The great debate: Sales & marketing alignment and definitions

In the latest of Contentive’s new series of discussions with senior marketing and demand generation leaders, we focused the discussion on bridging the gap between marketing and sales, with an explicit focus on the handover of leads from ‘marketing qualified’ to ‘sales qualified’.

Key themes discussed included: defining marketing qualified leads, the relationship between sales and marketing, account-based marketing, what worked and what didn’t during the pandemic, and is that changing now.

The definition of ‘marketing qualified’

From the outset of the discussion, there was a clear variation in how attendees defined ‘marketing qualified’. Some utilise personas, others use geographic, firmographic and even technographic data to qualify – a somewhat ‘secret sauce’.

One attendee mentioned they look at the willingness to engage, and propensity to buy, as their core metric to define marketing qualified. Other participants said they use behavioural and engagement scoring, looking at the type and frequency of interactions, to determine the next action. They also used the BANT (budget, authority, need and timeline) framework.

A blended approach between the two was also discussed; one attendee also used the type of interaction as a qualification. For example, if a customer requests a free trial, they were deemed qualified.

How marketers were approaching this foundational component transitioned into a conversation regarding what role marketers should play, and to what extent they should “take the lead”.  Again, there was a vast range of responses with one attendee saying they “do not use the word sales”. Instead they opt to use “consultants” and “solution engineers” to show a more collaborative approach.

Another participant stated that since the pandemic, their marketing team have adopted the practice of calling leads, connecting with them on LinkedIn (2 touches), and taking ownership for the first 3-5 steps in the engagement sequence before a lead can be qualified. After which the lead is passed to the sales team.

Whilst there is unlikely to be a single silver bullet, the participants agreed the answer lies in understanding the journey of the lead (type and frequency of interactions) as well as the propensity to buy (both at an account and individual level). The phrase quality over quantity was used multiple times as reference to improving conversion rates, driving efficiency, and building more meaningful relationships with buyers. However, in our own discussions with customers there still seems to be a confusing approach to quality versus quantity, as marketing teams continue to be incentivised on volume and chase the big numbers, while the sales team is only satisfied with conversations with prospects in their target lists and ultimately with closed sales. How do we bridge this gap?

Despite some slight differences in team sizes among participants, the inconsistency in how to define ‘marketing qualified’ and ‘to what extent marketing should take a lead’ was clear and is likely a topic that we will discuss further in this series.

The relationship between sales and marketing

The relationship between sales and marketing teams always makes for an interesting and emotive discussion – this session was no exception. The range in responses was another reminder of how marketing teams vary in how they operate, and the importance of the right culture and organisational structure has in building a successful sales and marketing machine.

During the pandemic, some teams have become closer in line with the increased and focused communications due to video, while others have moved further apart where teams have worked in silos. One participant mentioned it had taken them two years to build a relationship which is now “effective and aligned”.

Where this relationship flourishes its clear it has subsequently enabled innovation, resulting in more sales ready leads. As part of the discussion, one business provided details of how they saw an opportunity to improve the conversion rate between marketing handoff and initial sales contact where there can often be inefficiency. As a result, the sales and marketing teams came together and created a separate team to act as the a “bridge” which handles the high volume of inbound MQL’s. These are either passed to sales or pushed.

There was also a quick discussion on whether marketing should lead sales, or sales to lead marketing in terms of the targeting, definitions, qualification criteria, process, reporting etc. Another topic that we had to park for now to ensure we didn’t drop down another rabbit hole. More on this topic to come I’m sure.

Effective ABM

Building on the discussion around sales and marketing alignment, the idea of an account-based marketing model was posed to participants to see how the group would manage an ABM approach across the two teams. This topic will require more thought and dedication in a future session.

Overall, however, the attendees were aligned – what it comes down to is having confidence and process around customer data, and that everyone is “signing from the same hymn sheet”.

One participant commented that due to the Great Resignation and many moving/shifting/changing jobs during and/or after the pandemic, it has become even harder to keep data clean and validated. The solution suggested was to ensure that at minimum, teams have a seasonal data cleaning and validation routine built into their data management plan.

What’s working and what’s not

The discussion ended looking at any tools/tactics/approaches which worked – or did not work – during the pandemic.

The conversation started by looking at the effectiveness of virtual events. Building on some of the points raised in the qualification discussion, participants agreed having the opportunity to reach more qualified buyers across multiple geographies with virtual events was a huge benefit given it drove higher lead volume and conversion rates.

In alignment with the last roundtable, looking forward, there was a clear consensus among participants that the higher ‘ROI’ virtual events are here to stay, and that any in-person events would be carefully considered and evaluated against the audience alignment to their qualification criteria. This was summed up by one participant: “gone are the days of going to large 1,000+ person expos”.

On the theme of in-person events, another participant said that “having a stand does not give us the right leads, we now always take a speaking slot”. They added, “where we are seeing success is when someone hears us speak and then comes to our booth”.

This multi-touch approach seems obvious and can be easily replicated at scale during a virtual event or via digital channels but is harder in-person to get right. Participants also discussed the  effectiveness of cold calling during the pandemic. “With everyone at home, we had a captive audience that took our calls” one participant noted.

Other comments regarding ‘what worked well’, focused on making sure brands have the right type of content across all stages of the funnel. One attendee mentioned they have matched their content against the different stages of the funnel to ensure they had at least 4-5 different pieces at each stage to support follow up and nurturing.

Linking to the conversation about events, participants also made the connection between content and events to discuss how the group approached following up with attendees post event (both live and virtually) – another rabbit hole which was skipped over, and one that will likely need to be picked up as a separate session.

The debate continues

In summary, the roundtable touched on significant topics that will be discussed in more detail over concurrent sessions as this roundtable series continues. They key takeaway was the variety in approaches, definitions, criteria, team set-up, process and culture among sales and marketing teams.

Put simply, all the marketers on the call were looking to achieve the same outcome, yet their direction and fundamental process could not have been more different.

The discussion was not expected to solve the great ‘sales and marketing alignment’ debate, but as an industry different languages are being spoken, both to each other externally, as well as internally, between those two core business functions. That seems an opportunity to reduce friction and improve all important pipeline velocity to generate that scalable source of sales ready leads.



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