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Guest Post

The 5 indicators of healthy sales-marketing alignment

How can a business ensure sales and marketing teams communicate and are on the same page? Ask these five questions and make sure both teams share a common language.

My cousin tells a story of how on a busy Saturday stuck in traffic, with three screaming kids in the minivan, he noticed a car trying to enter from a side street. He honked and cursed furiously at the entitled woman in her fancy car inching her way in. Once he got close enough, window to window, he realized it was a doctor who had treated him years earlier.

After this realization, the situation changed. She wasn't a faceless, entitled driver with the goal of cutting him off. She was someone he cherished headed in the same direction during a busy Saturday.

So often, the frustration between teams in organizations, especially marketing and sales, comes from being faceless colleagues without a common language or understanding. With the classic push and pull -- where marketers believe sales reps don't work the leads they send, and sales reps believe marketers don't send the right leads -- it's easier to imagine the other team is aiming to cut you off rather than each trying to find the best way to move forward.

Figuring out how to create that common language can involve big-picture decisions, like aligning goals among teams and having shared incentives. But these are time- and effort-intensive initiatives. In my work as in-house and fractional chief marketing officer, I've found the following five questions -- and subsequent best practices -- can help create sales and marketing alignment in a B2B environment, and do so quickly. The results are cleaner funnels, increased lead velocity and overall revenue growth.

1. Do you have a shared language?

I recently worked with an organization where the sales and marketing teams were at a standstill over the poor state of leads. When the two sides were forced to sit down, we uncovered that the business development representative team and the marketing team defined leads differently.

The frustration between teams in organizations, especially marketing and sales, comes from being faceless colleagues without a common language or understanding.

I asked both teams: "What does a marketing-qualified lead mean?"

The sales team's answer: "A 'hot lead' is someone who wants to talk to us, and we should work quickly to contact them."

The marketing team's answer: "We started out with MQL [a marketing-qualified lead] being someone who reaches a certain score threshold or fills out the Contact Us form and is well vetted, but there was a new directive from leadership to increase lead flow. So, we made MQL anyone who fills out any type of form on our site."

So, the sales team thinks they're getting people who are eager to talk to them. The marketing team knows the contact is someone who just signed up for a blog and has little to no interest in receiving outreach. Complete misalignment. How does that happen?

This company, like so many, has sales and marketing systems set up over time, and often under different leadership and strategies than what exists in the present. As a result, the language used at the onset can get lost.

Solution: We sat in the room until we got to a rubric that both sales and marketing agreed upon.

Below are former and newly agreed-upon definitions throughout the top of the funnel that the teams now use regularly to discuss the process.

Term Original language New language
Leads Prospective contacts that have been created this current fiscal year Sunset this term
Handraiser Hot lead or Level 1 Fills out a Contact Us form
Learner Formerly called "Scored" to label warm lead or Level 2 Fills out a consideration form or attends a webinar
Outbound Term did not exist Sourced by the sales team through varying levels of research -- for example, Zoom, LinkedIn profiles, etc.
Marketing-qualified lead (MQL) Leads that meet the sales team's qualifications and moved from marketing to sales ownership Occurs when a marketer converts a Handraiser or Learner to MQL
Sales accepted (SA) Leads that the sales team accepted and worked to qualify for a sales opportunity Occurs when a sales rep accepts ownership of MQLs
Sales rejected (SR) Term did not exist Occurs when a sales rep converts a lead from SA to SR status. Reasons for conversion include that the lead was a consultant, secret shopper or competitor
Sales-qualified lead (SQL) Leads that sales reps qualified for a sales opportunity and converted into a contact record Occurs when a sales rep converts a lead from SA to SQL, which indicates the marketing team has done its job and sales wants to work this individual

2. Do you have service-level agreements?

How long does a sales team have to acknowledge, act on and accept or reject a lead from a marketing team? This is possibly the most important element in the sales and marketing alignment process and it also creates the most headaches. For the handoff to be successful, both teams must agree upon service-level agreements (SLAs) and systems for monitoring.

The SLA should include how much time each team has to move the lead forward. For example, the chart in Figure 1 details that from the time a prospect fills out a Contact Us form as a handraiser, the marketing department has four hours to send that to a sales person -- though it often happens instantly. Then, the sales rep has four hours to acknowledge they are aware of the lead through the CRM system, and four more hours to decide if they want to work it.

Example of a finalized compliance rubric that the client's marketing and sales teams agreed to.
Figure 1.

CRM systems like Salesforce and HubSpot can send alerts when SLAs are missed. Those alerts are sent over email to the salesperson. The marketing team also updates a shared dashboard with daily, weekly and/or monthly temperature checks on the health of the sales funnel.

Both teams must review the SLA and system results in ongoing meetings. Over time, they show patterns. Do specific salespeople not get the leads properly? Are the marketing team's scores off, so they send the wrong leads? Discussing these in weekly or bimonthly meetings can prevent lead backup and increase clarity and communication.

3. Do you have agreed-upon prospect titles?

It doesn't matter if lead flow is paid or organic. Understanding what defines a successful lead is key.

Creating personas based on company size, geography and department are all part of the process. One of the most important is the title. When asked, many salespeople will say, "I'll take any title." However, most B2B salespeople need specific leads in specific roles. Whether you need to build a case with junior-level practitioners or get the buy-in of C-suite, you should do enough audience testing and encourage feedback between marketing and sales teams to determine the titles of who to target.

4. Is there consistent reporting from marketing to sales teams?

Looking back to pre-pandemic data, we see more than half of marketers did not feel empowered to collaborate with sales teams, according to Salesforce. In the subsequent years, marketers found it harder to collaborate with colleagues. The data over time is getting worse, so how do you create successful collaboration between marketing and sales teams with specific checks and balances?

Creating a dashboard puts the groups' collective needs in one place and can help create alignment. It enables asynchronous understanding and collaboration among key stakeholders, decreases confusion and increases healthy discussions. It becomes a source of truth for the groups.

Example dashboard a business could create then present to the revenue operations team.
Figure 2.

Still, the biggest success I've seen as a marketer was established, ongoing lead meetings approximately two times per month where we reviewed macro and micro lead flow. Macro includes overall volume, trends and opportunities for improvement. Micro involves pulling two to four leads from the previous two weeks and telling their journeys. I've often grabbed headshots and LinkedIn profiles, in addition to walking the sales team through the digital experience of leads, including how they entered and whether they converted to handraisers or learners.

It's important to humanize the people coming through the funnel and to show both wins and losses.

5. Do sales teams provide consistent feedback to marketing teams?

Things change. Marketing and sales teams are dynamic, and their systems must be reviewed and revisited constantly. The titles you agreed to in January might not convert in June. Those changes are fine, but only if both teams understand the changes through system feedback and ongoing dialogue. Organic and paid channels only improve with feedback more descriptive than saying, "bad lead."

So, organizations can implement a sales and marketing summit twice a year to ensure all key stakeholders are still aligned to the philosophy, terminology and expectations. A one or two hour-long meeting can help avoid days of confusion, frustration and a lost pipeline.

We are all on a bumpy highway of this unstable economy and confusing business climate. Creating a common language and understanding between sales and marketing teams can help to smooth the road and provide a better overall climate to achieve a successful alignment and a healthy pipeline.

About the author
Aimee Schuster is CEO and founder at Bandwidth Strategy, a fractional C-suite consulting group that empowers B2B organizations in growth mode. She has over 20 years experience leading early and mid-staged organizations in operations, marketing and sales. Aimee is the co-founder of Women Influence Chicago, a leadership accelerator for women technologists, a board member and angel investor.

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