational change. 

It’s also worth noting that marketing knows the buyer better than any other single team. So as such, to keep the focus on the buyer across the organization you need someone for whom the depth of the understanding of the buyer is high, and that they are comfortable communicating the buyers needs across multiple functions. Marketing is in the best position to do that. 

What are the critical points in the buyer's journey that have a good chance at being negatively affected due to misalignment?

Well the magic moment when the buyers ready to engage sales is the critical point. There are other places but that is the most critical moment. Of course we are all trying to discern when the buyer has reached that moment — sometimes we're right — and we hand off the lead to sales at just the right moment. Sales engages with the buyer at just the right moment, in just the right way, and the buyer feels a very natural movement from serving themselves with the website and other resources. Then to engaging with the salesperson on a one-on-one basis to help them along the way. When that is broken — when we've misunderstood where the buyer is along their journey — it's disruptive to the buyer. They are either waiting to be called, or once they get called they realize that they are not ready for that conversation and they feel apologetic, or they feel annoyed that they've been contacted. If they are actually ready and the salesperson is not prepared, then they have to explain themselves and that also is disruptive. It’s a delicate moment.

So it comes back to that communication and relationship between sales and marketing really being the base problem?

Yes that's true, but I would say it's really coming back to the loss of focus on the buyer. If we stay focused there, and marketing sincerely brings what they think is a buyer ready, and sales picks it up knowing that they may not be ready, but they're trying to find out whether they are ready with a discovery type conversation, and they're armed with all the behaviours that the buyer has represented up to that point. The salesperson is then in a position to start on the right foot with the buyer, and to build a strong relationship with them from a point of common ground. When that doesn't happen, the buyer pays the price. We are all here to help the buyer. Without them, we’re not in business.

Are there any helpful resources that you have come across that you would recommend on this rather broad and complicated subject?
It's a human problem, and as such, it must be solved between people. While books, stories, and resources can be helpful to understand the problem, and maybe give you some ideas how to build a healthy relationship. At the end of the day you have to talk to each other.

You have to identify where you have common ground, which of course, is the buyer as well as the common organizational values that you share. Then you need to agree on your shared goals and how to measure progress against those goals. Once you've reached the point where you have that agreement, and agreed on the first few steps you're going to take against those goals, you have to keep the communication going, and communicate on a regular basis about the progress (or lack of progress), and what's working or not working. That way you can solve actual problems and continue to do the things that are really working and even step them up.

So my advice is to skip the reading and go meet with your sales folks. Take responsibility to set up and run the meetings so that sales knows that you are committed to making it work and that you are willing to do the work, to make it work.