Common sense, along with plenty of research, points to the obvious: that when sales and marketing work well together, the bottom line benefits. Why, then, is it so uncommon to see B2B sales and marketing functions truly aligned and moving forward as a team? And what practical steps can B2B organizations take to not simply remove friction between the two functions, but actually optimize their results?

We recently had a chance to sit down with the marketing leader of a global B2B organization that has taken deliberate strides toward getting their marketers and sales people in sync—to great effect.  As you read the interview with Kathy Seegebrecht, VP of Corporate Marketing for UL (formerly Underwriters Laboratories), watch for several key themes:

  1. Culture that is lived and led from the top.
  2. Communication that starts with listening.
  3. Organization that creates structures for collaboration.
  4. Transparency that creates the trust to break down barriers.

We’ll return to these themes at the end of this interview as we explore specific steps you can take within each to align and optimize your sales and marketing teams. But first, the interview (text below).

Bob Domenz, Brandingmag: How do you define sales versus marketing, marketing versus sales? What’s the fundamental purpose of each function?

Kathy Seegebrecht2 (1)Kathy Seegebrecht, UL: That’s a question that’s near and dear to my heart because I’m a marketer with a sales background — I spent over a decade in sales and I’ve spent more than that in marketing, so I think there are a lot of similarities – and some really important distinctions.

The similarities are around objectives; I think the two top objectives for both sales and marketing are revenue and profit, and we both have our eyes on that prize. But behind that, there are different [functions] to support reaching those two objectives.

In marketing, for example, we provide two really important but distinct functions. It’s essential to realize [that marketing is] here to support not only the organization, but specifically the sales organization, so in a support function, we provide them collateral, communications, support for trade shows and customer events, things along those lines. But equally as important, if not more so, we also provide a strategic function … by providing them marketing insights, competitive insights, research that supports and leads to those insights, as well as brand building. There are a lot of things that [marketing does on] the strategic side that might be more long-term, but still support sales’ short-term revenue and profit margin goals.

Bm: What do you see as the key challenges as one tries to create alignment and integration between sales and marketing? How can they better understand each other and work together?

KS: It’s all about listening.

You have to build relationships in a variety of ways. The functions need to have defined relationships as well as interpersonal relationships. So listening is a good start. Whenever [you’re coming in] to a new organization or a new group, one of the best things to do is to spend time with salespeople, travel with the salespeople — and do a little less talking but a lot of listening.

You learn not only about their challenges, their opportunities, what they face day-to-day, but you also learn a lot about their customers. And it gives you the opportunity to share some insights about where marketing can strategically support them beyond what they typically expect of us in the form of collateral and trade shows.

Bm: And how do you suggest aligning objectives between sales and marketing?

KS: One thing I think about often is organizational structure. In many companies, sales reports to marketing; or a flipside, marketing reports to sales. I actually don’t believe it should be either of those scenarios.

Marketing and sales need to be peers, often reporting up to the same person or group. That allows you to have aligned objectives as you report to the same person, but also individual objectives to support your different needs. So, again, as I mentioned before, you’ve got the same sales and profit goals, but you have a lot of other different objectives. It’s important to align those and … for the sales team to understand what the marketing team is doing, how that helps them long-term and why we need to build our brand. While those dollars may not return you revenue today, in the long run they build customer loyalty and relevance, and that’s necessary for future sales and revenue.

Keith Williams, our CEO, moved the company toward a much more customer-centric model when he joined, and it has been really important [in terms of sales-marketing alignment]. One of the things we’ve most recently started are two councils: a global marketing council, and a global sales council. I lead the global marketing council, but I also sit on the global sales council; and, conversely, the leader of our sales council sits on our marketing council. That way we ensure that we are [mutually] aware and work toward alignment, not only of our goals and objectives but of our day-to-day activities, and where we’re focusing our attention and our dollars.

