Don’t worry; this isn’t going to be an article about Sado-Masochism! Well, come to think of it, that term may apply to what some founders and senior managers in software and hardware tech companies are doing to themselves and their companies. What I’m referring to is the VP who gets hired to manage both the Sales and Marketing functions. Oftentimes this turns out to be a job we like to call jokingly the “VP-SALES and marketing”. Thus the phrase “Big S, little m”. The position is usually offered to a crack sales guy or gal, who also sometimes happens to have had a marketing title somewhere in their work background.
JUST GO GET THE ORDERS!, MR./MS. VP-Sales and Marketing
To tech company insiders the meaning is clear. The anointed candidate is expected to beat the bushes for customers and bring in new orders quickly. Oh, and by the way, Mr./Ms. VP, you’ll also be in charge of producing data sheets and attending a few trade shows. And, I almost forgot, you’ll be in charge of that website we have too, as well as anything else we might do online! You know, all that marketing stuff!
You’ll recognize this as not a very modern approach to sales and marketing. In many of these cases, I would recommend that anyone being approached for a job like this run in the other direction as fast as possible. These positions are often classic “traps”. The upper management attitude often is “We’ve got a great new product/technology; all we need is someone to go (figuratively or literally) knock on a few customers’ doors and bring the purchase orders back to headquarters”.
Not an ideal approach
Most will recognize that this is usually a recipe for a very unhappy outcome. The founders and senior management will not be happy with revenue and profits, and the new VP-Sales and Marketing will be VERY unhappy because he or she is likely to get fired within 9-12 months. The other employees will be depressed and talk about how “Sales & Marketing” is the weak link in the company. And the investors, of course, will be very, very cranky.
Why does this occur? It often occurs when the key senior decision-makers don’t have either a background or an appreciation for the difficulty of the sales function. It’s even more likely to happen when there is no key decision maker in the company with exposure to modern marketing techniques. Lastly, the decision maker’s attitude also may include overconfidence in the role that “superior company technology” plays in overall success.
IS technology alone ENOUGH to win sales orders?
Certainly having a defensible technological advantage is a major factor in the success of a tech company, especially when that company is in startup mode. It’s pretty much a requirement for sustained revenue growth in most SaaS or hardware tech companies. The problem arises when management believes this technology advantage by itself is enough to “win”.
In reality, how hard is cold calling and knocking on doors for a sales force with an unknown company name? Not to mention selling an unproven product that hasn’t yet scaled, or worse, not yet demonstrated adequate product/market fit? Even worse yet, one which solves a problem the customer may not yet know exists? I’ll give you a hint—it’s really, really hard! One of the hardest things there is in the tech business, IMO.
Again, there is likely here a lack of understanding of the crucial role that marketing plays in establishing a new product in the marketplace. There may be a view that marketing is some theoretical, squishy function that is a waste of money, or maybe something that has value but the company just can’t afford it. This happens frequently in a classic, technically driven software startup. A startup’s management might think we’ll introduce the product, sell a bunch, and build the marketing function later. Unfortunately, that thinking is as backward as can be, and will usually lead to the unhappy results discussed earlier in this article.
Wholistic product marketing in the tech business
Why IS marketing so important, and why must it be a critical part of the new product development process? It’s because marketing is crucial in every phase of planning, introducing, and growing the revenue of new products, from conception until end-of-life. In the beginning, an engineer may come up with a great new technology that appears to allow someone to do an existing task better. Or maybe it allows someone to do something that wasn’t even possible before. But in reality, that’s just the beginning of the product planning and development process.
Product engineers aren’t trained to closely match customer needs with the specific features required to turn this whiz-bang new technology into a product with broad target market acceptance. Often product engineers and programmers think it’s easy – you just go ask the customer what he wants! But it’s funny; customers often don’t tell you the truth, and sometimes they outright lie.
Quite often with respect to breakthrough technologies, in particular, customers don’t even know what they really want! Even if they tell you the truth, make sure that what these customers are telling you is representative of your entire target market, not just their peculiar preferences. This is a task that looks intellectually easy on the surface. But for a lot of reasons I won’t expound on here, it’s very difficult to get right.
Marketing in the very early startup stage
Sometimes companies do get it right even without an experienced, professional marketing function in place. This happens frequently when the founders and/or engineering team are building something that is simple, they have significant previous experience with, or most ideally something they are themselves a potential customer for. Let’s assume for a moment that they do get that initial product concept right. There’s still a very long way to go before those purchase orders start pouring in.
The product must still be positioned properly relative to the direct and indirect competition in the market. It needs to be priced so that the market is willing to take a close look. And also not so high or low that it retards the product’s long-term profit potential. Will it be distributed only through the company’s direct sales force, or should we also court VARs, distributors, retailers, or OEMs? What kind of discount structure can we offer each of those partners without creating gray markets or channel conflicts?
