By Avinash Malshe, PhD
In business organizations, the relationship between marketing and sales personnel is often sub-optimal. Marketers view their sales counterparts as short-term, tactically-focused while the sales personnel feel that their marketing colleagues are removed from reality and have no concrete idea of what it takes to bring in a sale (Kotler et al. 2006). This creates a great divide between these two functions and leads to each function questioning the credibility of the other in creating and delivering superior customer value.
There is great deal of evidence that suggests that such a sub-optimal relationship, as well as its consequences, may hamper firms' strategic activities (Malshe and Sohi 2009). One of the many starting points toward bridging this divide is to begin the assessment of whether there is a lack of respect and/or confidence between sales and marketing personnel. A recent study found out that if marketers want to enhance their credibility in the eyes of their sales counterparts, they must work on the following three areas simultaneously: They must (a) make every effort to showcase their marketing expertise in front of the salespeople; (b) take steps to establish and strengthen greater trust between them and the sales force; and (c) establish and nurture a personal rapport with their sales counterparts (Malshe 2010).
Although this study used the interface between sales and marketing functions as a context, its findings offer many actionable ideas to business leaders in general who wish to work on enhancing their own credibility. First, the findings suggest that building credibility in the eyes of subordinates/colleagues is a challenging task that requires leaders to work on multiple fronts simultaneously. Specifically, it is not enough for leaders to be experts in what they do; they must constantly look for opportunities to utilize their expertise to simplify their colleagues' jobs and add value to their day-to-day tasks. Simple steps such as being available and providing timely support go a long way in achieving this. Next, leaders must be willing to embrace the field experience and keep the field-level challenges in mind when strategizing. They must also provide a visible leadership to their strategies and be willing to go an extra mile to marshal the needed resources from within the organization for the field personnel. Last, they must treat their sales colleagues/subordinates as equal, and engage them in meaningful and respectful dialog during the strategic discussions. This leads to building of a personal rapport, which, in turn may contribute to enhanced credibility perceptions.
In business organizations, many different organizational entities are involved in processes such as strategy creation and strategy implementation. For instance, marketing personnel or the company leadership may remain in charge of deciding the organization's strategic direction and salespeople or field personnel may handle the task executing those strategies.
When one examines why many of the strategic marketing initiatives fail; one realizes that lack of good rapport and negative perceptions of one another gives rise to doubts/suspicions in salespeople's minds about the credibility of their marketing counterparts, or their leaders. That it, if people on the ground do not view their marketing colleagues/leaders as credible strategic partners, who can help them achieve their sales goals; they do not trust the strategies handed down to them, which, in turn, leads to implementation failure. This makes it crucial to understand how the notion of functional/personal credibility is construed within an organizational context. My research investigates this key question.
I collected the data for this study by conducting in-depth interviews with a diverse group of sales professionals. The sample consisted of 33 sales professionals (17 males and 16 females) and they came from multiple industries such as IT, healthcare, pharmaceutical, engineering, and telecom. Of the 33 informants, 11 held senior sales positions such as sales director, national sales manager, or VP of sales. The middle management levels within organizations ware represented by 12 individuals holding job titles such as regional sales manager, key account manager, or district manager. Our sample also included people with job titles such as sales representative or sales executive.
During the depth-interviews, we asked our informants to share with us their perspective on the relationship they shared with their marketing counterparts, their day-to-day interactions with them, as well as whether and why they viewed (or did not view) their marketing colleagues as credible strategic partners.
I analyzed the interview data using data analysis software called NVivo, which allows the researcher to understand and analyze the diverse patterns in the data and interrelationships among the various concepts. The findings I report below are a result of rigorous data analysis that captures the essence of how sales personnel interpret marketers' credibility.
The major finding of this study is that for salespeople to perceive that their marketing colleagues are credible strategic partners; marketers must pay attention to the following three dimensions simultaneously. These dimensions are: (a) building and showcasing their expertise, (b) building greater trust; and (c) establishing and nurturing interpersonal rapport with their sales counterparts. The figure provides a schematic view of the various components and its elements.
Building and Showcasing Expertise
The research findings suggest that there are two ways in which marketing personnel may be able to communicate their expertise to their sales colleagues. First, in addition to being experts in their own product and market strategies, marketers must make every effort to use their expertise to create or add value to salespeople's activities. My research findings show that salespeople assess whether marketers are creating "value" for them by examining whether marketers understand their customers' needs and possess the ability to bring to market products and services that directly address customer pain-points. Salespeople also appreciate marketers if they provide salespeople a customized version of a broader strategy tailored for a specific sales territory so that salespeople can effectively implement the same.
Study findings further suggest that salespeople expect marketers to serve as the "go to" people when specific needs arise in the marketplace- e.g., salespeople may expect marketers to provide detailed product/technical information as they try to make a sale. If marketers want to enhance their credibility, they must make use of every opportunity that comes in the form of such salesperson requests and provide them with timely, useful information that can help them close the sale.
The third lever which allows marketers to showcase their expertise is by actively countering the misperception that they are far removed from the market and that they do not understand the harsh market realities. If marketers with previous sales experience make it known to the salespeople that they have walked in their shoes, they understand the day-to-day challenges involved in the sales job, and hence can offer strategies that take into account the realities of the sales world, they are perceived as credible.