BM: You just touched on the role of relationships. How do you create relationships at the functional level and then at the individual level?

KSPart of it is listening and spending time together, but I also think it’s about transparency. You come into organizations and, often, people keep their budgets secret, “I don’t want you to know what I’m spending.” I think everybody should see my budget. And in fact I’ve shared it with anybody who has asked, because if we’re not spending on things that are important to the rest of the organization, or can’t get their buy in on it, then it’s not really money well spent.

So you need to bring people along [with] transparency, communication, willingness to be open and to change, to pivot.

When you bring people along with you, as opposed to surprising them with “Here is your new marketing kit!” and “Here is all the messaging you should share,” you avoid having them reply “Well, that’s not relevant for what I’m trying to do.”

Bm: You mentioned your global marketing and sales councils. How did those begin – and can you share more about their nature and purpose?

KS: It goes back to the customer-centricity that Keith Williams, our CEO, brought to the organization when he joined a few years back. [At that time] looking at our customer experience and our Net Promoter Score – which was very low – it became quite obvious that we weren’t succeeding in the customer’s mind in providing a good experience. While we’re a great company and provide really good services and have a lot of good people here, the customer experience was difficult.

So it was Keith’s idea to create the global marketing council and global sales council, to bring together corporate central marketing with the business unit marketers, to make sure we were working together as one UL, which is a phrase we use a lot.

In the past, we’d show up at a trade show with several different booths from several different divisions and not know we were all there, so the councils were about bringing us together and looking at all the activities and making sure that we were aligned. Now we’re thinking about the enterprise, not only a division or not only corporate marketing.

It’s just within the last year that we’ve actually decided to have cross-representation of the marketing council and the sales council. And that came about as we realized [the need to] align a couple of initiatives started last year: a new CRM, or customer relationship management system, which is primarily led by the sales organization, and a new marketing automation system, which is led by marketing. We wanted to integrate them appropriately to make sure that the lead transfer transformation across marketing automation into CRM worked, and so it made sense to say there’s probably a lot of other things we could work much more closely on too.

It has been fantastic, and it continues to evolve.

Bm: As you think about aligning sales and marketing across UL’s global organization, are there universal protocols or standards for how the different sales and marketing individuals around the world interact with one another?

KS: There aren’t any formal processes, no, but I also don’t think it’s up to the individuals to design those relationships. I think it’s more about the culture, and the culture that we create as marketing leaders and as sales leaders, how we work together — and lead by example.

So the fact that the leader of the sales council and the leader of the marketing council talk all the time and have a great relationship, that naturally brings together the people underneath us because they see the benefit.

Bm: How do you measure integration and alignment?

KS: I don’t know that you can measure the sales and marketing alignment, but metrics are still really important. You’ve got common metrics, and then you’ve got your individual metrics, but it’s about sharing those metrics so that the sales team can see what’s important to marketing.

We’re measuring our Net Promoter Score; we’re measuring our brand awareness; we’re measuring digital, you know, SEO, SEM digital metrics. And why are those important to sales? Well, it tells them, “This is how many customers we’re reaching, this is how we think we’re positively influencing them, this is how many leads we’re turning over to you.” And then in turn you can say, “OK, sales, you’ve received all those leads — now how are you bringing them down the funnel to close that sale?”

Bm: Are there any presenting symptoms that would indicate your sales and marketing functions are not as aligned as you thought?

KS: It’s a red flag when I’m traveling with salespeople and I see marketing materials used that are way off-brand, so I know that means that they created it themselves — but they created it themselves because they didn’t feel like they had what they needed. It’s important to always make sure that the marketing folks are offering their services to the sales team in a meaningful way, “What do you need that you don’t have? What do you need from me this week? Next week? This coming month?” That way they’re not feeling like they have to create their own materials, which risks presenting ourselves and our brand in the wrong way.

Bm: OK, just a couple of final questions. If I was a marketer and I was struggling with integrating sales and marketing, what advice would you have for me?

