Want to Better Align Sales and Marketing? Consider Storytelling

This guest blog post was written by Jeremy Shere over at tribknowledge.com

Ask anyone in marketing or sales if they think the functions need to be better aligned, and they’ll almost certainly respond with an unqualified “Yes!” Then ask how we ought to break down the barriers keeping marketing and sales at arm’s length, and you’ll likely get a litany of shopworn, if valid, ideas—marketing and sales need better channels of communication … we need to talk each other’s language … marketing and sales leaders need to spearhead the alignment.


And yet, these things rarely seem to happen. Why? Many factors contribute, but I’d like to suggest that, in many ways, it comes down to storytelling, or more precisely, a problem with the stories that marketing and sales leaders tell themselves about themselves and about each other. For sales and marketing to become better aligned, senior leadership, as well as managers and rank-and-file employees, need to revise these stories in a way that enables both functions to reimagine who they are, what they do, and how they can best serve each other to work toward a common goal.


Why Stories Matter

It’s something of a cliché that sales reps need to be good storytellers. And it’s the role of marketing, as commonly understood, to provide reps with the stories they need to close deals. I’m suggesting that in order to do this effectively, marketing and sales need to take a step back and reevaluate not just their respective roles but the internal stories they tell to reinforce and entrench those roles—stories that all too often serve to erect and solidify barriers.


Before drilling down into what that means and what it looks like, we need to consider how storytelling works and why it matters. Telling stories is a uniquely human endeavor. No other creature on Earth has the ability to imagine a scenario, bring it to life with language (written, verbal, pictorial, etc.), and share it with others who may respond with stories of their own. Every culture around the world features some form of storytelling, and there’s strong evidence that modern humans dating back to prehistoric times have relied on storytelling to solidify social networks by marshaling storytelling’s unique ability to elicit understanding, trust, and empathy. Storytelling may have evolved in the first place as a way to assert control over the environment by finding meaningful patterns in the chaos of nature. Furthermore, consciousness itself, our sense of who we are and how we want to be perceived, can be seen as a type of what psychologists calls “narrative identity,” comprised of the stories we tell ourselves, and others, about ourselves.


Companies large and small use storytelling for a similar reason—to establish an identity that resonates internally and externally. Companies craft stories to build and promote a brand; to foster corporate culture; and to inspire and motivate employees. And most companies understand that, at least when it comes to brand building, storytelling is a dynamic process. As the global economy evolves, so must the stories companies tell to remain competitive and meet the demands of a rapidly evolving customer base. But when it comes to internal storytelling, too often those stories remain stagnant as leaders fail to revise them to keep pace with industry trends. After all, it’s much easier to not meddle with the tried and true stories that make employees feel comfortable in their roles and that have served the company well in the past.


But the internal stories that companies rely on cannot be immune to the forces reshaping the business landscape, especially insofar as those forces affect buyer behavior. The storytelling impulse may be hardwired into our brains, but the stories we tell are not fixed. They evolve and change and can be deliberately edited and rewritten to foster behavioral and cognitive change. That’s how psychotherapists help their patients; a similar tactic can help sales and marketing find common ground.

We need to look hard at the stories we create, and wrestle with them. Retell and retell them, and work with them like clay. It is in the retelling and returning that they give us their wisdom.
— Marni Gillard

 Stories marketing and sales tell themselves about themselves

A typical story that marketing leaders tell themselves and their teams may go something like this … Our job as writers, designers, and other “creatives” is to use our skills and business savvy to produce content that helps sales reps connect with customers and close deals. Of course, it’s important that we work with sales, but while they’re focused on dealing with individual prospects and serving existing customers, we have a broader view of the market and are uniquely positioned tell stories that speak to a wide range of potential customers. It’s up to the sales reps to figure out how to use the brochures, datasheets, blog posts, and everything else we create for them. Sure, it would be great to collaborate more closely with sales, but we’re already pressed just to keep up with the projects coming down the pike.


