Should Your Business Be Sales-Driven?

It’s interesting how topics converge in a point of time. Over the last week, I’ve had several discussions, both online and in person, that essentially focused on a single question: What role should marketing have in growing new business?  This seems like a question that should have self-evident answers, but perhaps not. It’s easy to provide a stock answer, “Of course, you have to market your business.” But what does this really mean? Is it possible to grow a business with little in the way of marketing effort? Is selling enough? In small businesses, is there really even a difference between sales and marketing?  Let’s define the discussion and see if we can find a few answers.
First, let’s limit the questions to B2B modeled businesses, where new prospect generation has mostly been a sales function. It’s easier to see that some form of marketing or advertising is necessary to bring customers into a B2C business, so we’ll leave that conversation for another day. Next, let’s posit that there really is a difference between sales and marketing, even in a small business. Here’s a conventional definition:  Marketing generates awareness. Sales generates leads and closes deals.

Is this the right definition?

Wait a minute. Writing this article gives me control of the definitions, but it’s worth asking if this is the way that business owners view the system. Among the participants in my conversations last week, the prevalent opinion sees business growth as primarily a result of “selling better” or “selling more.”  All of the businesses that were involved in the discussions are large enough to have people dedicated to sales and at least one person dedicated to marketing, but there is a fair degree of confusion about sales and marketing roles. In fact, the business owners would like  both to combine the roles and simultaneously to separate them into silos. As an example, the prevailing notion is that salespeople should be able to “do marketing,” and marketing people should be able to deliver a sales message without getting in the way of the salespeople. Confused yet?

That kind of self-contradictory assertion leads me to the conclusion that even the common definitions aren’t understood.  Our simple definition of sales and marketing has some holes in it, but many small business owners don’t even get that far.  For them, marketing is advertising. Sales does the rest.

Let’s try to add some clarity. From here, it might be useful to wander off into definitions of marketing and sales functions, but we’re going to pass on that dry discussion. In a B2B oriented company, it really comes down to how leads are generated and converted into prospects, then customers.  The argument for today is straightforward – both sales and marketing efforts are required to efficiently grow a business. The roles must be defined and they must work in unison.  (Note the word efficiently.  It will come up again later.)

The Battlefield Analogy

Let’s talk about this “sales-driven” stuff. It’s a large part of the confusion. If it makes sense to define growth as “selling more,” then a growing business is “sales-driven.” Does this make sense? The focus is on selling and the traditional role of a B2B salesperson is soup to nuts – penetrate the market, identify the prospects, provide the expertise, close the deal, and build the relationship.  In this scenario, marketing really is a luxury. To use a familiar battlefield analogy, marketing (really meaning advertising) is essentially mortar fire. It’s designed to soften up the ground for the sales force, the manpower in the trenches. If our company needs to tighten budgets, we can dispense with the marketing altogether and just sell better (fight harder). Right?

Wrong. The battle has changed.  A “pure sales” strategy worked fine until the customers started hiding in hardened bunkers.  The battle conditions changed because of multiple factors, but I think the story goes something like this.  Technology allowed companies to become more efficient and accelerated the pace of business.  Time constraints and pressures increased on decision makers, causing them to look for better ways to ummmh . . . make decisions.  Spending time with salespeople was not one of these better ways, mainly because the information needed could be obtained online without the prejudicial influence and bother of a salesman.  Ironically, many of the same business owners and managers who were so intent on making their companies “sales driven” discovered that their own purchasing decisions could be made from inside the bunker, and were happy to  leave the salespeople who called on them scrabbling around in the mud outside.

Bomb blastThe immediate response to the changing situation was to use bunker busting bombs that would  allow the salesmen to invade.  This “nuclear option” took a couple of forms.  Some companies assumed that “more marketing” (meaning advertising) could push the message through. Others assumed that a better breed of super-salesperson would be able to penetrate the layers of concrete, get to the target and make the sale.  Neither tactic worked. Why?

Because a subtle change had occurred within the bunkers. The bunkers had been constructed to keep out the hot air of the salespeople, but it was still necessary to breathe inside. The decision makers inside the bunkers became used to the filtered air of objective information and they became resistant, if not immune, to the sales messages.  This presented a problem for the “sales driven” company.  If the sales message is ignored, how can leads be generated and new customers created?


When the air gets stale, someone has to open the vents in the bunker and turn on the fans.  In our battlefield analogy, it is information that satisfies the oxygen requirements of the purchase decision makers. Herein lies the new role for marketing – efficiently providing the information needed for decisions.  In reality, it’s not that it’s  impossible to generate leads using the old school approach.  It just isn’t efficient, especially for small businesses who lack the budget for massive advertising campaigns and should be using their super salespeople efficiently – to close deals and cement relationships, not to generate leads.

Today’s purchasers gather information first.  They really only want to see a salesperson to discuss the terms of the deal.  This makes the sales driven company model archaic.  Rather, it’s the company that makes information easily available and easy to understand who gets the opportunity to do business. Our battlefield analogy is admittedly simplistic, but it describes a real change that has occurred in the way people and companies make purchasing decisions.

There are other subtleties that should enter the discussion, but  what’s obvious is that it isn’t as easy to make cold calls and schedule appointments as it once was and there is an increasing resistance to sales messages.  The art of selling just isn’t appreciated much when facts and figures carry the day.  It’s the information that’s important and providing information is the new marketing role.

Who drives the Humvee?

Marketing provides the information and gathers some intelligence in the process. There’s no real subterfuge in this process . . . it’s a simple swap.  The marketers provide information that decision makers need in return for their identity and the permission to follow up.  Marketers drive the Humvee for the first leg of the trip.  Perhaps the battlefield analogy breaks down here, because the new process really isn’t very adversarial.  In marketing jargon, these first steps are called lead nurturing, a very unwarlike phrase, and the Humvee really isn’t headed for the front line.  The new process is more like diplomacy than war.

As the potential purchaser gathers information and nears a decision, there will come a crossroads where direct contact is needed.   This is where sales takes over the driving duties.  This is where the Humvee stops briefly, the drivers swap, and sales takes over from marketing.  Ideally, the super salesman manages the negotiations, closes the deal, and establishes a relationship with a new customer. Sales and marketing manage the relationship together, with marketing providing a continuing stream of information and sales checking in to monitor the customer’s level of satisfaction and looking for new opportunities to work together.

And they all lived happily ever after . . .

In a perfect world, they did.  Reality is not so perfect, and the lines aren’t nearly as clean as in our illustration. The point is that a purely “sales driven” strategy for growing a business is becoming increasingly ineffective. Sales and marketing roles are changing because customers are making decisions differently than in the past.  Selling better won’t change this process, but better marketing can influence it.  The first step in this direction is the recognition that marketing is more than advertising and generating awareness – it’s not just the vehicle for transmitting a sales message to soften up the prospects.  Marketing strategies are a critical component of a sales growth plan, increasingly instrumental in lead generation, and also important to the continuing development of relationships with customers.  Likewise, in B2B businesses,  sales is less about generating leads and closing deals than about building and maintaining continuing relationships.

In the next post we’ll look at another question with a seemingly obvious answer:  Should sales and marketing work together?  Tune in for more . . .

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