Getting Culture Right: Five Lessons for Merger Success in the Sales Department

Author: 
David Sill

In August 2017, the DiscoverOrg sales team was working at top speed, well aware that Q4 was right around the corner, when our CEO announced the acquisition of a formidable competitor, RainKing. A sort of panic set in: this meant merging two sales teams that had been accustomed to going head to head.

This situation presented a challenge precisely because each team was so effective – and not surprisingly, so competitive. How do you successfully integrate sales professionals who have their own way of doing things, and two teams with their own culture? It isn’t easy. It took an equal amount of operational organization, resource alignment, empathy, patience and psychology – and an understanding that it’s a continual work in progress.

That isn’t always the way it goes. According to the International Journal of Applied Studies, the largest contributor to merger and acquisition failure is people – specifically, a lack of effective communication between them, and an inability to successfully traverse cultural differences. Says the study author, “…the employee must be pivotal. Any attempt to sideline the employee...will spell doom for the new setup.”

So, how do you avoid doom?

1. Have a plan and commit to its faithful execution

That well-worn adage “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” applies, without question, when it comes to merging sales teams. Developing a point-by-point operational plan that outlines every minute detail of an acquisition and merger is critical – and worth the substantial effort. Invest on the front end and you’ll spend less time fixing things during the integration process.

DiscoverOrg was extraordinarily fortunate that it had appointed a new chief of staff with a deep background in operations and project management. His first order of business was to oversee the acquisition and merger of the two companies. He built and trained our teams on a system rolled out with clock-like precision to manage every detail of the acquisition, which allowed me to institute the change needed to effectively combine our sales teams.

2. Identify cultural patterns in each team and evolve a new culture that brings the “best of” together.

Company cultures can vary widely, are typically formed at the top, and can be difficult to change once ingrained. One company may have a vastly different approach to how it hires its sales and customer success talent, educates its teams, determines sales goals and expectations, and manages performance. Further, it’s a good idea to be sensitive to team pride, and if that can be preserved in the evolving culture.

The key to shifting cultural patterns lies in determining what produces the most positive results for the newly integrated company as a whole, acknowledging the best “heritage” aspects, and applying these practices effectively across the entire department. A new culture should feel more like evolution than hitting a reset button.

3. Quickly share tools and processes for success.

When a company has invested in tools and workflows that speed processes and make everyone’s lives easier, you should train the other sales team as quickly as you can on those tools. At the same time, the other sales team may have processes and programs of their own valuable to both teams, so plan on sharing information in both directions. By doing so, you assure the newly acquired team they’re valued – and at the same time expected – to get up to speed on software and processes.

In our case, we discovered one team was significantly farther along in the maturity of its technology stack and marketing function to support sales and customer success with content, efficient workflows, and human capital resources. The excitement and gratitude they expressed in receiving tools and support they didn’t previously have was a pivotal moment in successfully bringing the teams together.

4. Choose when to combine the teams and when to keep them separate.

Some might think the best way to get two teams on the same page is to simply combine them and let each individual find their own way. But that’s not necessarily the right approach when the two teams are on different learning curves. Similar to educating young students, you don’t want the advanced learner to disengage out of boredom, nor the slower learner to skip important steps because the pace is too fast.

The key is to give each team some space in advance of a full-scale integration. We carefully chose which areas of integration to initially combine, and which to keep separate. We held daily sales huddles locally for several months following the acquisition, until no purpose was served by maintaining two identities. In contrast, group “call review,” where a full sales or customer success team meets to listen to and break down an actual prospect or client call, continues to make sense locally.

5. Find common ground in a new identity.

One of the biggest challenges of the acquisition was getting two sales and customer success teams that had previously viewed one another as “the enemy” to transition beyond that mentality. Not surprisingly, expecting bitter rivals to suddenly hug it out and put the same jersey would take some doing. Respect had to be earned, and it wasn’t freely offered. Social settings helped this part of the challenge. Bringing everyone together for our annual sales kickoff delivered on its “bonding” promise. We walked away from that week as a different, stronger, unified team. We also committed to platooning leaders and high performers to spend time with the new team to further the unification.

The surprising part of the challenge, however, was the sudden realization that there was now a gap where an enemy used to be. Anyone who’s competitive knows how important locker room fodder is: somebody telling you that you can’t win, that you’re not good enough – and the sickening thought of losing to a competitor. Post-acquisition, our team wasn’t ready for that void. With each team’s bitter foe gone, at times we felt like a team ready for the big game, but we were still unsure who we were playing against. Motivation wasn’t missing; it was just confused. We worked hard to regain focus and galvanize against a new common enemy.

The End Game

The RainKing integration process is now a distant memory for most of us, which tells me our efforts were a success. Getting deeply driven and competitive sales teams on the same page wasn’t easy, but by avoiding common missteps and forging common bonds, we emerged as a stronger, smarter, singular team – a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

David Sill is head of sales enablement at DiscoverOrg, the leading global sales and marketing intelligence tool used by more than 15,000 of the world’s fastest-growing companies to accelerate growth.