Sales & Marketing…can’t have one without the other. Part I.

July 28, 2008

We all know that Marketing is the center of the business universe. But, sometimes, to be successful in our trade we have to set aside our own egos for a few seconds and stroke someone else’s, like Sales, for example. Sales’ folks would argue that they’re second to none because without them there would be no revenue stream and hence no business. True. And thus, we could argue to eternity which function supersedes the other in importance. Now, let’s pause for a moment and re–think our role as marketers. From personal experience, working at a start–up with very limited resources, I’ve come to realize that it’s a commensal relationship. Sales and Marketing are like, as the song goes “love and marriage…like a horse and carriage…can’t have one without the other…”

In recent months, I’ve spent considerable time working on my product line.

I’ve needed to prepare all the documents I mentioned in my last post. I’ve had to gather information. I’ve needed to learn not only about the product and all its strengths and shortcomings but also about the market and the customer base. But, one big hurdle to overcome in all of this was the budget. There was no budget for market research. No budget for any additional research or information gathering. So where do you start in a situation like this? This is where Sales/Account Managers become your best friends. [Side note: Not everyone has the same title format for their Sales’ team. In some companies, the same level sales’ person can be called “Account Executive” or “Business Development Manager” or something else. The key is to identify the person(s) in the sales’ role].

Most people would tell you to stay clear of the Sales’ folks. I completely disagree! It’s unfortunate that I had to learn this first hand, but the best way to learn about a company and its customers, it’s share of the market, it’s reputation, it’s highs and lows, is to talk to the Sales’ team. I’m finding out that this is especially true in the smaller companies. My hypothesis is that it’s probably true in the larger companies too, but I have no proof. [A note of caution: Sales’ folks are brutally honest. So, if you have a weak spine, prepare yourself first! Talking to Sales’ is not for the faint–hearted].

As a new Product Manager or Product Marketing Manager in a company, one of the first things you should do is get on the phone and schedule a one–on–one meeting with each of your AM’s. The AM’s will be spread out geographically based on territory, so try to coordinate and see when they might be visiting the company headquarters and schedule a time to meet with him/her then. In a small company, the sales force is likely to be maybe 3–5 full–time in–house AM’s plus a network of distributors covering the international arena. Those distributors are most likely headed up by a company Sales’ employee in the guise of “Director of European Business Development” or the like. Figure out the org chart for your company. Then start from the bottom up. Talk to the AM’s at the bottom of the totem pole and work your way up to the top to, say, the VP of Sales. This way, you’ll have gathered enough intel to have an intelligent and impressive conversation with the top cookie and your nerves will be in better control by then, too!

Being proactive in this manner speaks volumes of your foresight. And, who doesn’t love some attention? AM’s are very forthcoming in their comments and opinions. Prepare your questions well in advance. Inquire about their sales cycles, their sales’ methods, their opinions on how they would improve the product line or the marketing collateral. [Note: you’re simply gathering information. You don’t’ have to act on everything they tell you. Just listen and take notes, but be engaging and fun too! ]. Ask them how they get their leads? How long does it take them to close the sale? What tools do they have to help them close the sale? What tools do they think are missing? How would they improve those sales’ tools? Ask them what their customers think of your company’s products? What do their customers think about your specific product? Ask them how they or their customers would improve your product? Then, finally, ask them if they wouldn’t mind if you tagged along with them on a few of their sales’ calls for “market research” purposes. Offer to help out by doing the product demo for them. This will earn you brownie points and it will teach you the stress and pain the Sales’ folks have to go through in selling the company’s products. After being on the road with one of my company’s AM’s for two weeks, I learned about her highs and lows and realized what a tough job it is to be a salesperson! Lesson: defer judgment until you’ve worn their shoes.

Bingo. You’ve earned your way into the best market research opportunity possible, without spending a dime on external resources. After visiting a handful of customers, you’ll get a solid idea of where your product stands in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Be suave yet forthright about asking the customers why they chose your product over the competing brand or vice versa. In either case, they’ll be extremely honest and direct, so you know you’re getting valid data points for your market research.

This may not be the fancy way of doing market research or even the most scientific, but it’s a start and it gives you a good idea of where to go next. As your product’s sales begin to ramp up, you can be sure that management will add a budget for more formal market research. But for now, hang out with the Sales’ folks. They know where all the good eats are anyways! Yours truly — startupmarketingdiva.

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