Every day we’re being confronted with increasing sales costs and margins under greater and greater pressure. In this blog, we explain why this is happening and look at the solution in detail.

Increasing sales costs and greater pressure on margins are usually the result of inadequate or non-existent internal sales training and supervision. There are also a few die-hard habits that many companies and sales reps cling on to which can cause even bigger problems for sales performance.

Directors will already be familiar with the changed buying behaviour and understand the impact it has on their sales and marketing organisation. The fact that up to 75% of decision-making criteria are influenced online means it’s important for us to allow sales to start a dialogue with customers at different times and with different messages.

If sales is forced to wait until customers are ‘ready-to-buy’ or in the quotation stage before they spring into action, it’s impossible to sell customer value, so:

  • Margins continue to fall
  • Products and services are experienced as commodities

This habit comes from:

  • Managers being mainly interested in the time frame that deals are agreed in
  • Sales who think it’s a waste of time to enter into a buying process early, and prefer to wait for ready-to-buy leads from marketing
  • Sales who are willing to start the buying process early and influence the customer, but don’t have the necessary skills and messages to appeal to customers in this early stage

The solution: do the right thing at the right time with the right person
Management behaviour and how to direct sales teams is crucial here, although that’s a separate topic just in itself. But how can we arm sales to face these new challenges?

  • Train sales to detect and facilitate the entire buying process
  • Implement a sales process that allows your team to document opportunities based on the customer’s willingness to buy (buying process) – and embed this in the CRM
  • Document messages for each product-market combination, and teach sales to use these messages at the right time in their comfort zone using ‘how to sell’ training with role plays

The buying process in figure 1 shows the complete customer journey. Whether it’s for existing or new customers determines how sales deals with it.

For existing customers, sales mainly need to convey ‘why customers need to stay’ – combined with behaviour that we label as ‘account development’ rather than ‘account management’. With existing relationships, detailed knowledge of the customer and their environment provides a great opportunity for increasing the value perception, and so embedding the relationship more deeply.

For non-customers, the first question is: ‘Has the customer already decided to change?’ Has the customer not decided to change yet? Then it’s best to base your messages and interactions on breaking the status quo, and so increasing the willingness to change. Customers aren’t usually aware of what improvements are possible. Or the customer thinks the risks that come with the change look too big. Or they’re not familiar enough with exactly what’s required.

These ‘why change’ messages assume the customer’s point of view and are the best way of developing prospects. And this is where the biggest challenge is identified in terms of sales performance. Various studies and analyses of our customers show that up to 60% of opportunities simply disappear from the forecast without any decision being made by the customer. The biggest competitor isn’t another supplier, but the customers themselves simply not deciding to buy anything. So messages about how good your company and its solutions are, or the extra benefits that you can offer, won’t help stimulate the buying process.

Has the customer already decided to buy? Then the next question is of course: who should I buy what from, and how much for? Sales responds to this with messages that underline why the customer should choose them. These ‘why us’ messages are most effective at this point in time. Most companies and a large proportion of sales reps score quite to very highly in this area.

Figure 2 shows when these three types of messages are most effective from a sales perspective

In summary, we therefore need to enable sales to convey three different types of messages convincingly according to the situation and depending on the product-market combination:

  • Why change
  • Why choose us
  • Why stay with us

How much do your sales convey these three sets of messages? And to what extent can they discuss them with the customer at the right time? You can compare your sales performance and customer orientation with best in class companies in the Sales Performance Benchmark


On a recent lead generation training course, I was very surprised to find a large majority of salespeople among the participants. It turned out that these sales reps were attending because their marketing wasn’t delivering leads that made sense from a sales perspective. Some of them had KPIs for cold calling, and results were reportedly getting worse and worse.

This situation again illustrates that the majority of businesses in Europe haven’t yet realised we’ve arrived in the ‘age of the customer’. Not that the customer has changed, but thanks to the internet, social media and new mobile possibilities, buyers have changed the way they interact with us. Organisations that want to secure or grow their business shouldn’t wait any longer to start looking at ways of meeting the empowered customer’s needs.

A well-oiled sales and marketing machine is essential

Buyers today can find loads of information about your products, and your competitors’, in just a few clicks. If you want to do business with leads who are looking for a solution like yours, it’s the marketing department’s job to provide the right information in the right form, at the right time in your lead’s buying cycle.

