MAY 5, 2004

By Christopher Kenton

Sales and Marketing: Lost in a Thorny Forest

Our survey is in, and its picture of divided and dysfunctional efforts to achieve cooperation is fascinating, surprising -- and a little sad

When I built a Web survey to accompany the recent series on sales-and-marketing integration, my expectations were pretty modest (see BW Online, "When Sales Meets Marketing," Parts 1, 2, and 3). I was hoping to test out the survey system I had just developed while gaining some small but measurable feedback from sales and marketing professionals on how well they work together. I thought I would be lucky to get 100 responses.

More than 300 people responded to the survey, 200 of them adding often detailed remarks on the problems and prospects of successful collaboration between sales and marketing. As exciting as it was to see the responses roll in, I was quickly overwhelmed. I had promised to publish the results of the survey, but now I found the data demanded far more than a simple tally of responses. What it needed was something much more like a report.

One of the features we built into our system is a progressive filter that enables the creation of response profiles -- based, for example, on demographic or behavior questions. We spent days just digging through different slices and dices of the data, looking at any trend we could find that was associated with company size, industry, department, and job title. Then we went back through the data looking at trends based on certain attitudes measured by responses to specific questions.

KEY ISSUES. The picture that emerged was surprising, even though it now seems obvious. It was as if we had spent weeks finding individual trees, and learning fascinating things about leaves and bark, only to step back, take another look, and exclaim, "Oh wow, this is a forest!" And what exactly was the nature of the forest we discovered? A stunning lack of consensus about the role and the value of marketing in most businesses.

Maybe that doesn't surprise you. Like I said, to me it seems obvious now. But it's not what we expected to see digging through data. In fact, it's the clarity of responses that highlights the corresponding lack of clarity about marketing in general. Here's how it all unfolded:

We asked a total of 24 questions on topics related to sales-and-marketing performance, sales-and-marketing integration, tools and barriers to effective integration, and opinions on the purpose and value of marketing to the respondents' organizations. The survey was not designed to target just marketers or just sales people, but most of those involved with sales and marketing efforts, whom we would sort out later in analysis.

CANDID, SOMETIMES CAUSTIC. Based on the interviews we had done before the survey, we were hoping to bring the classic gap between sales and marketing teams into clearer resolution. We expected to learn about attitudes toward collaboration, and we hoped to learn about perceptions of various tools and barriers to integration. We also provided space for respondents to tell us their own thoughts about sales and marketing issues.

As we first started digging through the data, our expectations were matched. There were plenty of divisions between sales and marketing attitudes -- and plenty of ripe comments from what must seem, in many companies, to be opposing camps. Marketers see themselves as vastly underappreciated, and they regard sales teams as self-serving and short-sighted. Marketers believe sales teams undermine the effectiveness of their efforts by failing to take strategic marketing seriously, and by neglecting to follow up on valuable leads.

Meanwhile, sales teams see themselves as indispensable, and they look upon marketers as ivory-tower strategists out of touch with the real world's pressing demand of generating revenue. Sales teams believe that marketers don't understand the customer, the product, or how to effectively support sales efforts.

From a research standpoint, it's comforting to see these trends repeat themselves in different industries and with companies of various sizes. From a business standpoint, however, it's devastating. What in the world is going on inside these companies that such environments continue to fester?

THE HUMAN ELEMENT. There is some reason to be optimistic. We found a surprising amount of consensus in areas where we expected clear divisions, and it's not just the consensus that makes us hopeful, but the issues on which it has been built. When we asked respondents to rank a series of tools and barriers to effective integration, there was a universal focus on the role of human relationships, rather than such things as technology and financial incentives. In fact, technology consistently ranked lowest -- and received the only negative rating -- as an issue for improving effective collaboration. Not only did respondents say that software is not an effective tool for promoting integration, they insisted that a lack of software is not a barrier.

The vast majority of respondents highlighted human factors, citing them as both the tools and barriers to effective collaboration. The most serious problems were lack of planning and conflicting attitudes, while the most promising solutions were seen as the integration of sales and marketing management and the development of cross-functional teams. This suggests that beyond the arrows that sales teams and marketers sling at each other, each has a realistic sense of what the real problems are and what needs to be done to improve collaboration.

Unfortunately, that consensus breaks down in the one area where it really counts most -- the area of leadership. One of the issues we asked respondents to rank is the effectiveness of "Executive Pressure" in promoting collaboration. In general, it got a lukewarm rating. But that rating rises dramatically when you look only at staff, and it drops dramatically when you focus on managers. In other words, managers -- and CEOs in particular -- don't put much faith in applying the power that they have to drive collaboration, while staff seems to think it's an important tool. We weren't sure how to read this trend until we stepped back and looked at the larger picture.

Download the survey results here

LEADS TO NOWHERE. Throughout the survey we asked questions about marketing and sales performance, importance to the company, and effectiveness of collaboration efforts. We also asked a simple question about the ultimate purpose of marketing, and this is where we found the key to interpreting the data. Some of the answers to the question of marketing's purpose were strategic (e.g. Maximizing Customer Lifetime Value), others were tactical (e.g. Lead Generation).

It was not the general response to this one question about the purpose of marketing that surprised us (generating leads was at the front of most respondents' minds), but how the responses broke down among different segments -- and more important, how they combined with other segmented responses about the importance of marketing to the success of the company, and the ranking of effective tools and barriers. What we found was fragmentation: zero consensus across department and hierarchical divisions about what marketing is supposed to accomplish, and how its success should be measured.

This does not appear to be caused by a lack of knowledge or conviction -- indeed there is an overwhelmingly strong response regarding the value of marketing, it's just that no one appears to agree on what exactly marketing is supposed to do.

THICKET OF QUESTIONS. And this brings us full circle, right back to the big and obvious picture: No one agrees on what exactly marketing is supposed to do in an organization. How can you build an effective team if everyone thinks they are supposed to be heading in a different direction? How can you collaborate effectively -- even with the best business processes -- if you can't agree on what you're collaborating to achieve? And where is the leadership in all of this? Where is the guy carrying the compass?

According to our data, the leaders don't believe that exerting pressure from above is an effective tool. We would encourage them to think again. Their employees want strong leadership, and they need a strong definition of the role and purpose of marketing so they can leverage the tools they already have at their disposal -- teamwork rather than new software -- and get on with building the business.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be exploring more ideas and opinions about this lack of direction in marketing, and where companies can find it. In the meantime, there's a lot more information in our survey report, which you're welcome to download for free from my Web site.