Sales and Marketing: Opposites Can Attract

Thursday, November 17, 2022

It’s no secret that the relationship between sales and marketing departments is often fraught with conflict.

Many reasons have been offered to explain this divide, without any clear consensus. But well-grounded cognitive research offers a simple answer.

Despite a shared goal – the challenge of ramping up sales – the two groups simply differ in the way they think and problem solve when faced with an organizational problem.

The marketing department eagerly calls a meeting to share great new research with sales staff. But when they pull out 57 pages of data, sales staff quickly tune out. They’re looking for quick and concise highlights of the essential data, delivered in a fashion they can act on right away.

Sales people are driven by the immediacy and urgency of quotas and client questions, while marketers focus on designing strategies to inform and entice theoretical clients.

But while the two jobs have different requirements, our research has shown that, more importantly, sales and marketing people also have polar opposite thinking and problem solving styles. These differences prevent them from working as a team to solve problems better.

Below is a diagram of the problem solving process for efficiency improvement or innovation in organizations.

Figure 1.

This is a four-stage circular process. It starts with identifying opportunities and generating problems to solve. Those problems spark the next stage which is conceptualization, or defining the problem and  creating  ideas for addressing it. The third step, optimization, is to take those abstract ideas and turn them into practical solutions and plans. That sets up for the next step, which is implementation, or putting the new solution into action. The cycle then starts again, as new solutions generate new opportunities and ideas.

Most people have a preference for one of the stages of the process. It’s a reality we intuitively recognize, often articulated when we describe someone as “an idea person,” or “an operations guy.” Those preferences often lead to career choices or career successes that reflect those preferences.

With a scientifically-developed profile, we help people recognize which of the four  stages they most enjoy – or where they are most intrinsically motivated to perform.

The four styles – identified in the diagram below – complete the process that drives business innovation. 

Figure 2.

Generators, the least common in the business world, are individuals who like finding new challenges and creating new opportunities. They are comfortable with ambiguity and interested in new perspectives.

Conceptualizers typically like understanding the big picture and connecting ideas. They focus on defining, understanding and evaluating information from the generation stage, to create clearly delineated problems to address.

Optimizers focus on converting abstract ideas and alternatives into practical solutions and plans. They like to hone in, narrow down and eliminate ambiguity.

Implementers like to put things into play. Interested in action, implementers are happy to adapt to changing circumstances and determine the best way forward through trial and error.

Not surprisingly, people tend to seek out careers that require, encourage and reward activities within their preferred stage. With the aggregation of thousands of individual profiles, we have evidence of the tendency of individuals with certain preferences to seek out particular jobs. (See Figure 3 below)

Figure 3.

Our research has found that marketers typically favor the conceptualization stage – working with vague ideas to define, clarify and link them into a coherent vision.

Not surprisingly, salespeople tend toward action and favor the implementation stage of the process. They want to get their hands dirty and try out ideas, rather than sitting around discussing them.

Implementers are likely to be seen in action-oriented jobs like sales, production, project management and administrative support. These occupations demand short term problem solving activities and quick delivery of results.

The profile allows people to learn about their own preferences. But it also teaches them respect for the important role others play in finding solutions to challenging problems.

The best teams take a deliberate approach to solving their most pressing problems. They can move methodically through a well-understood process to get the outcomes they all want. They are made up of people with enthusiasm for different stages of the process, but also appreciation for the value of the different styles their teammates bring to the table.

The scatter diagrams below illustrate the typical distribution of the problem solving styles of marketing teams and sales teams. Dots represent an individual member’s preferred style.

While the opposing preferences help explain the tensions that exist between the two groups, they also explain why both are essential for overcoming organizational challenges.

Conflict between sales and marketing staff may be legendary, but it can be overcome.  Natural style tensions can be synergized to produce profitable innovation rather than frustration and angst. We now have ways to bring understanding and appreciation that can bridge people’s differences. Using the problem solving process described earlier (see Figure 1), we can help these two 'opposing teams' work better together. When teams understand and value each stage in the process, conflict is reduced, and innovation -- and ultimately revenue -- are increased.