How to beat your team’s sales quota, part five: Aligning Sales and Marketing

  Written by Louis Gudema

misaligned bridge

This is the final piece in our five-part series on beating your team sales quota. Earlier posts are on hiring new sales reps, onboarding the reps, setting the quota, and culture, managing and coaching.

Joint work between Sales and Marketing is key to growing sales and exceeding quota. According to a study by Demand Metric, 68% of companies reporting complete alignment achieved their revenue goals compared to 41% of those who reported no alignment. Even “some” alignment produced significantly better results than none.

Two initiatives are indispensable to sales and marketing alignment:

  • Develop a written Service Level Agreement (SLA) and work together on programs to achieve it
  • Put in place the right enabling technology

A third initiative is very helpful in B2B companies that are pursuing large accounts: account-based marketing (ABM) working with sales’ targeted account program.

Developing a written Service Level Agreement (SLA)

Sales and marketing alignment begins by having a common set of definitions, objective and metrics. Don’t rush: developing these may take weeks. In some companies, it may also involve breaking down “Sales is from Mars and Marketing is from Venus” distrust. Some companies have facilitated alignment at the highest level with a VP of Sales and Marketing, or even by combining the two traditional departments into one Department of Revenue under a single VP or Chief Revenue Officer. Where there is historical distrust (“the leads from marketing are garbage”) or antipathy (“sales never acts on the great leads we provide them”), the first meeting or two may require a little clearing of the air by acknowledging historical problems. But try to get past any blame game and stay future-focused with a commitment to a common goal: increasing company revenue.

1. Developing buyer personas

The first definition you’ll need to agree on is Who is the customer? and Who is on the buying team? , and what drives them. In other words, you need to start with personas. Marketing may have research on the market, buyers, motivators, and so on, and Sales has the most experience of talking directly with buyers face to face and understanding what drives them. Of course, an individual sale rep’s data will be more anecdotal than scientific. And this is more challenging in B2B markets with a small number of target companies. Confirmation Bias, or the tendency to believe and even seek out data that confirms what we already believe, may also come into play for people from either discipline. So the thoughtful combining of data and experience from the two groups should produce the best profile: right out of the box you have the opportunity for fruitful cooperation.

The Who questions includes both account and prospect/customer profiles, with factors such as:

  • What size companies are we targeting? In what geographic regions?
  • What industries are we selling into?
  • What departments are the buyers in?
  • What’s the make-up of the entire buying team, including influencers, decision-makers, and people with executive sign-off? What are their titles? What’s the power base?
  • How much does this vary from company to company?
  • What are their buying triggers? What are the emotional motivators for the buyers? The rational motivators?

Lori Wizdo from Forrester lists at least 8 potential members of the tech-related buying team:

  • CXO
  • CIO
  • Line of business manager
  • IT Manager
  • IT Specialist
  • Channel
  • Procurement
  • Internal End User
  • Other

I’m surprised that she didn’t specifically include the CFO like she does the CIO, because certainly the financial side of any major purchase is critical.

The Why questions then come into play:

  • Why are they buying at this time? Is there a regular cycle to purchases?
  • What corporate business objectives are they trying to address?
  • What are the key pain points or concerns of each member of the buying team?
  • Is this purchase a nice-to-have or need-to-have?

Then the How questions:

  • What is their buying process?
  • Where are they in the buying process?
  • What is their timetable for making a decision? (Multiply by 1.5; all decisions take longer than expected.)
  • How much research have they done?
  • Is this budgeted, or will they need to get budget approval (or at least financial sign-off) after selecting the vendor?

Understanding the buyers and their motivators and process in depth is just the first step that the sales and marketing teams must undertake for true alignment.

2. The Buyer’s Journey

Once sales and marketing are in agreement on who they are selling to, they then need to define the buyer’s journey.

This is an example of how the traditional sales process maps to the buyer’s journey:

Sales Process mapped to Customer JourneyToday the buyer’s journey may be quite complex and occur on many channels including websites, social media, email, phone, print, tradeshows, and much more. While there is a myth that these days customers are 67% through the buyer’s journey before interacting with sales, in fact sales can add tremendous value throughout a complex sales cycle.

The buyer’s interactions with marketing and sales through the journey may look more like this:

Sales - Marketing interactions with customer

In other words, as the buyers work through their options there will be many touchpoints for marketing’s materials and events and for sales people. It will vary from selling company to company, and from buyer to buyer. It’s a dance that marketing and sales need to do together, as partners.