Cost efficiency and volume are key: marketing generates leads in a one-to-many digital approach. Only leads that meet specific marketing criteria (MQL) are being handed over to sales, who then take over from there. Sales qualifies both the contact and the buyer readiness (SQL), and leads rejected by sales are recycled by marketing into campaigns that can be made very specific thanks to the new insights gained by sales.

One marketing activity that is often forgotten is demand generation: besides capturing ready-to-buy leads, marketing can also create demand through inbound marketing. Leads from these campaigns can be nurtured to hopefully become sales-ready one day. Without demand generation, sales will keep on complaining about the quantity and quality of leads provided by marketing.

So has your machine been oiled to meet new customer demands?

How to get the machine running

If your machine’s a bit sluggish, it’s probably time to stop the ongoing battle between sales and marketing. Take a new look at activities and responsibilities, and create a value chain that helps your customers buy from you.

Here are a few tips to get sales and marketing collaboration on track.

  • Share common goals
    Across departments, increase awareness that we’re all trying hard to achieve the same company targets. Collaboration is key!
  • Share a common vocabulary
    In the age of the customer, replace your sales process with a buying process, and make sure both sales and marketing are speaking the same language. Introduce a clear demand-generation process with milestones based on commonly agreed definitions to make it work
  • Co-development and best practice
    Work together as one team. Both sales and marketing can add lots of value, insights and messaging to improve traction, conversion and ROI on marketing activities. Sales meetings are an ideal platform to keep marketing up-to-date with what’s happening in the market; marketing can take the stage to inform sales about ongoing results and planned activities in line with the sales organisation’s needs, again reinforcing the importance of common goals
  • Marketing: messaging should allows the building of customised content
    Research has shown that that up to 90% of content created by marketing goes unused by sales. Implement a content strategy that enables the building, sharing, measurement and improvement of messaging quality. Messaging should allow the building of content that is customised for different roles, their individual buyer readiness, and context
  • Marketing: ‘why change’ content
    The majority of content aims to convince us why we should choose company X or product Y. But research shows that 60% of opportunities are neither won nor lost; they simply disappear without a sale. The content that explains why customers should change is therefore crucial for creating demand and increasing conversion

Want to find out more and see the whole picture? Watch the webinar ‘How to Align Sales and Marketing’ with guest speaker Pascal Persyn, CEO at Perpetos, and moderator Deva Rangarajan, Associate Professor at Vlerick.


European start-ups would benefit from looking at their English-speaking counterparts’ approach. Brits and Americans tend to focus on promotion from day one. They make sure their target audience becomes aware of their product while continuing to develop it. Belgian start-ups, on the other hand, for example, will invest every last cent on product development in the hope that the product will then sell itself. This is a typical European mentality, and it doesn’t only apply to start-ups; we also see this in product launches from established companies.

The problem isn’t just down to budget allocation. In Europe we often wait too long to recruit employees for our marketing communication department. And when they do come, they have to be real all-rounders: people who can organize lots of different events, create PowerPoint presentations, write press releases and direct marketing and whitepapers, get the right photos – all while not losing sight of Google ratings or neglecting social media. It’s surprising that we don’t specialize in marketing communication more, especially considering we have done in sales for so long already.

Raise awareness before your product is ready

Almost nobody is waiting for products from a start-up. A hard truth. If you launch a product without first raising awareness, nobody will be there, eager and waiting to buy it. Everyone has to go through the same buying cycle process before they are really ready to buy, so it makes sense to raise their awareness first.

Be patient, because this process can take some time, depending on how complex your product is and how urgently your prospective customers want to find a solution for their associated problem. This means you have more time to continue developing your product while preparing the market for launch.

To create awareness at a very early stage of the sales cycle, you can for example invest in whitepapers and distribute news through the press or social media. As long as you’re only spending your marketing budget on media you can use for content that makes customers think about their challenges, and what solutions they need to resolve those problems, then you can already tell them how you can make the difference (without any explicit explanation of the product itself).

Sales will thank you

When you prepare your potential customers properly at an early stage, you make life much easier for your sales department:

  • they have leads ready as soon as they go to market
  • they achieve higher success rates from the very start
  • the cost of sales is considerably reduced, compensating for the marketing budget you’ve already spent