Bonfire of the Vanities: The Difference Between Marketing and Sales in Tech
When I was in my 20s, I was taught the relationship between marketing and sales over a bonfire.
Over 30 years ago, before the arrival of the personal computer, there were desktop computers called office workstations. Designed around the first generation of microprocessors, these computers ran business applications like word processing, spreadsheets, and accounting. They were an improvement over the dumb terminals hanging off of mainframes and minicomputers, but ran proprietary operating systems and software. My third startup, Convergent Technologies, was in the business of making these workstations.
The OEM Business
Convergent’s computers were bought and then resold by other computer manufacturers – all of them long gone: Burroughs, Prime, Monroe Data Systems, ADP, Mohawk, Gould, NCR, 4-Phase, AT&T. Convergent had assembled a stellar team with founders from Digital Equipment Corporation and Intel and engineers from Xerox PARC. And once we went public, we hired a veteran VP of Sales from Honeywell.
As the company’s revenues skyrocketed, Convergent started a new division to make a multi-processor Unix-based mini-computer. I had joined the company as the product marketing manager and now found myself as the VP of marketing for this new division. We were a startup inside a $200 million company. A marketer for 5 years, I thought I knew everything and proceeded to write the data sheets for our new computer.
Since this new computer was very complicated—it was a pioneer in multi-processing– I concluded it needed an equally detailed data sheet. In fact, when I was done, the datasheet describing our new computer, proudly called the MegaFrame, was 16 pages long. I fact-checked the datasheet with my boss (who would be my co-founder at Epiphany) and the rest of the engineering team. We all agreed it was perfect. We’d left no stone unturned in answering every possible question anyone could ever have about our system. As we typically did, I printed up several thousand to send out to the sales force.
The day the datasheets came back from the printers, I sent the boxes to the sales department in Convergent’s corporate headquarters, a separate building across the highway, and sent a copy to our CEO and the new VP of Sales. (I was thinking it was such a masterpiece I might get an “attaboy” or at least a “wow, thanks for doing all the hard work for our sales organization.”)
So when I got a call from the VP of sales who said, “Steve, just read your new datasheet. Why don’t you come over to corporate. We have a surprise for you,” I smugly thought, “They probably thought it was so good, I’m going to get a thank you or an award or maybe even a bonus.”
I got in my car to make the five minute drive over the freeway. Turning into the parking lot, I noticed smoke coming from the far end of the lawn. As I parked and walked closer I noticed a crowd of people around what seemed to be an impromptu campfire. “What the heck??” As an ex sales and marketing VP, our CEO had a Silicon Valley reputation for outrageous stunts, so I wondered what it was this time—a spur-of-the-moment BBQ? A marshmallow roast?
Heading to a meeting with the VP of sales, I almost walked past the crowd into the building, until I heard the VP of sales call me over to the fire. He was there with our CEO feeding things into the fire. In fact as I got closer, it looked like the campfire was being entirely fed by paper. “Here, toss these in,” they said as they handed me a stack of…
Oh, my g-d they’re burning my datasheets!!!
The Bonfire of the Vanities
I stood there stunned as I realized that my 16-page carefully constructed, brilliantly written, technically accurate datasheets were being destroyed en masse. I guess I was speechless for so long that the VP of sales took pity on me and asked, “Steve, do you know we have a sales force?” I managed to stammer out, “Yes, of course.” He asked, “Do you know how much we pay them?” Again, I managed to answer, “A lot.” Then he got serious and started to explain what was going on. (In the meantime our CEO watched my reaction with a big grin on his face.) He said, “Steve, I’ve never seen such a perfect datasheet. It answers every possible question a prospective customer could have about our product. The problem is that our computer sells for $150,000. No one is going to buy it from the datasheet. In fact, reading these, the only thing your datasheet will do is give a prospective customer a reason for saying ‘no’ before our salespeople ever get to talk to them.”
“Do you mean you want a datasheet with less information?!” I asked, not at all sure that I was hearing him correctly. “Yes, exactly. Your job in marketing is to get customers interested enough to engage our sales force, to ask for more information or better, to set up a meeting. No one is going to buy our computer from a datasheet, but they will from a salesman.”
Marketing to Match the Channel
It took me a few weeks to get over the lesson, but it stuck. When selling a physical product through direct sales, marketing’s job is to drive end user demand into the sales channel. Marketing creates a series of marketing activities at each stage of the sales funnel to generate awareness, then interest, then consideration and finally purchase.
Ironically, over the last decade, I’ve seen web startups have the opposite problem. For web sites with an e-commerce component, the site itself is supposed to both create demand and close the sale. Web designers have to do the work of both the marketing and the sales departments.
- Marketing materials need to match the channel
- Marketings job in direct sales channels with consultative sales need to drive demand to the salesforce
- Indirect channels require marketing material with more information than a direct channel
- Web sites that sell products combine sales and marketing
- Confusing these can get you your own bonfire
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