Demand generation without cold-calling is also critically important
And please, let’s not forget about creating a bit of demand for those poor guys and gals in the sales force. Cold calling really does suck! It’s gotten harder and harder for decades. It’s not good for anyone: particularly the sales reps and the company’s profitability. If cold-calling dominates most of the sales force’s time, this will also “burn out” your sales force in no time. This can lead to excessive turnover.
Marketing programs that generate hot leads, or complete sales, are more cost-effective than cold-calling sales reps. So how should we generate those leads? Should it be via PR, Advertising, Direct Marketing, Partnering, Search Engine Optimization, Paid Search or Social Media Ads, Trade Shows, or content marketing? The Marketing folks should be the strategic quarterbacks of the product concept and demand generation. They should be driving the answers to these questions, as well as executing the strategy within the required budgetary and other resource parameters.
A VP-SALES and marketing MIGHT WORK—BUT DON’T BET ON IT
So does “BIG S, little m” NEVER work? Well, in some cases it not only works, but it is also the most appropriate approach. Take the example of a semiconductor company selling a very niche chip to a well-defined vertical segment. They might have only 50-200 potential customers. In this case, you often REALLY CAN just go ask the customer what they want. You can easily ask enough of them that you will end up building products that will apply to your entire target segment. With respect to lead generation, the target market is so small that traditional outbound marketing programs often don’t make sense anyway. That “door-to-door” marketing by your sales force might work just fine.
But I propose to you that this example scenario is the classic “exception that proves the rule”. In many, if not most cases, “BIG S, little m” will lead to failure – or at the very least, sub-optimal performance.
One final thought. I’m not at all against a “true” Senior VP-Sales and Marketing–someone who is very good and experienced in both functions. This also assumes that the person will be given adequate resources and a charter in both departments. But in reality, it’s hard to find folks that are really good at either. Those who are very good at both are truly scarce, although not non-existent. If you can find someone that excels at both functions, you do get an added bonus in the ability to seamlessly optimize the integration of sales and marketing functions. Again, the trick is that this individual needs to have real competence in both areas. And importantly, be able to function as a fair arbiter between departments, without the perception of favoritism toward either.
That’s my view—as always I’m very interested in hearing yours–post a comment below! Also, please consider sharing this article with your colleagues if you feel it has value.
Follow Phil Morettini and Morettini on Management via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, RSS, or Subscribe to the Morettini on Management Newsletter hosted by LinkedIn. Contact Phil directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
So what should us technical types do that are good with creating marvels but have no idea about making. Where can we find a person that understands marketing and sales and knows what to do about them. how do we make these people part of the decision making process?
Where do we find these marketing experts? I liked your article but it left me with a few questions.
Thanks for your comment and question. I don’t know how to answer it specifically, because there isn’t a one size fits all answer, it depends upon your situation. Here’s some possibilities:
Management Consultants (that’s what I do)
Board of Directors
Your Network Generally
You may not know anyone directly, but you can hire someone like a consultant to help you with Marketing. If that doesn’t interest you or feel you can’t afford it, tap your network. You may not know an expert directly if your network is exclusively technical types, but one of those contacts probably knows one. Start talking and asking for referrals, and follow the thread until you get there.
Meg Temple says
Great article and I absolutely agree. The situation that I usually see is that the CEO has a sales background with no marketing experience. They underestimate not only the value of marketing and what strong marketing can achieve, but also what it actually takes to successfully market a product. So they hire another sales person with little or no marketing background and give them the title VP Sales & Mktg. How hard can it be to write up a few brochures?. Disaster ensues. 🙂 After a few experiences working in that environment, I would never do it again. What I find interesting is that even after churning through a series of VPs of S&M (maybe it should be called that?) many of these companies don’t make the connection.
Michael Schunk says
Phil, Having been on both sides of the coin on this issue (management and sales) I think your article is entirely “on the money”. If marketing efforts are underfunded or undervalued the sales results are very predictable in any broad or highly competitive technology market. And if you find any technology products that don’t face a high degree of marketing competition please let me know.
Thank you for concisely and humorously defining this large issue and for your tips on avoiding the trap.
Insightful article on S & M. I agree with the separation of job-roles too. I hardly see my VP-S in office and I hardly see my VP-M sitting infront of a screen, he is always busy attending calls with analysts, PR, bloggers etc etc to fan-out the WORD.
With regards to the previous question from Bob, I’d like to point out that its very rare for a marketing or sales VP to be involved in day-to-day Engineering decision making. One of the many reasons is the snootiness with which Engineers treat their sales and marketing counter-parts.
That is why I tend to like a particular type of person to do that job, “a product strategist”. He or she is enough of a tech person to do a deep analysis of driving industry trends and generate vision, and is enough of a communicator to work with S & M.