I had an interesting dinner with a group of SaaS company CEO friends a number of weeks ago. An hour or so into the conversation, one of them started talking about some friction that had recently surfaced between the company’s sales, marketing, and customer success teams.
It had become clear in the preceding week that the company was going to miss its full year revenue targets for sales to new and existing customers. Unfortunately, instead of serving as a source for increased alignment and cooperation across the teams, it resulted in frustration and finger pointing.
Missing numbers - even by the smallest margin - is never fun. But for this executive, the real trouble went much deeper than a group of numbers and a ratio on a spreadsheet. The fact that mission critical teams were misaligned and showing signs of turning against each other needed to be addressed immediately. Our dinner group spent the next couple hours sharing our individual experiences and brainstorming ways our friend could address this problem head-on.
For better and worse, I’ve seen this problem on multiple occasions in different companies. The first time was back in mid-2007. In my search for ideas and advice about how to get ahead of a looming challenge, I came across an excellent piece about the war between sales and marketing in Harvard Business Review, written by Philip Kotler, Neil Rackham, and Surj Krishnaswamy. It introduced me to a useful framework that I’ve modified and used several times over the years to help align the sales, marketing, and customer success teams I’ve worked with. I reference it in a handful of places below and encourage you to read it; it’s worth the time.
It goes without saying that sales, marketing, and customer success are three separate functions within a broader organization whose work is deeply interconnected. But the three need to realize it isn’t enough to just co-exist. This is especially true when their working together is essential to creating value for customers and the company. Friction is a normal part of business and can be useful, inasmuch as it is the result of healthy conflict. However, things can spiral out of control quickly when customer-facing groups are not getting along or are misaligned.
Here is a relevant example: Despite everyone working hard to bring in business, sales numbers disappoint for a quarter or two in a row. In weekly staff meetings, the marketing team begins to blame the sales team for not taking full advantage of its lead generation programs. Naturally, sales starts finger-pointing at marketing for spending too many dollars producing unqualified leads that could have gone to hiring more salespeople, larger T&E budgets, or paying higher commissions to provide more incentive to sell. Meanwhile, the customer success organization argues that both the sales and marketing teams are out of touch with what’s really happening with customers, thus making it impossible for anyone to hit their numbers. While all this is happening, the CEO is fielding questions from the board of directors, trying to provide answers without really understanding what is holding the company back.
This is common behavior; it’s just not the kind you want in your company.
Origins of friction and misalignment
In order to understand the root cause of hurtful conflict between customer-facing teams, it is helpful to step back and examine its origins. When we do so, it is often apparent that points of friction can be traced all the way back to the way in which the departments were created in the first place.
Most businesses don’t start out with sales, marketing, or success departments. More often than not, the driver of a company’s initial marketing efforts is its founding team. This team, coincidentally, drives the build-out of sales, service, help desk, and every other function, too. As Conner Burt puts it so well, in the beginning, everyone is in sales. As a result, many businesses equate marketing with selling, and selling with marketing, account management, and customer support.
As they evolve, most businesses begin to carve out a niche for marketing to help the sales team become more efficient in finding and educating prospective customers. This pattern is often repeated when a company begins to build out its customer service team as well. As an unfortunate result, marketing and customer success frequently evolve as adjunct, often subordinated, functions. This shouldn’t be the case.
Points of friction naturally surface as each unit grows and begins to work more closely with other parts of the organization. Kotler writes about marketing-centric scenarios where, as a company matures, it naturally begins to think in terms of developing brands rather than products, and brand managers become powerful players in the organization. Suddenly, the marketing function is no longer ancillary to the sales department. The marketing team then begins to make the argument that it is essential to transform the organization into a marketing-led company.
At the same time, but on the other side of the office, the customer success team is undergoing a similar evolution in thinking. But wait, so is the product team! According to Kotler, as soon as one team introduces this kind of rhetoric, other teams also begin to question who really possesses the competencies, experience, and deep understanding necessary to lead the organization. The result: friction and unhealthy, dysfunctional conflict.
In my opinion, the real culprit behind this kind of friction is a lack of organizational clarity, which inexorably leads to a misalignment of interests and unhealthy conflict. If cross-functional teams aren’t working toward the same end-goals and don’t know how each other’s success contributes to their fulfillment, it is crazy to expect them all to maintain healthy internal relationships. The good news is that driving alignment and creating clarity isn’t an impossible task.
It takes time and energy, but it can be done.
Aligning Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success
I believe that when you get down to it, alignment within a company is driven by culture more than anything else. In his books, “The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive” and “The Advantage,” Patrick Lencioni makes the case that organizational health holds the key to improvement and competitive advantage in business.
His basic premise is that companies whose employees are in sync as to 1) why they exist, 2) how they behave, 3) what they do, 4) how they can achieve success, 5) what they need to accomplish, and most importantly, 6) who must do what to accomplish it, have a dramatic competitive advantage in the marketplace. This is high-level stuff that takes time to implement, but is absolutely essential.
