I was talking to a startup CEO the other day and he said:
Lately my VP of Sales and my VP of Engineering have been at each other’s throats. Badly. I need to write a book called Sales is From Mars, Engineering is From Venus or such. Any ideas for me on how to manage this conflict?
Sure. Two things typically go wrong in this relationship. One is that you have a strategic alignment problem. The other is that you’re treating sales and engineering the same way and — to your point — they are different animals and should be treated differently.
First, you must get this conflict back in control because it sounds dysfunctional, is hurting your organization, and to paraphrase Machiavelli, warring Princes means a weak King. Since you’re the King, you need to end this war, posthaste.
The Strategic Problem with Sales and Engineering: Alignment
Sales/Engineering tension typically comes from a lack of alignment around strategy. Sales, by default, wants to sell anything to anybody and it’s up to the CEO to make sure that sales is ring-fenced enough into a target market that they can’t keep generating effectively random product requirements and be taken seriously.
Towards that end, you should create — as an executive team — a one-page document entitled “Our Target Market” that describes, using terse bullets, what the perfect prospect looks like when he or she walks through the door.
The more a given customer looks like that ideal, the more their voice should be heard in the product requirements process. And conversely. This helps create the notion of strategic vs. opportunistic revenue. The former is revenue coming from the target, the latter is revenue that you will take, but you will not modify your product or strategy for it.
I have seen terrible battles between Sales and Engineering and this lack of alignment, and the long-list of fairly random product “deficiencies” that accompany it, is usually the cause.
Avoid the blame game. Your e-staff is one team and you win or lose together. If they’re fighting, it’s either because they’re bad folks and need replacement or they’re good folks and they are not aligned on the mission.
The Communication Problem with Sales and Engineering
Founder / technical CEOs love to reason. They are reluctant to bark orders. Instead they prefer to lay out options and debate merits, eventually arising at consensus around a strategy. Logically and dispassionately.
That style tends to work well with Engineers (and marketers). It tends to work far less well with Sales. At the same time you might be thinking, “Gosh, I’m doing such a great job reasoning with my sales VP,” he or she is probably thinking “when is this guy going to make a stinking decision and tell me the answer?”
Sales are soldiers. They like to be told to take hills and they will fight hard to do so. They trust that you have chosen the right hill to take. They see you as the General leading the army. They want you to do your job and they will do theirs.
My advice with Sales is to stop reasoning with them. Explain quickly why you are sending them on the mission. But don’t reason forever. Make calls decisively and give the order that they are awaiting. They will see you as a stronger leader and respect you for such.
- Reason with Engineering
- Command Sales
It may sound harsh, but in the end, I am certain that if you fix these two issues your Sales/Engineering conflict with disappear.
Great post Dave. Would love to hear your perspective on the conflict between sales and services (hmm…is there a theme here?)… :)
We are talking about a start up here. Its likely that the company is still in the process of defining what they should be selling and what that perfect customer looks like. Often times, those decisions are influenced positively by what the sales force sees as demand in the market place. They are the closest representatives that one has to the customer.
If you pick your target too early and are not flexible you could miss a massive opportunity.
Biggest problems with services in my mind are:  when they are simply back-office, quiet implementors who get their job done but don’t add value in sales and, often linked,  when they get so wrapped up in their own operational metrics that they forget the root mission is to help sell subscriptions. If I ran a services team, I’d tell them our mission is to help sell subscription subject to a constraint of hitting certain operating metrics.
Excellent point and I’ve done this in early-phase startups, too — before there was clear notion of target market. The key remains alignment. If sales sells one insurance company when we all agree we’re in an exploratory “spaghetti throwing” phase, they can’t stand on the table and complain about lack of insurance-specific functionality or lack of a vertical strategy in general.
I’m a huge believer in emergent strategy (e.g., http://kellblog.com/2010/09/10/more-emergent-strategies-groupon-greendot/) but even emergent strategies can be found and executed with the team in alignment about what it’s doing.
I had a great question fron a reader who contact me via mail. If warring Princes means a weak King how you do explain Salesforce or Oracle?
I guess there are two types of Prince Wars. Those that are organic where people are fighting unsupervised and those were the King orchestrates a “cage fight.” I would say Oracle and SFDC are of the second type — the King is strong and retains power, in part by orchestrating he sales in a Darwinian attempt to have the strongest leaders run his company.
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