Linking Marketing and the Sales Force

The following is a chapter from the book Pursuing Growth

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Theoretically, marketing and sales should be naturally aligned. Marketing defines many fundamental aspects of your business model, such as selecting a target market, defining the core value you will offer the market, and shaping how that value will be communicated to customers. The sales force management process then organizes salespeople to provide any necessary personal contact and helps facilitate a sale.

Reality is much different. Salespeople often lack a clear understanding of the value their employer is trying to offer. Marketing strategies are often overly complex and have little chance of being implemented because they lack coordination with the sales effort.

Take a close look at how your sales force interacts with your overall marketing effort. Consider how the following concepts would apply to your company.

Explain the big picture

A well-functioning sales force is just like any other major system in your business, such as production. For a manufacturing company’s production floor to function at peak efficiency and effectiveness, the people involved must understand what they are working toward. They must understand how their actions relate to a broader goal, such as improved quality or reduced material cost. Systems and processes impose controls and direction, but human judgment is often the magic that drives performance.

The sales management system is no different. Salespeople make frontline decisions every day. They represent your company to the customer and choose which points to discuss and which points to avoid. Ultimately, they craft the reputation your company has in the industry and directly affect the volume of products and services produced. Understanding the company’s broader objectives allows salespeople to focus effort on products and customers that are crucial to the company’s long-term future.

Imagine your salespeople ignoring your new product line because it distracts from traditional technology that is easier to sell. Salespeople may have revenue targets to meet, but no direction or understanding of the importance of this new product to the company. They may have no idea if this product is a passing fad that will not be a priority next year, or if the company is betting its future on this technology and needs to establish a foothold in the market. It is crucial that salespeople understand how their actions relate to the company’s long-term vision.

Listen to your salespeople

Your salespeople have access to remarkable information. They interact with your competition and customers daily. This information can be valuable in crafting marketing decisions such as setting prices and developing your company’s brand image.

Useful data is often overlooked, such as customer feedback on new products. You may have a centralized technical support system in place, but customers will still call their salesperson because of the existing relationship. It would be useful for those in charge of marketing to have some understanding of the number of calls received and the nature of the technical questions that emerge.

Salespeople are busy, and expectations for them to collect information must be realistic. Simplified reporting systems have the best chance of being implemented. Also, it can be useful to reward salespeople for digging up information that has a meaningful impact on future strategic decisions.

Compensate your sales force properly

Compensation format is a fundamental component of sales force management. It is crucial to design sales force compensation to align with your marketing goals.

Let’s return to our previous example of a company involved with a product launch. One of the major decisions will be to determine the selling price. Many companies consider discounting price as a way to inspire consumer demand in the short term. In some situations, focusing the salesperson’s effort has a far more dramatic impact on success than lowering the selling price. It may make sense to maintain the original selling price while increasing sales force compensation.

When implementing this approach, provide financial incentives to salespeople for meeting specific goals. For example, certain technical products require salespeople to invest time in educating customers during the launch process. This may reduce the salesperson’s compensation during the launch period, because they spend less time promoting traditional products and there may be a delay in sales volumes as customers begin to adopt the new product. One solution can be to provide a bonus or a larger commission on the new product for a short-term introductory period. A bonus helps the salesperson justify spending the additional time on customer education, while also ensuring the product is embraced as a priority.

Support your sales force

Marketing is often responsible for building awareness and ultimately is far removed from the sales effort. Instead, use your marketing effort to enhance the sales effort or to replace steps in the sales process that are a poor use of your salespeople’s time.

Some companies have successfully replaced cold calling with sophisticated direct marketing campaigns that can generate qualified leads from a large number of prospects. Seminars can educate clients in a social and credible environment while allowing salespeople to use their client visits more productively. White papers on difficult technical issues can be posted on your website for customer reference and used as a reference tool for salespeople during sales visits or when following up on a sales call.

Agree on what makes you unique

Business owners often choose to focus on a niche market. They focus on offering something unique that is important to those customers. Surprisingly, salespeople and marketing staff often disagree on what is important and will promote entirely different benefits. This split confuses the customer and can be detrimental to sales.

Perhaps the salesperson is right and marketing decisions were made without properly understanding the customer. Perhaps marketing is right and salespeople are too focused on what has worked in the past or do not properly understand the unique benefits of the product. Whatever the problem, marketing and sales staff are most effective when they base their decisions on the same information and work together to close a sale.

Any department that operates in isolation rarely makes profitable decisions consistently, and your sales and marketing staff are no different. Tie the sales force closely to the marketing effort and you’ll benefit from satisfied customers and a more profitable business.