In order to be aligned, it is important that companies get to a point where everyone knows, and can articulate the roles and responsibilities of each functional department and the relationship dependencies between them. In other words, everyone should understand what sales needs from marketing, marketing needs from product, product needs from customer service and vice versa in order to achieve success as a company. When this clarity exists, it is far easier for teammates to build stronger cross-functional relationships.
Kotler’s paper describes four types of relationships they observed in the companies they studied for their research: Undefined, Defined, Aligned, and Integrated. Although their work only covered the sales and marketing functions, my own experiences indicate that the same relationship types exist between other functions, too. I have also observed parallels between these four relationship types and the level of organizational clarity present in a company.
When relationships are undefined, it is common for each function to have grown somewhat independently from others. Accordingly, each is preoccupied almost entirely with its own objectives and agenda. Most groups don’t know much about what the others are up to until a conflict arises, often between managers. Meetings between functions tend to be ad hoc, and are often devoted to conflict resolution or debate rather than collaboration.
Established companies where cross-departmental relationships are undefined are in serious trouble.
When relationships between departments are defined, there are usually processes, guidelines, and rules that keep people reasonably aligned. Kotler calls this a “good fences make good neighbors” orientation. When relationships are defined, sales, marketing, and customer success all know who is supposed to be doing what, and for the most part, why they should be doing it. Meetings between the teams become more reflective, and they work together more closely on customer focused initiatives.
Teams are playing on the same playground, but they generally prefer to stick to their own games.
When cross-functional teams are aligned, clear but flexible boundaries exist between them. Sales, marketing, and customer success engage with each other in joint planning and training activities. The teams begin to speak the same language, share the same objectives, and pursue the same goals.
Companies who are aligned are well on their way to making the transition from being customer-focused to becoming truly customer-centric.
When teams are fully integrated, boundaries become blurry, but in a good way. Each department organizes itself to share structures, systems, and rewards. Sales, marketing, and customer success focus on strategic, forward-looking business objectives, and are all deeply embedded in the management of key accounts. Performance metrics and objectives are developed together, and responsibility for achieving results becomes shared.
Companies who have reached the point where their teams are well integrated tend to have achieved a higher level of organizational clarity.
Kotler and his co-authors created a toolkit of surveys and checklists companies can use to measure how well cross-functional teams are working together. I have modified and used their toolkit from time to time with my own teams, and would encourage you to try our toolkit out with yours. It is a useful tool for establishing a baseline and identifying areas for improvement.
Although the end-goal for a company should be to achieve alignment and deep integration across its teams, getting there is an iterative process. Remember that a company which finds itself in the “Undefined” relationships stage today, isn’t necessarily unhealthy, or going about things the wrong way. As noted earlier, almost every company starts out with undefined relationships and responsibilities. It’s quite normal for perfectly healthy and happy companies to grow their way through each of the four relationship phases as their business and their teams mature. Healthy companies stay that way by fostering organizational clarity at every stage of their development.
“Get, Keep, and Grow” as an alignment driver
It used to be that sales was widely recognized as the group responsible for owning customer relationships. As the world has shifted toward a services based, inbound marketing driven economy, the argument that marketing should own the relationship has gained some traction. But wait! Given the well-known and often touted adage that customers are now in control of every facet of the pre and post-sales relationship, should we argue that customer success should really be in charge now? And where does this leave the sales team?
It is a fallacy to claim that any single department bears total responsibility for owning the customer. Every person in the company should feel responsible for, and share in, the ownership of customer relationships. Customers are better informed, have done more research, and have access to far more options than ever before. If every employee of the company isn’t focused on helping customers solve problems, they aren’t going to retain them for very long.
One method I have found helpful for kickstarting alignment at any point is to sit down with teams and have a discussion about our Get, Keep, and Grow (GKG) customers funnel. Originally developed by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf, and published in The Startup Owner’s Manual, the GKG funnel is a great tool for helping teams to figure out who should be responsible for doing what to attract, retain, and grow customer relationships throughout the lifecycle.
I like to use the GKG funnel because it crosses the line between functional departments, forcing teams to knock down silos and focus holistically on customer development. Engaging multiple teams in a discussion about the GKG helps them to ask, “what can we do as a company to acquire, retain and grow our customers” instead of “what can my team do to hit its target.”
Everybody wins when teams are aligned
Regardless of how companies do it, getting their teams aligned, integrated, and otherwise rallying around the same flag is paramount to their long-term success. With sales, marketing, and success teams on the same page and collaborating as BFFs, everyone - and most importantly, the customer, wins.
When teams are aligned they are better able to set and manage expectations for their customers and themselves. Aligned and integrated organizations create an unfair advantage in the market by transforming their customer associations from vendor/client relationships into true partnerships. Ultimately, customers are more likely to place greater trust in a vendor when they witness the teamwork and collaboration efforts going into managing the relationship.
Regardless of where your company is on the cross-functional relationship curve, fostering better collaboration between sales, marketing, and customer success is certain to benefit you and your customers.