Sales Versus Marketing

This article is dedicated to Adam Wexler of Impact Engine Inc., who suggested that I write about the separation of church and state (sales and marketing).

One of my professors at Harvard Business School told me that you can do one of three things in business: make it, sell it, or count it. The problem is “selling” comprises two divergent but inextricably entwined functions — sales and marketing — each of which believes that it is the dominant half of the pair.

Marketers generally think of salespeople as lowbrow monkeys or pushy parrots whose sole calling is to repeat the same sales pitch ad infinitum to new prospects.

Salespeople generally thinks of marketers as lazy liberal arts graduates who use the word “branding” to describe activities that are in actuality “a colossal waste of money.”

Ultimately each function needs the other if the company as a whole is to succeed. What’s less obvious is how they should work together.

Marketers believe that marketing should play the dominant role. After all, marketing defines the product, articulates the positioning, and creates all the sales tools, ranging from glowing CEO profiles in “Fortune” magazine to the ubiquitous corporate logowear that serves as the de facto currency of the modern professional. All sales has to do is to follow orders.

Salespeople believe that sales should play the dominant role. After all, sales is where the rubber meets the road, where the tough get going, where everyone gives 110 percent, and where slogans reign supreme. Salespeople bring home the bacon. All marketers do is provide brochures and take all the credit.

The truth is more complicated but more rewarding.

Marketing must play the dominant role (what else would you expect — after all, this column is entitled “The Disciplined Marketer,” not “The Disciplined Salesperson”). However, if marketing is doing its job correctly, both sales and people outside the company will believe sales is playing the dominant role.

Once marketing has created opportunities for sales to succeed by defining the product and creating the sales tools, it’s up to sales to drive the success or failure of the company. At that point, marketing can best prove its dominance by stepping back and deferring to sales.

Counterintuitive? Let me put it in more concrete terms. Once again, let’s return to the world of sports for an analogy.

In basketball, the role of the point guard is not to score, but to run his or her team’s offense and create scoring opportunities for the other players. A point guard’s performance is measured based on how teammates succeed rather than on individual scoring.

In contrast, the role of the scorer is to put the ball in the basket by any means necessary. Some scorers make jump shots, others prefer the slam dunk, but all are measured on their ability to make the numbers and achieve a high scoring average.

For the team to succeed, the point guard has to be willing to sacrifice his or her own scoring to create opportunities for the scorer. Nonetheless, the point guard is the leader of the team, regardless of which player racks up the flashiest statistics.

The great Los Angeles Lakers tandem of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal provides a perfect example. Bryant is the playmaker; O’Neal is the scorer. Even though Bryant is one of the best shooters in the NBA, the Lakers are better when he sacrifices some of his own scoring opportunities to set up O’Neal for easy baskets. During the 2001 season, Bryant rebelled against this role. He wanted the glory of being the shooter, and his desire to be perceived as the dominant player weakened the Lakers. They won 11 fewer games than during their previous championship season. During the playoffs, Bryant focused on setting up his teammates. The result? Not only did the Lakers win another championship, but Bryant also changed the way he was perceived by the rest of the NBA. Even though O’Neal was the MVP of the NBA Finals, all the coaches, players, and fans knew that Bryant led the team to victory.

By deferring to O’Neal and helping his teammates succeed, Bryant increased his own value, power, and reputation.

Marketers are the point guards of business. We create and define opportunities, then we put salespeople in a situation where they can score and make their numbers. Ultimately, our most important measure of success — more than branding, more than awareness — is the total amount of sales our company generates. Marketing leads. Sales follows. Since we marketers are measured on salespeople’s success, we must have enough self-confidence to let sales claim the glory of making the sale.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.