Why a too strong alignment of marketing- and sales departments could hurt the company

A lot has been written about the integration of marketing- and sales functions, but there seems to be no consensus about what works best. From what I have seen in various blog posts most of them argue for tighter integration between the two (similar levels) or that sales should align with the marketing strategy of the firm (different levels). I respectfully disagree with both.

In much of the strategy and leadership research there has in a long time been a discussion towards a disruptive way of thinking where strategy is no longer set rigidly by leaders, but where they rather establish boundaries within which strategy can emerge. In such an organization, the need for flexibility to make decisions on a lower organizational level is crucial, and one way of doing this is a focus on specialized functions well anchored with a clear vision and strategy.

My experience in more than 20 years of selling and later as a sales researcher I argue here for a mixed integration where they should be both aligned and separated.

Why separated?

Based on academic research there seems to be evidence for such an approach (Homburg and Jensen, 2007). Marketing departments is known for having a long-term orientation and product focus, whereas sales departments have a short-term orientation and a strong customer focus (sometimes to the degree that salespeople experience conflicting views about where their loyalty should lie – the firm or the customer).

These perspectives are also some of the strengths of the two departments. By having an orientation towards the product/service and how it should be developed the marketing department can keep a long-term focus towards how the business will develop in the future. Likewise, for sales by having a focus on the customer and their needs, often in a turbulent marketplace, they can quickly adapt to these needs. So by having a strong focus on their respective orientations, they will focus on both the short-term needs of the firm (next quarters sales), and the long-term needs (adjustments to changing market).

Why aligned?

The alignment should come from the strategy of the firm (or the SBU strategy). This strategy lays the foundation for why and how the firm is in the business. So the alignment should be on the knowledge about the market and product/service offered, together with interpersonal skills.

The figure below illustrates this relationship.

Sales- marketing coordinationThe relationship between marketing and sales (based on Homburg and Jensen, 2007)

Product- and market knowledge

If the two departments have different views on who the competitor and customer should be this would lead to a misalignment of the short- and long-term goals of the departments and it might hurt both immediate and long-term performance. Although they might have different roles when it comes to providing input when it comes to product- and market knowledge, their understanding of this knowledge should be aligned.

Marketing often uses market reports, and market analysis to gather knowledge about the market. Information that help marketing in developing trends regarding the how the market will develop. Sales, through their intimate relation with the customer, can offer feedback regarding immediate problems with the product/service and the advancements of the firm’s competitors. Both are necessary in developing a thoroughly understanding of the market and what kind of impact it should have on the firm’s product/services.

Interpersonal skills

Being able to share the information both departments have regarding the market and product requires that the departments are able to talk to each other.

A central finding in social psychology is that similarity between individual’s foster attraction and mutual liking (Byrne, 1971). Meaning that individuals gravitate towards people they like…

Luckily, the changes between people in sales and marketing does not seem to differentiate that much. A lot of marketers started their career in sales, and when I look at our students choosing between sales and marketing courses they do not differ that much. As a leader of both sales and marketing departments I would argue that the candidates I interviewed when hiring for both departments had a great overlap in profiles. Taken together, this should serve as the basis for a fruitful relationship. But too often it does not.

How to foster both alignment and differences?

I see two ways a firm can support this concept;

Role clarification
When both departments understand their part, both as a unique entity and how they can contribute to the common good of the firm the hostility between the departments might be reduced. When both understand that they are not in competing roles, the possibility for knowledge exchange might be possible.

Another thing that might add to this understanding is to have a joint VP responsible for both sales and marketing. The problem here is, of course, the discussion if this position should be given to someone with a sales- or marketing background. Which might hurt the relationship even more. But if this VP of sales- and marketing (or marketing- and sales) managed to focus on both the alignment and the separation of the departments the connection with the firm strategy might be strengthened.

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