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Sales and Marketing Alignment: Best Practices for Building a Revenue Machine

One of the most important factors in creating a scalable, repeatable revenue machine is sales and marketing alignment. In aligned organizations, sales and marketing are working together in a coordinated effort to achieve the ultimate goal: revenue. There is compelling data that highlights the effectiveness of aligned organizations:

  • Organizations with tightly-aligned sales and marketing had 36% higher customer retention rates and achieved 38% higher sales win rates – MarketingProfs
  • Companies with dynamic, adaptable sales and marketing processes had an average of 10% more of their sales people on quota – CSO Insights
  • Aligned organizations achieved an average of 32% annual revenue growth while less aligned companies reported an average 7% decline in revenue – Forrester Research
  • B2B organizations with tightly aligned sales and marketing operations achieved 24% faster growth and 27% faster  profit growth over a three year period – Sirius Decisions

Despite these statistics and years of emphasis, sales and marketing alignment continues to be a struggle. The good news is that there is a desire to change.  The biggest impetus for this new mind-set  has come from sales. Sales now realizes that buying behavior has changed and marketing now must own a significant portion of the buying process. A recent Sirius Decisions poll of 300 sales leaders highlights this: “The top third of the sales cycle has gone away. Salespeople believe that the beginning of the traditional sales process has evaporated and that buyers are self-servicing their needs instead of engaging with salespeople.”  Sales needs marketing now more than ever.


The next step is for organizations to finally execute on this vision. To start, sales and marketing must first agree to work together to align. Then sales and marketing leaders need to agree on a number of key elements that will allow them to avoid the chasm of the past and begin to create their  revenue machine.

Below are seven key elements that sales and marketing must agree on:

1. The target buyer and their buying process

Sales and marketing must agree on who the target buyer is, what they do every day, what they care about, and why they buy. This effort should not be owned by only marketing or only sales. Instead, this should be a joint activity. There are two critical pieces to understanding the buyer:

  • Buyer personas – Personas provide an in-depth understanding of a company’s target buyers. Buyer personas should contain five key elements: Buyer demographics; the buyer’s role in the organization; the buyer’s objectives, priorities, and challenges; a day in the life of the buyer; and how they make purchasing decisions.
  • Buying process map– This is a step-by-step, detailed view into the buying process for each target buyer. For each phase in the buying process, it’s essential to understand and map the following: buyer objectives; the core set of activities the buyer engages in; the information they will consume; and the modes of communication the buyer will use to access their information.

The buyer persona and buying process map are a foundational element of the revenue chain and, as result, agreement is critical. This buyer research informs marketing and sales processes, messaging, content, and campaigns. Once sales and marketing leaders agree, then they must get the company on the same page and train their teams on the target buyer.

2. The revenue process

Once an organization understands the buyer, it needs to agree on the revenue  process. The process is an agreed upon set of conversion points that flow from the top of funnel (awareness) to close. There are a number of conversion points to consider, but the shared revenue process should focus on 5-7 important conversion points. For example, a simple revenue machine may track prospects from a lead (when they initially engage with an organization) – qualified lead (when they are ready to be passed to sales) – opportunity (they are now an opportunity, some may use the idea of a “sales accepted lead”) – demo – proposal – close. Both sides need to agree on clear definitions of each conversion point and then assign ownership to each conversion. Tracking and reporting needs to provide visibility into the entire process. In the beginning, the organization can assign benchmark conversion rates to each step in the process and optimize these numbers over time.

Once agreement has been reached on the revenue process,  a picture or flow chart should be created so everyone understands what it is and what it means. Both sales and marketing leaders will use this process and the associated conversion points to collectively assess the current health of the revenue organization, find the real bottlenecks in the process, and make good decisions about what needs to be fixed.

3. Messaging that’s built for revenue

Disagreement about messaging is a common cause of sales and marketing tension. Marketing thinks sales ignores or misuses the corporate messaging while sales thinks marketing’s messaging doesn’t work (for example, the term “marketing speak” is a classic description for marketing materials). The messaging alignment problem is often caused because a message hasn’t been translated for use in the day-to-day blocking and tackling that sales does. Before rolling out the message, marketing should test the message by “riding along” on sales pitches and see how customers react. Messaging studies can be effective, but the real acid test is to see what happens when the average sales person tries to deliver the message. One Silicon Valley CMO always creates a joint sales and marketing task force to incorporate the message into sales documents before rolling out the message. The joint task force tests the messaging on 40 clients and collectively comes back with their findings. As she said: “My messaging doesn’t work if sales can’t believe in it and use it on a daily basis”.Sales

4. Content alignment

I recently had an account where I was brought in to build the content strategy. Our goal was not to build sales collateral, the mandate was to build thought leadership content designed to focus on the needs on the target buyer. When I met with the VP of Sales, he said: “I am so glad to have you on board. My first request is that we create a data sheet.” While sales needed data sheets, the problem was marketing was trying to lay the foundation for a content marketing strategy and sales was not bought into this.

