Mark Ritson: The only way to win a sales force’s respect is to help them make more sales

Your humble columnist has been given a new mission by one of his oldest clients – to work with the sales force. After much deliberation, he is starting to enjoy himself.

Mark Ritson

Becoming an old marketer has few upsides, save perhaps one. Some of the clients I began to consult for as a young, boyish ingénue have stayed with me and, after many years in cahoots, we have reached a place of some marketing success. Don’t get me wrong – the marketing strategy at a couple of my most extended client engagements can always improve. But by the standards of proper marketing – annual research, proper segmentation, choiceful targeting, differentiated positioning, smart objectives and zero base budgeting – we have reached a noble and rewarding place.

And so this year one old client gave me a new brief. I have been tasked with entering the undiscovered country. They asked me to work with the sales force.

The brief was simple, but very challenging. Take the solid marketing plans produced around the world and help execute them with the sales teams that represent, for my B2B client, most of their tactical challenge. I must say it was not a job that I fancied but three months in I am loving the work. And the learnings are coming thick and fast.

For starters, you might be able to get marketers to build a superb account segmentation that works on paper. But if the sales force does not pay attention and use it as the basis for their account territories there is little point in a B2B firm doing segmentation at all. Marketers who build segmentation in isolation from the sales force, and sales teams that build territory plans separate from the segmentation represent a fundamental breakdown in commercial effectiveness.

And if you think getting the sales force involved in segmentation is tricky, try getting them to apply proper targeting. The very nature of sales management is attack everything, all the time, preferably six days a week. I met one sales director who sets a target of visiting twenty customers a day. Think about that. It’s madness.

Then comes positioning. In an ideal marketing world we turn our well crafted positioning statement into a sales script and a set of associated tools that our sales force uses to achieve success. In reality, most marketers arm the sales force with ridiculously naïve messaging and sales aids that have little if any traction.

Consequently, most sales managers train their people to think on their feet and come up with their own organic messaging rather than rely on the recommendations from the out of touch marketing department. This is hugely ineffective and entirely self defeating but it represents the norm for most sales driven companies. A decent rep with a good ear and world experience beats marketing strategy every time. Most marketing materials never make it out of the bag.

And then there are the incentives. We all know they are meant to mirror and motivate strategy, but the hard reality is that most sales goals are set in pounds and encourage sales managers to hunt for opportunities in every possible nook and crevice rather than from the recommended target segments. Getting these blunt business goals replaced with lead incentives that specify who should be called upon, with what frequency and using what message is an imperative if proper targeting and messaging are to occur.

The holy grail for me and my client is to select the 20 countries where the marketing plans are classed as A-quality and then get the sales force to rebuild territories, targets and objectives from these plans. It might sound simple on paper but crossing the chasm of marketing into sales is enormously fraught.

And yet the addictive part of this work is the impact and rewards that ensue. When I help to improve a client’s marketing plans it might be two to three years before we see any uplift in income. But in the growing number of countries where we have been able to turn a good marketing plan into an aligned sales strategy the impact on the top line has taken less than a quarter to become evident.

And once a sales manager sees that her sales calls are shorter and more successful she becomes an entirely different proposition for marketers. She is suddenly disciplined in targeting, and expedient in applying the recommended positioning. For 20 years I have only ever encountered sales managers who, if offered the bargain, would trade the salary of their entire marketing team for sales incentives and a decent Christmas party.

How do you get a sales team to respect marketing? Let alone listen to them? The solution was staring me in the face the whole time. The only way to win over the sales force is to show them how you can make them more sales. And if you can’t do that, maybe you should be turned into tinsel and a party hat.