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I’ll Drink to That: Three Keys to Finance/Sales Alignment

How long-opposed departments can start celebrating happy hours together

In the earlier days of my marketing career, it was my job to write responses to prospect and customer-issued RFPs. They usually included detailed requirements and requests ranging from invoicing terms to shipping instructions and acceptable product colors. My mission was to find out if we could actually fulfill these requests and, no matter what the answer, to sell the company in our response. In the midst of writing these RFP responses, I would often have to traverse the long hallway dividing our finance and sales teams and do some investigation. The conversations would usually go something like this:

Me: “Hi salesperson. It looks like Customer X wants Net 60 invoicing terms. Is that what we’re going to offer them? It looks like a really small bid.”

Salesperson: “Yes! Why wouldn’t we? We have to!”

I would then make the long journey down the hallway and visit the finance department.

Me: “Hi finance department. Can we give this customer Net 60 terms?”

Finance department: “We could, but we shouldn’t.”

It usually turned out that there was much more dividing our teams than a long hallway. Generally I would respond something like this in the RFP, using my most diplomatic marketing-speak: “We prefer to offer Net 30 terms but have built flexibility into our invoicing process should Customer X find these terms unacceptable.”

It wasn’t until I took an accounting class as part of my MBA that I realized why the finance department probably quietly hated all of us.
Abigail Lutte, Content Marketing Manager, Dun & Bradstreet

We’d often win Customer X—the “we” being the salespeople and all those that rallied around the fervent desire to say yes to Customer X. My company, however, sometimes did not win as a result of taking on Customer X. I would usually celebrate all the customers we won with the salespeople. It was exciting, no matter how small the contract. I liked to attribute at least some of the credit to my marketing ninja bid-answering skills. And I genuinely couldn’t understand why the finance department seemed so cranky when Customer X didn’t pay its bills on time, even after being offered Net 60. I usually filed away the emails about negative profitability in my trash folder, ever-focused on the next exercise in ninja bid creation. My job was to make us sound agreeable and fantastic, even when I penned the sometimes-necessary phrases that meant “no” in ways that usually sounded like “maybe.”

Customer X’s bad blotch on our balance sheet was usually the result of a battle of wills that the pearly-teethed salespeople most often won. After all, they were measured on revenue, not profit, and they were perhaps a little too skilled in their trade. Finance seldom showed up at the celebratory happy hours. They were probably sorting through the tangled mess of collections calls that we were unwittingly bestowing on them after hours. It wasn’t until I took an accounting class as part of my MBA that I realized why the finance department probably quietly hated all of us.

In retrospect, a healthy respect for the power of data and slightly toned-down respect for the accuracy of our optimistic desires would have probably led to more finance-attended happy hours. Finance had something we didn’t: an appreciation for the wisdom of using insight to make decisions.

Few people in today’s business world will argue the value of having data, wielding it appropriately and using it for decision-making. Just like human communication, however, data can be misunderstood, misdirected, mis-collected, misguided and manipulated. Bridging the gap I experienced between the sales and finance teams with data inspiration seems nothing less than obvious in the modern world, yet doing so is every bit as precarious as the potential misfires of human conversations. What, then, should have been the starting ground for getting finance to come to the sales happy hours?

Aiming for the Same Target

The subject of sales enablement is one that finance has had a long-vested interest in. Sales’ primary purpose at most companies is to grow the top line—a critical function. Yet, the greatest dilemma for finance enabling sales may not be that sales needs to be “free” to spend more time selling; it’s that sales needs to be able to trace their own activities to the bottom line as well as the top. They need to internalize who makes a great customer, who makes a horrible customer and how to translate that knowledge into action. The tricky part is that sales needs this critical information in real time—delivered in a consistent, human and understandable way—well before the bid comes in. An inspired approach to delivering this key information to sales quickly (preferably before the quote is offered) is the ticket to the successful merging of real-time relationships with real-time data.

Choosing the 5 Most Meaningful KPIs

Just as we loathe bad dates for unbridled rambling, finance’s love of KPIs, charts, and metrics might be drowning out the main message and exhausting less numbers-oriented colleagues. Sit down together and prioritize the five KPIs that would help sales drive their number and help finance ensure the company’s long-term profitability. Consider using metrics the next time a new prospect comes through the door as your road map instead of firing barrages of words and data to fire over the fence in hopes you are being understood. For example, both teams may agree that your key deciding factors should be items such as growth potential, customer lifetime value, credit score, profit margin and revenue per quarter. Aligning on these indicators, hosting them in a user-friendly system and scoring potential accounts based on this pre-planned Zen alignment will give everyone involved a clear “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” early on in the process. Effective data management doesn’t mean having and using lots of data; it’s about making your data meaningful and wielding it effectively to inspire change and clarity.

Uncracking the Mirror

Did sales help tank your ROA for the year? Did you have a heated conversation about why your team made an ill-timed collections call during a contract renewal? Truly data-inspired partnerships enable all parties to see themselves—and the people in the room—clearly. Remove the data points, words and processes that are strictly unproductive and keep those that are. It sounds simple, but the best organizations often struggle with over-sharing data and information, as well as under-sharing. Map out your technology and data strategy together to ensure you have a method to share what’s important—and keep what’s not on your own side of the fence.

Few companies have totally mastered the optimal streams of communication and information needed to operate at their full potential. Yet, whether teams are numbers-oriented, people-oriented or somewhere in between, a collaborative approach to data strategy ultimately results in better processes–as well as better relationships.

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