Are You Trying to Control the King?

John Golden


While most sales organizations subscribe to the concept of being buyer-focused, particularly in the complex sale, it has always been accompanied by the belief that a seller can bring value to a customer at many different junctures during a sales cycle, which in turn relies on the salesperson gaining access to the buyer at these various junctures.

But what if that access is no longer as readily available? All industries are reporting that access to senior-level buyers is harder to achieve. As Philip Kotler of Kellogg Graduate School of Management in Chicago points out, “Companies must pay attention to the fact that customers are getting more educated and have better tools such as the Internet at their disposal to buy with more discrimination. Power has been passing from the manufacturer to the distributor, and now is passing to the customer. The customer is king.”

The idea of controlling or imposing your will on the king is one that historically has not worked well in politics and is even less likely to work in commerce. So let’s face up to the reality that we can either pursue a futile strategy of trying to control the customer or we can willingly give up that control and look at ways of meeting our customers’ needs at different junctures in the buying process according to how they want those needs met.

This requires a fundamental rethink of how most organizations approach sales and marketing. Huthwaite’s 2011 global research into sales and marketing relationships, with data from 6,400 sales and marketing executives across multiple industries, suggests that fewer than 10 percent of sales executives are happy with the number and the quality of leads generated by their marketing teams. More than 80 percent of the surveyed businesses that didn’t hit their sales targets blamed lead quality on marketing.

This change needs to begin and end with the focus firmly on the buyer. Buyers today engage in the buying process on their own terms and often only allow a salesperson into the process once it is quite far down the track. That is not to say that your organization cannot engage with and influence the buyer earlier in the process. You can, but to do so you need to understand the concept of the revenue continuum and align your sales and marketing organizations to be able to play effective roles in this continuum at the right time and in the right way. This is a fundamental realignment and recognition that both groups play critical, symbiotic roles in the revenue continuum and that their roles have been forever changed by the dictates of the customer.

To become truly buyer-focused, we have to look at the buyer through the lens of the revenue continuum, where sales and marketing partner or easily swap primary and secondary roles based on the real-time needs of the buyer. At different stages of the process, sales or marketing may take the lead in working with the buyer, but at no stage is the other totally removed from the process. In fact, during the crucial handover period, they are working in partnership to ensure a seamless transfer that keeps the buyer’s experience and needs front and center.

In this aligned approach there is a careful balance between being proactive and reactive. Once marketing gets a bite, the challenge is not how quickly it can be turned over to sales, but determining what the bite represents. This is traditionally the moment when organizations start to apply gateways and attempts to control the flow of information to the prospective buyer in return for information to help engage the seller. Here again we come back to the issue of control. Bartering information with a prospect is not a buyer-focused approach! All we are doing is frustrating prospects and driving them to look elsewhere. This is the moment to relinquish the idea of control and replace it with enablement.

For this to work, marketing has to be prepared to go further into the buying process than has been the norm. This requires them to understand and adopt many of the traditional skills and tactics of salespeople. In other words, marketers need to be able to communicate with buyers in ways that allow them to uncover and develop needs. Instead of bartering information, we must provide the information the buyer is looking for, and then go a step further to clarify the business driver, ask some thought-provoking questions, and share some insights. In other words, provide value in every engagement with the buyer regardless of what medium is used.

Marketing needs to adopt a messaging strategy that is buyer-focused. The days of generic, catch-all messages are behind us. Buyer-focused messaging requires marketing to have a combination of client, industry and market knowledge. Messages that are buyer-focused and create demand are carefully constructed so that they:

  • Resonate – demonstrate how the seller’s solutions solve high-value problems and provide opportunities
  • Motivate – attract attention because they speak to the customer at the right point in their discussion-making process.
  • Differentiate – make the customer decision easy by highlighting what is unique about the seller’s solutions.

This requires sales and marketing to work together to carefully identify the right moment for sales to get more directly involved in the process and eventually take it over. There is no hand-off point; rather, it is a partnering exercise where one transitions into a support role as the other transitions into a primary role. It also means that when salespeople take over, they should already know enough about the buyer and the buyer’s situation to quickly go deeper and bring the immediate value to the equation.

It’s time to assess your sales and marketing organizations and ask yourself some hard questions: Are your marketing resources prepared and able to go further into the buying process than before? Do your salespeople have the skill and business acumen to quickly go deeper with the buyer? Can sales and marketing work in such close partnership that the buyer’s experience is smooth and seamless?

The answers to those questions will go a long way in establishing whether your organization will become a favorite of the king or be banished to the guillotine.

John Golden is President and CEO of Huthwaite, a leading provider of consultative sales training. For more information, call 703-467-3800 or visit