Bridging the divide between marketing and Sales:
Q&A with Bob Apollo

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About Bob Apollo


Bob Apollo is the founder and CEO of Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, a B2B-focused sales and marketing performance improvement specialist based in the UK. Inflexion-Point works with rapidly-growing companies and the entrepreneurial divisions of larger organisations. In doing so, it helps them implement repeatable and highly scalable sales and marketing processes combining the winning habits of their existing top performers with the latest industry best practices.

Bob speaks regularly at B2B-focused events, and writes on the latest trends and issues in B2B sales and marketing at www.inflexion-point.com/blog. He can be followed on Twitter at @bobapollo and welcomes LinkedIn connections at http://uk.linkedin.com/in/bobapollo/


There's a lot of talk about sales/marketing alignment. What is it and why is it important?

Sales and marketing alignment is important, but it’s not enough. What really matters is that both sales and marketing share the same common perspective about who their most valuable customers and prospects are, what really matters to them, how they make buying decisions, and how the vendor’s offering stands out from all the other options available to the customer. Organisations that are customer aligned in this way are more profitable, grow significantly faster, are much nicer places to work, and are far better companies to do business with.

 

What are the most important points for sales and marketing to agree on?

Start with the basics: what does an ideal customer look like? This is not just about demographics, but also structural, behavioural and situational factors. What issues or trigger events are most likely to cause prospects to recognise the need for change? What are the vendor’s most powerful differentiators? What does a typical buying process look like? How should potential opportunities be qualified? And, of course, what are sales and marketing’s expectations of each other? How will success be measured? How will progress be reviewed? This has to be carefully and completely documented. If it isn’t written down and agreed, any sense of alignment is likely to be an illusion.

 

What happens when sales and marketing are un-aligned on these?

The most common symptom – aside from a huge amount of frustration from all the parties concerned – is an incredible amount of wasted effort. Marketing creates materials that the salespeople never use. The salespeople spend what ought to be prime prospecting or selling time creating their own materials. They have ineffective conversations because they are not well prepared. Marketing generates “leads” the salespeople can’t be motivated to follow up – you get the picture. You could ask half-a-dozen people to describe what the company does, and why it does it, and get six different answers. Customers are confused. Revenue targets get missed. People lose their jobs.

 

Once sales and marketing agree on the essentials, what kind of processes need to be put in place?

Take a tip from the top sports teams – create a playbook. Base it on a combination of the winning habits of your top performers plus industry best practice. Make sure that it includes ideal prospect and key stakeholder profiles, a map connecting key customer issues with the vendor’s capabilities, key qualifying questions and criteria, clearly defined pipeline stages and (this is particularly important) testable milestones to measure a prospect’s progress. The playbook should also include conversation planners for common sales situations, a guide to the sales tools and marketing materials appropriate to each stage of the buying decision process, effective answers to frequently asked yet tough-to-answer questions, and a collection of the stories and anecdotes your top sales performers use to lubricate the sales process. I’ve found that pooling these stories (and coaching sales people in the art of storytelling) is particularly valuable. By the way, the playbook must be a living document. Salespeople should be encouraged to contribute their latest learning and stories. Sales teams that collaborate in this way to share best practices create environments that are able to support sustainably superior performance.

 

Is it essential to have some kind of qualifying department or stage between marketing and sales?

It depends. If you have relatively complex value proposition that requires a lengthy conversation (or series of conversations) to qualify an incoming enquiry, having a phone-based qualification team can deliver tremendous dividends in filtering out the really promising opportunities before handing them over to the field sales team. Organisations that have implemented this tend to have a significantly higher sales acceptance rate of “marketing qualified leads”. The telephone-based qualification function is also very useful for nurturing leads that are not quite sales ready.

 

What is the role of technology in all this? Are there any essential elements?

It’s no substitute for process, but it’s a great way of making a well thought through process dramatically more effective – and, of course, generating the metrics that can enable you to determine whether the process is on track, where it could be improved, and where individual contributors might require coaching. In fact, it’s hard to imagine effective sales and marketing alignment in an organisation of any size that doesn’t have a well-implemented combination of CRM and marketing automation. I work largely with technology-based businesses, so Salesforce.com is by far the most popular CRM system. There’s more variation in the marketing automation platforms, but clients are reporting good things about HubSpot.

 

In your experience, are sales and marketing teams tracking the right metrics?

Not as often as they should. I still come across marketing organisations that are measured (and sometimes even rewarded) on the number of raw leads generated. At best, that’s a misleading metric and at worse it can drive some truly dysfunctional behaviour. From my perspective, the key metrics must revolve around the value that’s been added to the qualified sales pipeline, and the effectiveness with which that pipeline is converted into revenue.

 

How do you determine the right goals and metrics to align around?

Volume, value, conversation rate and velocity of the sales and marketing pipeline are all important. The volume and value of opportunities in the pipeline are obvious basic metrics, but they need to be applied to each stage of the pipeline, and for these metrics to be truly useful, everyone across the organisation needs to adopt the same consistent standards regarding what stage the opportunity has actually reached. Conversion rate is another critical metric: What percentage of opportunities successfully moves from lead to sale, and from each stage to the next? Velocity is less obvious, but equally important. There’s a body of evidence to suggest that the longer an opportunity is stuck at any given stage in the pipeline, the less likely it is to close. So velocity is about how long opportunities have been in the pipeline, and how long they have been in the current stage. Deals that are outside the “normal” window should be escalated to management for attention. Once you have these core volume, value, conversion and velocity metrics in place, you can then drill into the details and compare performance between different campaigns, products, salespeople and other variables. The resulting insights into what’s working and what isn’t (and where the bottlenecks are) can be extremely powerful.

 

What kind of transformation is possible once an organisation aligns its sales and marketing?

Forrester released some compelling statistics a few months ago. They found that in highly aligned organisations, 85% of marketing generated leads were accepted by sales – whereas in poorly aligned organisations the figure was only 5%. Marketing’s contribution to revenue had grown at an annualised rate of 18% in the most aligned organisations – compared to zero growth in the poorly aligned companies. I'd call that a transformational difference.

 

What are the biggest obstacles?

Failure to communicate. An inability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. A culture of competition rather than collaboration. Above all, management that does not believe or is not committed to making alignment happen. Top-down support is critical.

 

Is this really a matter of culture change or can you attack it from a process level alone?

Process can help facilitate cultural change but it cannot be a substitute for it. Simply throwing technology at the problem will not work. Alignment is as much to do with attitude as it is with systems. Culture creates, systems sustain.

 

How will the collaboration between sales and marketing evolve in the next five years? What changes are happening now?

Many of the problems with poorly aligned sales and marketing organisations are down to “old school” mind sets at both the management and employee levels. It turns out that these tired old traditionalists are not just bad at collaboration, they are also ineffective at many of the new skills required to deliver sustained results in a modern sales or marketing function.
As a new generation of salespeople and marketers enters the employment pool, and as the more open minded members of the existing community embrace new ideas, we’ll see a natural short towards a much more collaboratively minded environment within and between the new functions.

CEOs need to look at their sales and marketing leaders to ensure that they are setting the right example. And sales and marketing leaders need to make sure that they and their teams are working closely together, sharing ideas, and demonstrating mutual respect. This is no time to tolerate the luddites, blockers or confrontationalists. They need to either get on board with the spirit of collaboration or get off the bus.

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