Picture it: Your desk, 2020.
After considering several software solutions, your team concludes it’s found The One.
Before you can commit, you need to know how it connects with your existing tech stack.
When demo day arrives, your sales rep leads with enthusiasm: You’ll save time! Double revenue! Become a king among men!
The future looks even brighter when you learn their solution integrates with your primary tool to do exactly what you need.
But when you ask to see the integration in action, your rep races through the basics before signing off for another call. She assures you the integration will do what you need. She reiterates what a good fit their solution is for your business.
Against your better judgment, you move forward without making sure it checks all the boxes. She is confident. You are sold.
Within a few days of purchase, you hit a blocker. The integration exists, but it seems too limited to be helpful. And your once-attentive sales rep hasn’t responded to any of your emails.
You ring customer service for help, but all the agent can do is apologize for The Confusion.
As it turns out, their tool “doesn’t do that.” And it’s unlikely it will any time soon.
These scenarios happen often. And it’s not because salespeople are inherently dishonest.
It’s because customer service and sales have no stake in each other’s success.
The customer service and sales rift
The potential for synergy between customer service and sales is easy to spot. Sales teams work to reel customers in and support teams strive to keep them around.
In an ideal world, they meet at various points in the middle to compare notes.
A huge part of the problem stems from lack of visibility into each other’s work. Customer service teams usually know little about the sales process, and sales typically wants little to do with prospects once they become customers.
It’s not that sales reps are ruthless mercenaries—or that support reps don’t care whether the business grows. In reality, both teams are often too busy working in their respective domains to engage with other departments.
This is how most organizations operate. As customer-facing teams, the majority of sales and support squads follow their own set of goals, philosophies, and KPIs—few of which foster collaboration.
Unsurprisingly, these competing priorities can breed contempt.
For sales, aggressive quotas and ambitious company goals around growth lead reps to chase bad-fit deals in exchange for job security. And since it’s not uncommon for an organization to pursue big-time growth without scaling its customer service function, the sales team’s success can quickly become support’s burden.
This friction goes both ways:
Support reps can view sales as irresponsible and self-interested. When sales makes a habit of closing poor-fit deals that evolve into dissatisfied users, support associates them with difficult interactions and seemingly non-stop tickets.
Sales reps can view support as disgruntled bringers of churn. When the quality of agent-customer interactions takes an inevitable hit, negative reviews, customer churn, and fewer sales opportunities are soon to follow.
By creating silos, organizations promote resistance and resentment between two of their most vital functions. The byproduct of these tensions is the trickle-down effect it has on customers, prospects, and your brand’s reputation.
Here’s the good news: With a few meaningful adjustments to the way a business promotes and measures sales and support success, organizations across industries can increase sales velocity, deliver consistent brand experiences, and keep customer retention high.
1. Enforce meaningful facetime
The most surefire way for these teams to overcome negative perceptions of each other is by forging mutual understanding.
Meaningful, ongoing contact makes this possible. By breaking down the communication barriers that prevent sales and support from coming together for the common good, increased facetime should:
Help customer service and sales reps establish empathy for each other
Get them to partner on activities that help them to do their jobs better
Here’s a few productive and empathy-building options:
Both sales and customer service benefit from easy access to reliable information. A support and sales buddy system is a simple way to provide them with exactly that.
With a dedicated individual (or several individuals) on the other team, sales and support reps can get trustworthy answers from the folks who know best—whether sales needs specific product information, or support has questions about pricing.
The idea isn’t for them to become best friends (though that’s always nice) but to keep both sides in the loop throughout the customer lifecycle—from trialing prospects to expansion opportunities.
A deal desk is a process for evaluating promising leads to ensure product or service fit. To achieve this, account executives (AEs) must “sell” the deal to relevant colleagues from other departments—usually marketing, product, and customer success.
Given their extensive knowledge of your existing customer base—and the impact poor-fit customers have on their day-to-day work—your support team deserves a seat at the table.
