I was recently asked to provide my thoughts on how to better align sales and marketing teams for a Forbes Councils expert panel. Given limited space, I answered as follows:
“To align the combined sales and marketing team, the messaging and materials need to be consistent. Also, the marketing staff will benefit from sitting in on sales calls and later-stage negotiations to learn more about real-life buyer objections and motivations and how to address them with more compelling marketing approaches that align with customer and sales force expectations.”
While this is a fine short answer, it deserves a deeper discussion. In our consulting and training practice, we’ve seen major deals disrupted due to inconsistent messaging. I have observed executives backpedal over something their sales rep promised that was unworkable or too costly to deliver. Just as often, I’ve seen this happen in reverse: A sales rep is forced to retreat because of something the CEO or another executive stated.
There are numerous consequences of inconsistency that will affect potential customer relationships, including:
- Loss of credibility. The prospect who hears conflicting messages will mistrust everything you tell them.
- Loss of leverage. Given different stories, customers default to the narrative most favorable to them, possibly costing you revenue and profit.
- Increased tension and conflict. They will pit the conflicting message groups against each other (“Your sales rep promised me ____. Are you now telling me you can’t deliver?”).
- Loss of negotiation capital. This is about a customer’s willingness to work with you.
The Three Cs of Consistent Messaging
Consistency of messaging requires at least three elements, all of which are dependent on teamwork. I call them the three “Cs.”
The first element is communication. For a team to be coordinated on messaging, there has to be frequent communication, both horizontally and vertically. When an executive promises something to a prospective customer that is beyond your capabilities, it’s often because the executive was never fully educated on the limits of those capabilities.
Communication requires the second element — context — especially as it relates to customer requirements. Messaging improves when everyone on your team has the same understanding of the customer’s environment, pain points and how your solution addresses that pain. Achieving this requires a uniform way of interviewing and capturing input from the prospect as well as communicating that information accurately and thoroughly to teammates. Communicating context clearly is not optional and we should not rely solely on oral accounts from memory. The accuracy and value of information that is not written or recorded drops rapidly.
We have seen sellers solving the “wrong” customer problem because they did not fully understand the context developed by a technical peer working with the customer. In one case, a sales leader for one of our clients kept promising to deliver a multi-channel solution (technical capability to sell across all devices) for a customer within a certain timeframe, while the technical leaders for both companies were fully engaged in solving a security issue that was clearly more important.
The third “C” is coordination. We often refer to this as rules of engagement. A team needs to have an agreement on who will communicate with the customer on what subjects at what times. While not a perfect process, attention to coordination reduces the chance of mistakes and minimizes the likelihood that a C-level executive will jump into a deal midway in the process without a full understanding of what has been said and how they can assist.
Messaging consistency, or lack thereof, affects what we coined as “negotiation capital.” It’s the willingness of the other side to compromise, i.e., work with you. It’s easy to lose negotiation capital with inconsistent messaging, but it takes time to gain it by establishing credibility, fostering goodwill and delivering on what you promised. The good news is that once you establish negotiation capital, it can be utilized as deal “currency” that increases the other side’s willingness to move closer to your way of thinking. And, negotiation capital can be used to offset negotiation obstacles. A simple example is customers who we have heard say something like, “They have overcome these obstacles before, let’s go with them.”
Marketing materials are often viewed by potential customers as generic statements that exaggerate and obfuscate. To ensure this is not the case, it’s important to customize the materials for particular customers. This tailored information earns credibility when accompanied by statements like, “In your environment, this will mean _____.” Having marketing personnel participate in sales and negotiation meetings with important customers and prospects enables them to create relevant materials.
The most extreme form of inconsistent messaging is not exaggeration, but outright misleading statements. Of course, this can lead to numerous negative consequences, including the erosion of negotiation capital. In fact, even a perception of falsity can result in lost opportunities and market impact. A good example is the allegation of misleading demonstrations by electric vehicle developer Nikola Corporation, whose stock fell by more than 50% when the CEO resigned. So far, it seems the company has built enough negotiation capital that its deal with General Motors will remain intact, though that is a tenuous proposition.
People are imperfect and make mistakes. In the vast majority of cases, inconsistent messaging that causes potential credibility issues is unintentional. If your customer brings inconsistency to your attention, you should immediately clear up any misunderstandings and communicate this to your customer and team. Remember that every second you spend arguing or trying to deflect when you make an error, your position and your credibility erodes. Whatever you do, resist the temptation to keep trying to explain away the discrepancies — or as the saying goes: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.
Consistent messaging based on the three “Cs” with attention to negotiation capital makes life much simpler for you, your teammates and your customers and prospects.
Note: this article originally appeared in October, 2020 on Forbes.com. You can view the original post here.