Marketing automation software has been popular for large enterprises for many years. Now smaller companies can realize the benefits of this software and at a much lower price of entry than ever before. We have helped several medium and small sized professional service firms implement marketing automation over the last couple of years and learned many lessons along the way.

If you’ve already implemented marketing automation and wonder what went wrong or if you’re thinking about it and want to know what you should do to prepare, here are the two most important lessons we’ve learned: Start with strategy and get sales and marketing aligned.

Key Take-Away:

Here are the two most important lessons we’ve learned: start with strategy and get sales and marketing aligned.

Start with strategy

As with any journey, if you don’t have a roadmap when you start, you’ll probably end up in Detroit when you really wanted to be in Chicago. Strategy sets the compass points on your roadmap so you can determine, as you progress on the journey, whether you are on course.

The challenge with most marketing automation tools is that they just do too much. They have more whiz-bang features, bells and whistles than you probably need. The engineers who design these applications might have had a firm like yours in mind when they started their work. But over time, and after numerous feature requests, the software grew well beyond that initial vision.

Here’s a dirty little secret. The success of a marketing automation implementation does not depend on the software you choose. It resides in the strategy you develop and how the software helps you fulfill that strategy.

So if you’re not clear about exactly what you want the software to do for your company, you end up mesmerized by all it can do. This is a problem. One of the biggest things that throws people off course in a marketing automation implementation is not being laser-focused on what they want the application to do for their specific business.


Get sales and marketing aligned

Sales and marketing are sometimes described as two ships passing in the night. At some companies I’ve worked with over the years, sales and marketing have been more like two ships launching missiles at each other. But it doesn’t have to be this way and a marketing automation implementation is the perfect time to bring much closer alignment between the two functions.

There are two incredibly important points on which sales and marketing must agree:

  • What constitutes an actionable “lead” which the sales team must engage?
  • What is the shape of the sales funnel and who owns which stages of the funnel?

Before I go into greater detail, it’s important to point out one assumption I am working from. If all you want marketing automation to do for your firm is increase marketing efficiencies, you can ignore these two points.

In other words, most smart companies who implement marketing automation are not just improving the work output of a small marketing team. They are also trying to accomplish these important goals:

  • Enhance the new client acquisition experience for the client by making this process smooth and seamless.
  • Improve the productivity of sales people by having them only focus precious time on sales-ready “prospects.”
  • Reduce the time from first sales conversation to final contract.
  • Nurture “leads” who are not yet ready to buy with content that they find compelling.

You’ll notice that I used the terms “lead” and “prospect” in different ways. In my experience, sales people don’t want leads. They want prospects who exhibit these characteristics:

  • They have appropriate budget.
  • They are ready to engage in serious dialogue about your products and services.
  • They have a timeline in which they must act.
  • If they are not the final decision-maker, they are ready to marshal a team or committee to get a decision made.


What constitutes an actionable lead?

The diatribe between sales and marketing typically goes something like this:

  • Marketing person: The sales team won’t follow-up on the leads we generate.
  • Sales person: We don’t follow-up on your leads because they are junk.

This is the recipe for failure. No marketing automation system on the planet will fix this. I think of the relationship between sales and marketing as something of a covenant or pact. Marketing promises to nurture leads until they meet certain criteria. Sales promises to follow up on every lead who meets the criteria.

But the question is: What is the criteria? If you do not have buy-in from both sales and marketing on this key point, your marketing automation implementation will be an exercise in shelf-ware.

What is the shape of the sales funnel and who owns which stages of the funnel?

I tend to think of the sales funnel, for most professional service firms, as comprised of these stages:

  • Awareness. Prospects become aware of your brand and services.
  • Interest. Prospects engage in serious dialogue, requesting a proposal.
  • Evaluation. Prospects evaluate your proposal against their needs and competitive offerings.
  • Selection. Prospects accept your proposal and move to the next steps.

While it’s obvious that the sales function owns selection and evaluation, it’s not so obvious how or if the sales function should be involved in the earlier stages. A key part of leads moving from the interest to evaluation stage is the qualification of the lead. This begs the question: Who is qualified to qualify a lead?

Many organizations are now having lead qualification sit squarely between sales and marketing in something we used to call pre-sales. Other names I’ve heard include inside sales, outside marketing and even relationship starter. The point is that most successful account managers already have a lot on their plate. If they are asked to ignore an existing client to spend time with a prospective client, that prospect needs to be well-qualified.

As you can see, this has nothing to do with marketing automation. This has everything to do with the operational components of the sales and marketing interchange. So it would be foolish to expect that a piece of software will fix this. This issue requires leadership, dialogue between sales and marketing executives and a willingness to experiment until you get the right solution.


Why marketing automation fails

The biggest reason marketing automation fails, in my opinion, is that people believe the hype. They come to believe that the automation of certain business processes will magically make everything better. This is a fallacy.

In truth, the hard work for a successful marketing automation implementation these days does not happen during the implementation. Many software developers have made their tools so easy to launch that you can be up and running in hours or days.

The hard work comes in the pre-planning of the implementation, when sales and marketing finally have to sit down at the table together and agree on a few basic premises and then enter into covenants. Now that’s hard work indeed.