Bonfire of the Vanities: The Difference Between Marketing and Sales in Tech


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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.

Lessons Learned

  • 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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Steve Blank is the co-author of The Startup Owner's Manual and author of the Four Steps to the Epiphany, which details his Customer Development process for minimizing risk and optimizing chances for startup success. A retired serial entrepreneur, Steve teaches at Stanford University Engineering School and at U.C. Berkeley's Haas Business School. He blogs at Follow @sgblank

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  • Thank you Steve I needed that. I read a lot of marketing stuff. This article was actually useful. Thanks for illustrating the difference in knowledge and wisdom.

  • Chris Noble

    Interesting story! I have a couple of different takeaways:

    1) Data sheets need to be detailed and precise. However, they are not sales tools. Good marketing and sales needs data sheets AND sales tools, not one document that tries to do both.

    2) Who would want to work for a company with a corporate culture that encourages such behavior on the part of the CEO and VP of Sales?

  • Drew

    Wow- rough crowd!! Sales guys (including that CEO) are “scoreboard” guys, and counted this as a “win” for them on the scoreboard. Not a productive way to treat an employee – humiliate him in front of his team, co-workers, and the people at the company he serves (sales in this case)

    What a couple of immature bullies.