Building Greater Trust
While building and nurturing Interfunctional trust is a challenging and long-term task, the research finds that marketing personnel's ability to forge trust in their relationship with salespeople lays a strong foundation for their enhanced credibility perceptions. When asked, salespeople mention that they assess marketers' trustworthiness on two parameters: (a) Whether they can depend on their marketing colleagues to keep their word; and (b) whether they believe that marketers can be ambassadors for salespeople's interests within their organizations.
Given today's highly competitive business environments, salespeople depend on marketers for consistent support. Further, they look to their marketing counterparts to marshal the needed resources from the top management to support their sales activities. When marketers back out on/delay the promised products or marketing campaigns, or fail to provide the salespeople the necessary back-end support for their promised strategies, credibility suffers. It is important to note that when unanticipated challenges preclude marketers from delivering on their promises, they must be willing to come forward and provide their sales counterparts with an honest explanation for their inability to keep their promise. If this is not done, their credibility takes a further hit.
Aligning evaluation parameters also contributes to engendering trust. In many organizations, sales and marketing personnel's compensation plans are tied to different sets of parameters. While salespeople's pay largely varies with their ability to meet their sales targets, a large component of marketers' pay is stable and does not vary significantly with sales results. While launching a new product/marketing initiative, if marketers align the evaluation parameters they use to measure their own success with those used for the sales force, it serves as a first step toward bridging the compensation disparity. This sends a strong signal to salespeople about the commitment and sincerity of their marketing counterparts to the proposed strategies. It engenders greater trust between the two functions and contributes to marketers' perceived credibility.
Establishing and Nurturing Interpersonal Rapport
In many organizations, salespeople perceive that they receive a differential treatment from their marketing colleagues. For example, marketers may treat them as if they belong to a lower level in the organizational social hierarchy and keep them at an arm's length. If marketers within a firm make specific efforts to nullify such actual or perceived distinctions, treat their sales colleagues as equal, genuinely try to know the salespeople on a personal level, and understand the challenges they face, these actions go a long way in enhancing their credibility.
Marketers may avoid the perceptions of social distinctions by being inclusionary in their words and actions. Specifically, they must always include salespeople in important strategic discussions, decisions, and activities. When marketers encourage greater involvement from the sales force in strategic process, they send a signal that they view the sales force as an important organizational resource. This signal helps bring the two functions closer.
Given the day-to-day challenges posed by complex business environments, it is likely that marketers sometimes may lose sight of the broader picture and develop local rationality- i.e., they may begin to view the world through a very narrow perspective and lose sight of the role played by everyone else in achieving the broader organizational goals. My research finds that when marketers make specific efforts to fight such narrow perspective, appreciate how their ill-conceived plans may hamper salespeople's productivity and take corrective steps by being supportive of their salespeople, it provides a boost to their credibility.
How Leaders Across Different Industries May Use These Ideas
The findings of this study have implications in a wide range of contexts. For example, organizations, big and small, where different groups of leaders are engaged in interdependent strategic tasks and where perceived credibility of the leaders involved in the strategic process is crucial to strategic success, ideas from this study are applicable. Specifically, in order to be perceived as credible, business leaders must:
- Constantly assess whether their sales force views them as authoritative strategic partners
- Possess and showcase their business knowledge in an appropriate manner
- Try to create or add value to the tasks performed by the field sales force
- Be open to queries and requests and provide timely response
- Work alongside sales representatives; understand/empathize with the challenges they face
- Be open to learning from the field
- Keep their promises; and if unable, provide an honest explanation
- Champion the "causes" of the field sales force and line up the resources for them
- Try to align own goals and compensation with those of their sales representatives
- Treat subordinates respectfully; involve them in strategic decisions
Irrespective of the business context, it is important for business leaders that their colleagues perceive them as credible professionals. This research tackled this very specific question: what may business leaders do to enhance their credibility in the eyes of their counterparts and/or subordinates? The findings indicate that in order to enhance their credibility perceptions, leaders must pay constant attention to (a) building and showcasing their expertise; (b) building greater trust between them and their colleagues; and (c) establishing and nurturing interpersonal rapport with their colleagues. These findings provide many actionable ideas for leaders as they work on building or strengthening their credibility perceptions within their organizations.
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Kotler Philip, Rackham Neil, and Suj Krishnaswamy (2006), "Ending the War Between Sales and Marketing," Harvard Business Review, 84, 68-78.
Malshe Avinash (2010), "How is Marketers' Credibility Construed within the Sales-Marketing Interface," Journal of Business Research, 63, 13-19.
Malshe Avinash and Ravipreet S. Sohi (2009), "What Makes Strategy Making across the Sales-Marketing Interface More Successful?" Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 37, 400-421.
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About the Author
Avinash Malshe, PhD, Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of St Thomas, MN
Avinash received his PhD in Marketing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. At St Thomas, Dr. Malshe teaches in both the Full-Time and the Evening MBA Programs. His prior business experience includes working as a Brand Manager with Pfizer Inc. in their South Asia operations where he managed a range of antihypertensive brands. Avinash is an active academic researcher having work is published or accepted for publication in journals such as the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Journal of Business Research, European Journal of Marketing, Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, Journal of Business and Industrial Marketing, and Industrial Marketing Management, among others. He has also co-authored a book chapter in a marketing thought piece titled "The Service Dominant Logic of Marketing" that discusses cutting-edge research areas in marketing. Dr. Malshe has trained/consulted with business executives in both for-profit and non-profit sectors. In addition, Malshe regularly writes the Outside Consultant column in Minneapolis Star Tribune and has been quoted numerous times in Star Tribune business columns as well as many other business publications.