Meanwhile, sales leaders tell stories that may go something like this … While we appreciate marketing’s efforts to create content for us, the truth is that those materials are often useless, focusing way too much on our company and our products and services and not nearly enough on prospects and their business. And so, we end up creating our own materials. We’re grinding every day to win new business and protect and grow our market share, fending off competitors, handling objections, and struggling to differentiate the products and services we sell. In the absence of relevant marketing materials, we do what we have to do to get things done.


See the problem with these stories? They’re self-focused, defensive, and aimed more at defending territory instead of reaching across barriers and sparking genuine collaboration. When sales and marketing leaders tell these stories often enough, they become entrenched and feed the forces of inertia that lead to both functions doing the same old thing for no better reason than that’s how it’s always been done. Even if sales and marketing leaders know better and recognize the need for change, they convince themselves and their teams that change is too hard and time consuming. And so, the status quo remains entrenched.


What happens when marketing and sales leaders revise their stories?

But even the most seemingly calcified stories are not immutable. Much like a good psychotherapist can help a depressed or anxious patient gain control over the negative thoughts clouding their mind by interrupting the narrative feeding those thoughts, savvy marketing and sales leaders can better align marketing and sales by revising the stories that define each functions’ boundaries. Doing so requires a new and frankly more honest and open approach to telling those stories.

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A revised narrative—one crafted and articulated by marketing and sales leaders working together--might look like this: The overarching goal of this company is to maximize profits by selling as many of our products and services as possible. Everyone who works here is dedicated to that goal, and to that end everyone must recognize that our sales reps are the key players. By virtue of their direct and constant interactions with prospects and existing customers, our reps have the best and deepest knowledge about what matters most to those people and what it takes to convert a prospect into a paying customer. Consequently, everyone else in the company needs to be constantly engaging with our reps and sales leaders to learn from them. Especially marketing. Marketing directors, managers, writers, and designers need to use what they learn from reps about the swiftly evolving realities of buyer behavior and psychology to produce materials that truly support reps’ efforts to position themselves as strategic partners. In practice, this probably means producing fewer product-focused datasheets and brochures and blog posts and producing more content aimed at helping reps educate prospects about how industry trends will affect their business. Marketing can also use their storytelling and content production skills to create content that helps reps share best practices and learn from each other.


Now, this version of the story may seem reasonable in theory, but in reality, it often rubs against the grain, especially in organizations that pride themselves on being non-hierarchical and where no one function is more important than or subservient to another. But even the most advanced, liberal companies are hierarchical to one degree or another, and recognizing this reality doesn’t have to constrain creativity and block the flow of ideas. In fact, telling stories that embrace this hierarchy can unleash creativity and generate new ideas.


For example, if marketing was to fully embrace its role as an enabler of sales and to that end work closely with reps to understand what kind of content they need, marketing would get hip to new concepts and ideas for content. For example, marketers may learn that sales reps value learning from each other; newer reps, especially, are eager to learn from their more experienced colleagues. And so, marketers could then use their creative powers to create materials that facilitate peer learning by interviewing experience reps and creating stories in various media to share that knowledge and experience with the entire sales force.


Marketers may also learn from sales that email, while convenient, is often not an effective way to communicate with and enable on-the-go sales reps because the reps don’t have time to check and read all of their mail. So, instead of crafting and pushing out yet another email-based newsletter, marketers should consider other channels, such as audio and video.


Leaders must lead

The point bears repeating: none of what I describe above will happen unless marketing and sales leaders make it happen. No matter how much marketing and sales foot soldiers may grumble about their respective silos, the walls won’t come down unless their bosses and their bosses’ bosses take the lead in fomenting change. And to do that, senior leaders must change the stories that undergird and fortify the status quo.


Revising well-established stories is not easy. People tend to cling to the stories they know and resist attempts to change those stories or replace them with new ones. But the effort is worthwhile; true change, and better alignment between marketing and sales, can’t happen without it.

Jeremy Shere Headshot.jpg

Jeremy Shere is founder of and lead producer for Tribal Knowledge, a company that helps businesses reinforce sales training through peer learning by producing audio and video stories featuring sales reps sharing best practices and insights from the field.

Jeremy is also a published author and producer of the forthcoming "The Sales Training & Coaching Podcast."