MAY 26, 2004

By Christopher Kenton

Reps and Marketers: Across the Great Divide

At too many outfits, they're sworn enemies. Not at CollabNet, however, where a hand-in-glove relationship gets results

I spent five weeks collecting responses to our survey on sales and marketing Integration, and interviewing top sales professionals in depth. Ten interviews in a row proceeded almost as if they were scripted. Every one of the sales people I interviewed had parallel stories of conflicts and disappointments with marketing. The responses were so uniform, in fact, that I was tempted to abandon the remaining interviews. Then I met Bart Tilly, a sales rep for software outfit CollabNet. Compared to my other interviews, speaking with Bart was like a visit to the Twilight Zone.

"I love our marketing department", Bart said. That was his immediate response to the same question that had typically brought a deep sigh from every other sales rep. I think I just repeated the question in confusion, and then probed a little to make sure I was talking to a legitimate sales rep.

FIELD RESEARCH. "I love our marketing department. They're great," Bart repeated. He then went on to itemize all the ways marketing provides support to the CollabNet sales team, including participation in sales calls and sales meetings, and collaborating on campaign plans and objectives. In fact, he listed every item that every other sales team said was lacking, as if he was from a parallel universe where the normal polarity was reversed.

I was so impressed by what I heard from Bart, that I asked him to introduce me to his vice-president of marketing. I wanted to hear first-hand how CollabNet built a functioning relationship between its sales and marketing teams, I wanted to understand what kept that relationship working, and I wanted to know whether or not it was paying dividends.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I need to state that I have absolutely no affiliation with CollabNet or any of its executives or investors. Bart Tilly wrote me in response to a previous column, and when I saw that he was a sales rep, I took the opportunity to interview him for my series on sales and marketing collaboration.]

HIT THE ROAD. Bart introduced me to Bernie Mills, CollabNet's marketing vice-president, and we shared a long discussion about their sales and marketing approach. Though Mills is clearly in command of his marketing program, he didn't lead off by taking credit for CollabNet's marketing and sales success. In fact, he recounted events during his rise to the vice-president's position that have framed his marketing philosophy.

"Early on, the vice-president of sales requested marketing's participation in the sales process," Mills recalled. "Not because he needed help closing sales, but because he wanted me to see opportunities in the channel." During one series of sales calls, the sales vice-president invited Mills on a side trip to visit a prospect in a new market segment he was targeting. "We had talked about the opportunity on a theoretical level," Mills said, "but he wanted to give me a firsthand experience as to what the opportunity actually was. I was thrilled to participate, but it also helped me to understand the points he was trying to make as we continued to have a healthy debate over the level of emphasis we should put on that area of our business."

The experience doesn't sound all that remarkable, and Mills frames it by recalling that the sales vice-president was actively trying to sell him on the new opportunity. But the elements of effective integration aren't remarkable: collaboration, client-interaction, consideration, and debate. What is remarkable is that such a simple recipe is lacking in so many companies.

MEETING OF MINDS. CollabNet certainly appreciates the importance of collaboration. Their successful software tools are designed for enabling and enhancing collaboration among far-flung software developers over the Web. Whether or not CollabNet's market success can be attributed to its deep understanding of collaboration, there is plenty of evidence that the outfit practices what it preaches. It is a culture that encourages collaboration.

Mills reports that both CollabNet's sales and marketing teams continually reach across the traditional divide, and that his marketing department treats the sales team as its first customer base. "The channel is the customer -- our sales team. They're the ones who will be in front of the client. And treating sales as a customer means understanding their requirements." As an example, Mills recalled a typical encounter with the sales team.

CollabNet's Worldwide vice-president of field operations, Ken Comee, wanted marketing to develop a sales kit for a product launch. Some marketing departments would go their own way, while others might just follow the sales director's instructions. Mills approach was like a consultative sale. "We had a number of meetings with sales, first to build a collaborative list of requirements, and then to negotiate over the issues we didn't see the same way. When we finally built to that list, we showed up at launch with a kit already vetted by sales."

LISTENING, NOT LOSING. Mills applies that approach to the development of all sales-support tools, and the result has been a sales force full of people like Bart Tilly, satisfied with the tools they have at their disposal, ready to sell, and ready to engage productively with marketing rather than gripe about it.

If this looks like too perfect a picture, Mills is quick point out that like any relationship, collaboration is an ongoing effort. "Are there areas we can improve?" Mills asked rhetorically. "Of course." When pressed for an example, Mills cited the tension that arises in any company when sales and marketing don't see eye to eye. At those times, he said, "I think we need to be a little better at helping sales understand that marketing isn't focused on deal-prevention, but on long-term corporate health."

It's interesting to hear how much the concept of dialog and understanding comes up in a discussion with Mills. Where many marketers get in a defensive posture and view the concept of "listening to sales" as subservience, Mills puts it in the context of leadership. In fact, Mills has a lot to say about leadership and initiative, and about understanding the complementary roles of sales and marketing organizations.

THE OTHER GUY'S SHOES. "Sales is selling one-to-one. Marketing is selling one-to-many," he began. "For sales, that means selling deal-to-deal, quarter-to-quarter, while marketing needs to focus on the longer-term picture. We need to understand and respect that difference."

Understanding and respecting the difference between sales and marketing only comes by making the effort to listen and consider other points of view, which is certainly an aspect of leadership. As Mills put it: "Marketing needs to lead with a listening ear. Marketing doesn't need to have all the good ideas, they just need to be able to recognize them."

So how do you find people like Bart Tilly and Bernie Mills? How do you set up a culture of collaboration that works as well as it does at CollabNet? In my next column we'll talk to the CEO of CollabNet and find out.

Editor's note: Columnist Kenton's investigation of the relationship between marketing and sales departments began with a three-part series, "When Sales Meets Marketing." Read Parts 1, 2, and 3 only at BusinessWeek Online.