KS: It’s really simple. It’s about getting everybody to the table, bringing down those walls, breaking the silos.

Marketing isn’t just advertising, it’s so much more than that, and sales has become much more interesting and complex. We need to make sure that we get everybody to the table, understand what tools are needed and make sure we keep the same goal in sight, which is a good customer experience leading to improved revenue and margins.

Bm: Is the aligning of sales and marketing ever finished?

KS: No, I don’t think it’s ever done. I don’t believe you could ever say, “Hey, we won the game; we’re doing everything we can.” There’s always room for improvement, always new opportunities. Also, as soon as you have some changes in the sales organization or some changes in the marketing organization, or changes in the marketplace, you have to continue to pivot and grow and expand. So, no, I don’t think you ever win the race … which is difficult.

Alignment is difficult – but there are practical steps B2B marketers can take

Much of what Kathy Seegebrecht said about ULs recent deeper dive into sales and marketing alignment resonated deeply with this author’s decades of experience helping optimize the links between sales and marketing, links required to maximize growth, revenue, and profit (and that, after all, is the ultimate point).

Let’s look at a few practical ways to implement the “must-haves” of alignment that Seegebrecht mentions:

1. Culture: Lead by example.

The foundation of aligning sales and marketing is built through leadership intentionally creating and fostering a culture of collaboration and cooperation.

A first practical step: Become a “culture creator” by routinely, consistently breaking down silos and walls. The first one to go? The wall between you and your sales or marketing counterpart. Actively seek out a peer-to-peer relationship, then consistently look for ways to visibly, meaningfully leverage it.  For instance, joint issue invitations “across the aisle” to planning meetings, presentations of research reports and the like. When sales and marketing teams see their leaders eager and able to collaborate and learn from each other, they’ll be motivated to do the same.

2. Communication: Start by listening, and don’t stop.

Seegebrecht emphasizes taking the time to listen to each other. For most marketers, listening happens during meetings in conference rooms at headquarters. If you want to really move forward as a marketing leader, it’s time to follow your sales force to the front lines.

A practical first step: Schedule a day to ride along with your sales reps. Yes, you’re very busy — but make the time. When it comes to gaining real insight (and credibility), there is no substitute for hearing first-hand the thoughts, concerns, and needs of your sales force and their customers.

3. Organization: Create structures that support collaboration and cross-pollination.

The inherent isolation of corporate silos makes them self-perpetuating. You can only break them down if you get people out of them. The global councils Seegebrecht mentioned are one way to do this — but you don’t have to be a global organization with thousands of employees to get people off their turf and invested in the larger organization.  

A first practical step: Look for opportunities to create a collaboration structure – and no need to look further than any area in which you feel the need for more influence or more support. 

For instance, are you and your sales counterpart routinely handed a completed new product to launch? One that would have benefited from, say, more customer insight up front, prior to development, or a better understanding of marketplace conditions prior to going to market?  Then use that now-established relationship with your counterpart to jointly create a go-to-market team before the next launch, and invite key players from across all relevant disciplines to meet and establish a common understanding of best product development and launch practices. This is just one “for instance” of course, and you should look for the opportunity that best suits your unique needs and environment.

4. Transparency:  Be clear, be bold, be visible.

Alignment – and the next step beyond it, real integration of sales and marketing – depends on one of the rarest commodities in business: trust. Your investments in culture, communication, and organization should all help create an environment where trust can flourish, however, one-to-one, person-to-person trust requires individuals to take action, to take risks.

A practical first step:  If you’re bold, go “full Seegebrecht” and make a point of sharing your objectives, plans, and even budget, as she does. If that’s too intimidating, then start by simply offering to share a preview of your marketing plans with your sales counterpart. Openness will convey confidence, leadership, and trustworthiness, inviting the same from others.

What does your B2B organization do to build alignment between sales and marketing?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.