Over the past decade or so many B2B companies have adopted the SiriusDecisions waterfall methodology to track the buyer’s journey from the company side. This is an example of what the waterfall data from one company could look like:

SiriusDecisions sample waterfall data

In this example people go from just names in the database to a person who has responded to one of marketing’s programs by downloading a white paper, attending a webinar, etc.; to a conversation with a business development representative in marketing to qualify them, from which 75% become Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs) and, in this company, Marketing Qualified Opportunities. Sales then accepts most of these as Sales Accepted Opportunities and has conversations with them, too, making some of them Sales Dollarized Opportunities, and some of those turn into wins. In the above case, only 12% of MQLs (1 in 8) turned into wins – that’s not unusual. Some people put the figure as low as 6%. It’ll vary from company to company and industry to industry; consultancies like SiriusDecisions compile industry benchmarks.

These stages may be named and defined differently from company to company. Some companies may use these stages (with modern terminology compared to traditional):

Traditional versus Contemporary sales process terminology

A win is still a win.

To show how much more complex this has become now with inside sales, inbound marketing, outbound marketing, social media and other channels, SiriusDecisions updated their “waterfall” a few years ago to look like this:

SiriusDecisions updated demand waterfall

3. Aligning messages with the buyer’s journey and needs of sales

As today’s B2B buyers increasingly look to vendors in general, and sales people in particular, to add value to their experience, it’s important for sales people to be empowered with customizable content for each stage of the buyer’s journey.

Buyers typically are looking for different types of information when they’re just starting out, and doing general industry research, as opposed to a later stage when they’ve narrowed their options to just a few vendors. Here are the types of keywords buyers search with and the types of content that they’re typically interested in at different stages:

search keywords and content by buyer stage

It’s the role of marketing to create this content. Sales reps will often want to customize it for that particular prospect with unique language, the prospect’s logo, and deletion of inappropriate materials; each company will decide how much sales can customize their materials (in some highly regularly industries in particular, such as financial services, that may not be very much).

4. Developing metrics and a written SLA

There’s an old phrase that predates even “big data”: you can’t manage what you can’t measure. A workable SLA between sales and marketing needs to include both definitions and goals. KPIs can include:

  • Overall number and size of opportunities
  • Number of marketing-generated opportunities
  • Number of sales-generated opportunities
  • How quickly Sales must respond to a Contact Us inquiry
  • How quickly Sales must contact a less urgent MQL
  • How quickly and with what information Sales and Marketing each updates the CRM

5. Meeting regularly to review work and update the SLA

Once these goals and metrics are in place, Sales and Marketing leaders should meet weekly to review how they are doing in meeting them and what each needs to change to improve performance. They may also discuss special cases that have come up during the past week and how to handle exceptions in the future, seasonal or quarterly variations (sales may not be able to respond as quickly in the last week of the quarter), and industry trends that may require the tightening or loosening of requirements. If summer is typically a slower season for MQLs, for example, then maybe the definition of an MQL needs to be relaxed for a couple months – with the recognition of that by both teams, and the understanding it will return to normal in September. At the bottom of a recession the opportunity-to-win ratio may suffer, but response time and other metrics need not.

A lot goes into developing a service level agreement between Sales and Marketing, but the work is worth it. It’s critical to Sales and Marketing alignment.

Put in place the right sales and marketing technology

Recent, separate surveys by Scott Brinker and CedarCone came up with well over 1,000 companies providing some flavor of technology related to sales or marketing – and that’s not everyone. Some technologies are unique to the particular role, such as the proposal and contracts automation software available for Sales. But Sales and Marketing can significantly improve alignment by jointly using several technologies including a customer relationship management (CRM), marketing automation, sales enablement technology and predictive analytics.

CRM: The customer relationship management system is central to the success of any company that wants to grow beyond a few dozen customers that are being tracked in a spreadsheet. But many CRM implementations fail to fully take advantage of the power of these systems, and according to some surveys a majority of CRM implementations fail due to a combination of unclear goals, poor planning, lack of executive buy-in, insufficient training and other factors.

Keeping the information in the CRM system up to date is key to managing sales and predicting pipeline. (And it contains vital information on individual opportunities that can be invaluable if a senior account executive walks out the door.) A CRM system that’s used to track not just sales opportunities and orders but also customer support interactions, support tickets, and other issues with existing customers can help provide a 360 degree view of the customer and help grow existing accounts.