Content misalignment can be solved by both sides coming to an understanding on the following factors:

  • The overall content strategy
  • When and how to use the content
  • Where to find the content
  • How to judge content effectiveness

Once an agreement on content strategy has been reached, sales leadership should invest in training their sales people on how to use content in the selling process.

5. The lead handoff process

Deciding when to hand the lead to sales is the most critical factor in sales and marketing alignment. There is no other solution to the “marketing leads suck” problem. The qualified lead definition should cover both demographic information (account type, contact type) and psychographic (has pain, agrees to a conversation). The definition has to be agreed upon by both sides and must be shared with everyone in marketing and sales. Otherwise, communication breakdowns will continue. For example, I was at an enterprise-focused software company whose solutions had a year-long sales cycle and a cost in the half-million dollar range. They were still evangelizing the need for their solution and there were no “projects” for this type of solution yet. The sales development rep passed an amazing appointment with a VP at one of the company’s target accounts. The field rep rejected the lead and complained about quality. I called him and asked him for feedback and he told me: “I only accept leads with budget and a set timeframe.” I sent him the qualified lead definition and made the simple recommendation to the VP of Sales: “Why don’t we just start by telling everyone what the qualified lead definition is”.

6. Revenue service level agreements

There are a number of service level agreements between sales and marketing that are absolutely essential for alignment. Marketing must agree to generate a quota of qualified leads while sales must agree to a guaranteed lead follow up process that covers how quickly they will follow up and the amount of effort they will put into lead followup. Sales must also agree to provide regular feedback. The SLA on lead follow-up goes hand-in-hand with the lead definition. If marketing’s leads achieve the qualified lead definition, then sales guarantees they will follow up in a timely and thorough fashion. Inadequate lead follow-up breaks down the entire revenue machine process and must be avoided.

7. Optimization and feedback loops

The final agreement between sales and marketing is to communicate regularly and optimize the process. There should be a series of regular meetings that take place between both sides. The goal should be to discuss what’s working/not working and to agree to conclude meetings with solutions not shouting matches. Here are some recommended meetings:

  • Revenue machine meeting – Great companies will look at the revenue machine weekly in their management meeting. The conversation should start by reporting metrics at each critical conversion point in the revenue machine process. There will still be some finger-pointing in this meeting, but now the conversation will be more productive with the established agreement on process, metrics, and expectations. The end result of these meetings should be specific action items for owners along the revenue machine process.
  • Demand generation closed loop meeting – The teams responsible for generating leads or qualified leads need to meet on a regular basis to optimize the program. Both sides should look at metrics first (the most important being the conversion rate between leads passed and leads accepted) and then dive into anecdotal feedback. The meeting should always be a “two-way” street. Marketing should be prepared to optimize their campaigns and sales should be ready to optimize their follow-up processes.
  • Sales enablement meeting – Sales doesn’t just want help with leads – they want help from marketing with moving prospects through the sales cycle (pipeline acceleration). The main topic of this conversation should be content. The meeting includes a content audit to understand what content is working/not working and a review of sales requests for new assets.  There are a number of problems this meeting will uncover. Sales may not be using particular pieces of content because they can’t find them or don’t know when to use the various content assets in the selling process. Both problems can be solved with communication and training.

Sales and marketing alignment is about one shared goal: revenue that is delivered or over-delivered every quarter. There will always be tension, but that tension can be positive if there is a culture of clear expectations and communication. Without agreement in the areas listed above, the tension will boil over and destroy any hope for a scalable, predictable revenue machine.

I look forward to hearing about your sales and marketing alignment experiences.

Craig Rosenberg is a co-founder of TOPO and the author of the sales and marketing blog Funnelholic. He loves sales, marketing, and things that drive revenue. Follow him on Google+ or Twitter.

  • Matt Harp

    Who (roles) should attend each of the 3 meetings you outline under #7?