They’re bound to have valuable ideas about the types of companies coming down your pipeline and can leverage these insights to help your organization pursue growth more responsibly. As one sales exec put it, “If you want clean water, send it through a filter.”
Cross-team training or shadowing
Understanding the relevance of each other’s work is crucial to building empathy and respect between teams.
Your support team should understand the entire sales cycle (i.e. prospecting, discovery, demo, close) and how they fit into the process. The sales team should understand real use cases, what the product can and can’t do, and what sorts of questions and problems customers encounter while using it.
Whether you frame it as training or shadowing, allow reps from each team to observe the work of their newly appointed buddy and learn from their process. Consider making it a part of onboarding new hires.
When you get it right, sales can avoid overpromising (or telling partial truths) to prospects who may not be the best fit for your product or service. On the support side, reps will be better prepared to field questions from prospects who make it to your help center and opt to engage with them directly.
2. Prioritize customer-focused incentives
Most organizations promote short-term incentives that divide their sales and support teams instead of uniting them.
Sales is incentivized to win as many customers as possible—as quickly as possible—because their team is seen as the main growth driver of the business. Support is incentivized to respond to and close tickets as quickly as possible because customer service is still viewed as a cost center.
These expectations surface in metrics like time-to-resolution and time-to-close. These metrics indicate how efficient reps are at doing their jobs. They do not account for desirable customer outcomes, or for the relationship between growth and good service.
Instead, they focus mostly on speed. And customers don’t get the 5-star support they’re promised when support reps struggle to remain friendly and efficient given increasingly unrelenting queues.
To forge better alignment between customer service and sales, high-growth organizations must put long-term, customer-centric metrics ahead of short-term, speed-based ones.
Here are two impactful ways to get started:
Give the sales team customer retention goals
To meet the challenge of building and advancing relationships from scratch, sales reps aren’t known to engage with prospects once they become customers. By the time they close one deal, they’re already pursuing other opportunities.
This is doable at small or early-stage companies, but as an organization grows, everyone should have a hand in customer retention—and their incentives should reflect the organization’s focus on the customer experience. For sales, this could include:
Modified commission structures based on customer lifetime value (CLV)
Looking at average revenue per user (ARPU) instead of booking volume
Basing performance assessment on adding value, not customer acquisition
When sales reps receive praise for quality of deals rather than quantity alone, they’re more likely to screen prospects for the right fit—which means they’re less likely to:
Make promises around product features or timelines your organization can’t keep
Close bad-fit deals based on overpromises that create future problems for support
Empower support to upsell and cross-sell
The best support reps are also use case experts. From product usage to customer activities, support teams are in an ideal position to identify expansion opportunities. And they’ve usually earned the trust to do it without seeming smarmy.
But selling should never be your support team’s priority. They should never be tasked with any upsell “quotas” or have their performance evaluated in terms of new revenue generated. Instead, managers should look for their ability to recognize when it’s appropriate to try.
When they do, their pitches should be framed as recommendations that will solve a problem specific to the customer’s unique circumstances. This could include:
Subscription or tier upgrades: If a customer purchased the basic version of your product but needs functionality only available to premium users
Additional licenses or seats: If support notices a customer sharing user accounts or learns of growth at a customer’s organization
With customer-centric incentives in place, providing value to retain customers is everyone’s job.
3. Declassify each team’s data
Your support team’s knowledge of sales interactions matters more than most organizations realize. According to Salesforce, 70 percent of customers believe it’s crucial to keeping their business.
From product capabilities to a prospect’s unique use case, support is better positioned to deliver great service when agents know what sales reps discuss before closing.
That’s likely because the transition from prospect to customer is far from transparent. In their zeal to advance pipeline, sales reps rarely make it a point to inform support when new customers come on board.
When trialing prospects find their way to customer service, for example, out-of-the-loop support reps might unintentionally contradict a sales rep or provide inaccurate information. They may even deprioritize their tickets for known paying customers.
These scenarios can create a rough start to the relationship. At worst, any of these interactions could cause sales to lose the deal.