The most advanced CRM implementations will also include automated company news (management changes, new initiatives, patents, etc.) and data (quarterly and annual revenue and profits, total employees, number of locations, etc.) as well as updates from social media and blogs signaling the most important current issues at accounts. Using third party services to add this information to the CRM can significantly cut down the research time needed by Sales.

Some sales reps may not initially see the value of the CRM; they may think of updating it as just administrative paperwork that may be helpful to sales management but not to them. But if the CRM has clean data and account insights that save them time, makes sure that opportunities don’t fall through the crack, and makes it quicker and easier for them to generate their reports, they may come around.

For Marketing the CRM contains invaluable data for tracking campaign performance beyond leads to opportunities and wins, as well as identifying the most promising accounts and roles of individuals within accounts, and other data for analyzing programs and planning future efforts.

Marketing automation: When fully implemented, marketing automation systems are a combination of email marketing, customer behavior tracking, lead scoring, lead nurturing, website personalization, sales alerts and more.

Many marketing automation systems began as email marketing programs which then added programmatic actions based on the response of the prospect. A high-level workflow might look like this. Notice the automated alert to a sales rep on the left.

marketing automation workflow

Individual email campaigns can have similar workflows: different automated actions set to happen depending on whether the person opens an email, responds, etc.

Lead scoring is central to Sales and Marketing alignment. This is how you can make sure that Sales gets all of the MQLs, and only MQLs.

Leads that aren’t yet at the level of an MQL, which will be most of them, can go into the marketing automation system’s nurture campaigns.

Marketing automation systems can personalize website content to the individual based on their prior visits and actions.

Sales alerts can be set up based on prospect behavior, not just their specific request to be contacted. For example, let’s say a sales rep has presented a proposal to a prospect and then they go into radio silence. A month later they visit the website: the sales rep could be immediately notified of this and get in touch. In this scenario an alert could also be triggered, for example, by the prospect mentioning the company in a social media post.

Some of this data will be stored in the marketing automation system, and some will also be stored in the CRM.

Sales and marketing enablement: Software to better enable the work between sales and marketing can take many forms including:

  • Sales process automation systems to help guide reps at each stage of the opportunity
  • Content management systems for storing marketing-generated content for sales reps to customize and use
  • Individualized web portals for delivering personalized content to prospects
  • Private social networks for sharing information, making requests and answering questions

And more. With 1,000-and-growing software vendors serving this field, the tools are tremendous. And all the good ones are mobile-enabled, too, so sales people can access them just before or even in meetings.

Predictive Analytics: Predictive analytics is at the leading edge of today’s sales and marketing technology. On the consumer side predictive analytics is used by companies like Amazon, Netflix and Pandora to serve up recommended products to customers. B2B predictive analytics can be used to prioritize the sales leads, put lower quality leads into a nurture program and even suggest the messages that they’ll be most receptive to. Pretty cool.

Apply Account Based Marketing to a Targeted Accounts Program

A specific initiative on which B2B Sales and Marketing can work together to land new accounts or grow existing accounts is the combination of account based marketing (ABM) with a strategic accounts or targeted accounts program.

ABM is the development and delivery of marketing communications to a “market of one”: specific accounts. In a recent survey, 97% of companies said that ABM provides somewhat or much higher ROI than other marketing initiatives.

In ABM Sales and Marketing can jointly create goals, identify markets and accounts, share knowledge and research about them and key players, develop offers, and collaborate on the nature and timing of account-based communications, such as personalized content targeted to buying team members at the varying points in their buyer’s journey.

Many marketing tools and tactics can be used to support account based marketing, such as predictive analytics, social media research, direct mail, email marketing, website personalization, retargeting, and ad targeting by domain.

Account based marketing in support of a targeted accounts program is not the flavor of the week; it’s been used by B2B companies for years. This is an excellent case of a campaign Nuance did a few years back in which 75-80% of personalized packages sent via direct mail to senior executives led to meetings with the sales rep. You can’t beat that. And this is another more recent ABM campaign for, coincidentally, Nuance, which involved a more complex set of activities.

The alignment of sales and marketing are critical to meeting sales quotas and growing a company. And working out a written SLA, using the appropriate technology, and account-based marketing combined with targeted accounts programs are three methods that can make it happen.

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