    • Matt:

      Here are my thoughts:

      Revenue Machine Meeting — There are a couple options. First and foremost, I believe a view of the metrics across the entire revenue machine should be presented and discussed at the executive meeting. It’s important that the organization gets real visibility into the process that makes the company money. This helps with finger-pointing and misconceptions on “who is right and who is wrong”.

      Some companies have a revenue machine meeting with all the owners of conversions along the process. For example, the owners of demand gen, lead qualification, etc might be in this meeting. The meeting starts off with an overall view of the revenue machine health. If there are problems in a particular conversion area, then the owner is there to address both what is happening and how they plan to address it. This can be a great meeting if done consistently and with clear expectations. Warning: Some companies can’t hack it — and there are severe shouting matches and near fist fights.

      Demand Gen Meeting – Marketing should be represented by any or all people who supply leads to sales. In some cases, that is just the demand generation person. In others, there may be an inbound marketing person. One person from marketing should represent the group and run the meeting. Sales should be represented by a manager whose team is responsible for following up on leads. Also, many sales managers bring trusted sales people into the conversation as well (not the whole team.)

      Sales Enablement Meeting — Marketing should be represented the person in charge of creating content for sales and someone representing product marketing. Field marketing may come as well. I use content as an example because it is the hot topic today and a cause of tension between the two sides. If there is feedback on messaging or a more common issue- sales needs more training or data on a particular product or market, then this is the meeting to address these issues. Sales should be represented by a sales enablement person and/or sales manager. Like the demand generation meeting, it is helpful to bring trusted sales people into the meeting as well (not the whole team.)

      Hope this helps!

  • If two consultants discuss marketing in the woods – does anyone hear it?… Yeah – all super valid steps and I actually agree with each one – I guess the question is, does it matter?

    All of the conversations I’ve been a part of over the past 6 years have been largely dominated by… wait for it… other marketing consultants. It’s sad actually. We spend most of our time evangelizing this stuff and preaching engagement but marketers are some of the least engaged in these discussions. Why? Most of the time because they are bad at their jobs – involving new thinking threatens their island. The others are so busy fighting with management or ownership who are, similar to the first group, bad at their jobs, that they don’t have time to engage in debates/conversations about their jobs. As usual the only cure is money (budget). Currently the only good marketer is an underpaid marketer – and one that hyper performs.

    The kicker is that the above process you’ve outlined is no less than a Million dollar exercise – and that’s a bargain, and an SMB figure. And that’s a bargain.

    • Well, this is an interesting comment. First of all, on the “two consultants talk in the woods” — I actually agree. Most of sales-marketing alignment talk has been blogosphere talk. I am actually writing a followup post to this where I address that.

      However, I think alignment is closer because of sales. If they want it, it will happen.

      But on your second part of the comment — are you saying everyone but the underpaid marketer is bad at their jobs?

      • I prefer alliterative comments past 10pm. I’m saying that marketers which “wear many hats” are everyone’s favorite it seems. Over tasked, under supported – and yes underpaid. I had a conversation with a prominent marketer the other day and as she described the shoestring budgets she is expected to move mountains with and as I asked “and who does…(fill in the blank)” the answer was always her. Until we really start to invest in marketing rather than relying on miracle workers (unicorns as I call them) the revenue engine will continue to sputter.

  • Hi Craig,

    Firstly, thank you for the blog, secondly, I have to say that for someone who did not want to write about sales and marketing alignment you did a great job.

    As perhaps an adjunct to your blog I just posted one that goes into the other direction, namely what mistakes to avoid when aiming to align sales and marketing. Here is a link if you are interested. I’d love to hear your toughts on it:


  • Mark E ter

    The relationship between sales and marketing needs repair. Neither side is right or wrong. They are just confused. Slowly there’s been some compromise and you are seeing companies hire a 50-50 person (Sales enablement manager, Business development) but there’s still stigmas each side has. Leadership needs to stop relying on the top producers in sales and also focus on marketing truly being there to communicate with sales reps. The issue is most companies will have 150 sales people to 15-20 in marketing. One revenue generates and the other is an “operational” cost.

  • Sampath Mallidi

    @craig, This is a brilliant article – When Marketing and Sales can move beyond their differences and align to work in tandem, they have the ability to increase the revenue cycle while cutting the cost of doing business at the same time. Most companies spend 30-40% of their revenue on Sales and Marketing. If these two sides of the same coin coordinate activities and better align themselves, they can optimize what their company spends on them.

    Also feel free to have a look at my product – http://www.intandemly.com. It solves the same problem!

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