rusty chain

Sales and management leaders have to come to grips with a host of new concepts in the next 18 months — or face obsolescence. 

That was the big takeaway of CRM Evolution, the industry’s most important non-vendor event, held May 23-25 in Washington. The internet of things, machine learning, predictive analytics, interactive assistants and an assortment of other technologies promise massive changes and potential for first movers to capture market share and create new markets.

But underlying this message, the event also spotlighted another phenomena: the weak link in any sales or marketing technology. 

It’s not implementation time, or integration, or even cost — it's humans. 

Sales and Marketing Locked in a Zero-Sum Game

Technology doesn’t have an ego, professional ambition or an aversion to change. It doesn’t perceive internal professional struggles or inter-departmental fights over turf. It does not have to consider short-term sales thinking or ponder how to explain results that may dip as a sales organization re-tools to better address the future. 

Sales and marketing technology exists to serve humans, and these foibles point out an eternal truth: It doesn’t matter what technology you deploy if the human beings who use it aren’t organized and motivated in an aligned way. 

Some of this comes down to the personalities of the people involved. Sales and marketing are professions that attract more than their fair share of, let’s say, characters. That usually is a positive thing that informs the way they perform their jobs for the better. 

However, at CRM Evolution, I heard several tales of organizations where sales and marketing are not merely misaligned but in fact actively sabotage each other. In this case, success is only success when it happens in your department — when the other department succeeds, it’s a loss for you and a boost to your adversary.

But sales and marketing are not involved in a zero-sum game. They’re not even competitors if the business is set up right, if mature and empathetic leaders manage sales and marketing, and if they share common goals that align with the success of the company. 

These internal struggles hurt the bottom line because they draw energy away from the business’s real goals. Worse, when sales and marketing leaders are busy thinking about themselves and their professional positioning, it usually means they’re spending much less time thinking about increasingly vital things like the customer experience. 

How do you fix this? Obviously, more technology is not the answer. The answer is a strong, non-conflict averse CEO who understands her organization's dynamics and moves enthusiastically to remedy it. 

Expecting the rank-and-file sales and marketing pros to pressure leadership is unrealistic. The hand on the tiller needs to belong to the person at the top of the org chart. 

A Change in the Sales Culture 

Another human-driven problem revealed itself in a panel about sales operations and sale acceleration. The five panelists worked for vendors that addressed various aspects of the concept of sales acceleration — the implementation of any of their technologies stood to improve sales operations in any business.

The challenge came when they were asked to articulate the problems they solved — and, perhaps more pressing, helping their potential customers understand and effectively articulate the problems they needed to solve. 

It’s a perennial issue: the way customers explain their problems is often in conflict with the way vendors explain their solutions. This can prevent perfect customer/vendor matches from ever taking place, and can also result in mismatches between vendor and customer in which the solution addresses a problem that the customer didn't have. 

Traditional sales culture wouldn’t be concerned with this — all that mattered was the signature on the deal. But in a subscription-driven economy, where it takes new customers two to three years (and longer in some cases) to become profitable, businesses literally pay for such a short-sighted approach.

The answer to this is a shift in sales culture — the shift that’s long been forecast to a more consultative role. 

When sellers bring their expertise to a conversation in a truly consultative way and help customers understand their real problems — not the ones they can perceive from down in the weeds, but the unbiased view of an expert outsider — they can provide the right solutions. On occasion that right solution might come from another seller. Recommending them would be painful, but very positive for the buyer (think of Santa Claus referring shoppers to another store in “Miracle on 34th Street” and the positive outcome it ultimately delivered). 

In more cases, sellers will be able to tailor what they’re selling to the individual customer, resulting not just in more sales but in happier customers better primed for a long relationship with the seller.

In neither case is technology the answer — it’s altered thinking within the organization. 

Changing technology is relatively easy, if you have the budget. Changing the thinking, motivation and viewpoints of humans is hard — and it’s why CRM Evolution’s name becomes more appropriate every year.