Sales and Marketing Alignment is Really About People, Not Functions

Updated: October 29, 2010

The first time I remember hearing the term "sales and marketing alignment" was in the mid 90's. By then I had served as a VP of Sales for a time, then later as a VP of Marketing. Alignment was the perfect word to describe what I did not have with my counterparts in both of those jobs.

Sales and marketing alignment. The idea intrigued me. One of the leading sales training companies at the time was facilitating a workshop with that title for a client, which they had given me permission to audit. During the workshop the facilitator attempted to identify the key obstacles preventing an effective working relationship between the sales and marketing organization and went on to offer insights, tools, processes and unambiguous recommendations on how to align the two departments.

Although the program content appeared solid, a turf war was in progress at the client's company. During the two-day workshop, the VP of Marketing was combative and didn't exhibit any real interest. That was far better than the VP of Sales, who didn't show at all on the second day. The workshop turned out to be a disaster—a metaphor for the relationship between the two executives running those two functions. The global VP of Sales and Marketing, to whom these two executives reported, arranged this workshop hoping to mend some fences. Bad decision.

Now, years later, I continue to receive email invitations to programs and workshops entitled "Sales and Marketing Alignment." What's going on here? After all this time, why aren't sales and marketing aligned?

What's going on is that many CEOs, COOs, GMs, and other executives haven't figured out that sales and marketing alignment is more about culture, philosophy and business orientation than it is about marketing providing sales with leads, marketing messages and sexy product brochures. Isn't it about sales selling enough so everyone, especially those in marketing, get to keep their jobs?

Sales and marketing are very different functions that serve very different masters. In companies where there is alignment, marketing leaders understand that their team serves sales (and serve other masters as well.) I've seen laminated cards pinned inside cubicles of marketing staff people that say, "My job is to help our sales people sell more." That's the idea.

Marketing leaders that have no respect for people that sell will not align with them, no matter how many workshops they attend. That's why I recommend to CEOs that they strongly consider hiring marketing leaders that have successfully sold at some time in their careers. That's not a requirement to be an effective marketing leader, but it sure can help.

Sales understands that they serve the customer. Their job is to help people buy. To do that, they need ongoing support from marketing.

Just to set the record straight, sales is accountable to marketing as well. Sales has a responsibility to follow marketing's direction regarding product positioning and target markets, among other things. They must also provide feedback on what they observe in the field—industry trends, what the competition is doing, how customers are doing with their products and services, as well as providing useful feedback about the quality of leads being passed to them.

Sales leaders who believe that "people who can't sell become marketers" will not likely ever find themselves in the enviable position of working for an industry leading company. Asking carefully designed questions of sales leader candidates about their experiences working with marketing can mitigate some of these risks.

Sales and marketing alignment is more than a good thing. It's absolutely required for competitive advantage. But the alignment begins not with strategies, tasks and activities, but rather with the philosophies and values of the sales and marketing leaders and the person who is in the position to hire both.

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