Modern customers know companies collect reams of data about them. And most prefer it when companies put that data to use with contextualized interactions where they’re immediately recognized.
To drive better alignment between customer service and sales, organizations must:
Provide both teams with access to each other’s go-to systems
Integrate sales and support tools wherever possible
Encourage tool adoption based on each team’s use case
Allowing two-way access to traditionally siloed data has several benefits. Sales will be better equipped to identify high-quality leads once they know what actual customers sound like, and, given the benefit of context, support can provide the best experience possible—even when someone’s “just on a trial.”
But connected data has an even greater value: It makes it easier for organizations to create seamless brand experiences that build trust from the beginning. According to HBR, tapping into consumers’ fundamental needs is the best way for companies to form emotional connections.
For sales and support teams, this means exploiting all available resources to ensure the customer experience is as frictionless as possible.
4. Align support team growth with sales team growth
It’s rare for sales and support to grow at the same pace. As organizations recruit sales reps by the dozen, customer service teams stagnate in size and must work harder to compensate.
Well-meaning support managers are aware of the problem—and will usually lend a hand on the frontlines when needed—but they don’t start their own hiring process until efficiency-based metrics like call queue time or first response time take a noticeable hit.
This is all wrong. If an organization wants to drive better alignment between support and sales, what they should really be tracking is metrics associated with customer retention.
According to one source, the average SaaS company must keep a customer for 12 months before recouping the cost to obtain them.
Most organizations don’t consider this when setting sales targets. Instead, they focus on actualizing flashy financial talking points to please investors—like doubling their net new customers month over month.
Growth isn’t a bad goal on its own, but it’s counterintuitive to pursue it at the expense of frontline support soldiers forced to do more with less. Many growth-focused organizations hinder their chances by chasing growth single-mindedly—and creating an unmotivating work environment in the process.
Here’s a better approach—use your organization’s data to figure out:
The cost to support each new customer
The cost to onboard each new customer
The lifetime value (LTV) of each new customer
How much churn to expect
Given these calculations, organizations can:
Avoid setting sales targets that promote bad practices
Rethink the relationship between customer service and sales
Refocus sales and support activities on serving the customer
Most importantly, organizations can leverage the data to course-correct the uneven hiring practices that accompany high-growth and lead to poor service and churn (not to mention low morale and attrition on the support team).
5. Sell the idea to your C-suite
The biggest obstacle to customer service and sales alignment is company culture.
From mismanaged expansion to the uneven hiring practices that follow, most organizations view and treat their sales and support teams like completely separate entities. But uniting these teams in ways that drive real business results will ultimately require executive approval.
Your organization’s C-suite will likely have questions and opinions about how prioritizing different metrics will impact the larger financial picture. Your head of sales is likely to wonder how you plan to incite such a major cultural shift.
As champion of this new initiative, it’s your responsibility to provide answers and hear their objections.
You’ll improve your odds by being prepared and doing a little internal marketing. To start, arrange a meeting (more likely a series of meetings) with all vested parties.
Next, build a business case using internal and external data: How has your team dropped the ball or lost business due to poor alignment? How have other companies who’ve re-prioritized customer service and sales incentives fared in similar circumstances?
Include an abbreviated version of these benefits in your request to change the status quo. If you can demonstrate why it should matter to the business, to the teams involved, and to the individuals on those teams, your request is more likely to be taken seriously.
Once you’ve earned executive support, tailor your message to the parties that matter most: your organization’s customer service and sales teams.
Maintaining the relationship
When it comes to building a loyal customer base, the right fit is everything.
An organization’s sales team should never feel pressured to embellish the value of your product or service to meet ambitious quotas. And the support team should never make a habit of apologizing for_The Confusion._
When sales and support are on the same team, your organization can pursue only the most qualified opportunities with full confidence that your solution will help them win.
Build empathy by giving sales and support reasons (and the room) to learn about each other’s work
Find ways to put their newfound knowledge to use to help each team do their jobs more effectively
Rethink how individual and team success is incentivized and evaluated
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Published on February 23, 2023.