Keeping it SaaSy: The relationship between product, marketing, sales and design
In this instalment of Keeping it SaaSy, we speak with Scott Alexander, Director of Product Marketing (APAC) at Oracle. Oracle is a cloud technology company that provides organisations around the world with computing infrastructure and software to help them innovate, unlock efficiencies and become more effective.
As Director of Product Marketing, Scott is placed at the intersection of product, marketing, sales and design and chatted with us about how these areas collaborate, adapt to change and evolve. So if you’re keen to learn more, sit back, relax and keep reading.
Scott, how have you seen the collaboration between sales, marketing, product, and design evolve during your career?
Two key shifts come to mind: the focus on measurement (which digital channels really enabled) and marketing being positioned as a pipeline and revenue function.
I’d also argue that B2B content has to offer much more intrinsic value and needs to be more educational and informative than ever before, simply due to the sheer amount of material out there.
Given the glut of content and shortening attention spans, not all digital channels are actually suitable for B2B. Hyper relevant and individually customised marketing and CX is scaling now, but this requires data between the different point solutions in a business to be de-siloed and not everyone wants to commit to a single vendor for this.
LinkedIn has also provided a platform for savvy business development and salespeople to share their own content to signal their affinity with the sectors they serve. This requires sales to really know their stuff and I’ve found the great BDs are insatiable for content, creating their own and adding value with every post.
In the fast-paced tech industry, how has the relationship between these departments adapted to market changes over the years?
The breakdown in silos between marketing, sales and business development is taking place, but it needs to be better orchestrated. Take for example, the emergence of Account Based Marketing, which when done right, sees the marketing and sales team working in lock-step to plan and coordinate engagements with key accounts.
While the tactics and budgets can vary, for sales and marketing to be successful, they need a deep understanding of the client’s imperatives and the challenges facing the sector. It’s less about getting your company messaging right and more about proving you know your customer and their business as well as they do and can offer value. As Census CEO Boris Jabes said, “You still need the ability to dream up a creative campaign. But just as importantly, you need to be able to analyse and use data so your marketing automation can put the right creative messages in front of the right people at the right time”.
What challenges have you observed in aligning the goals and priorities of sales, marketing, product, and design, and how do you address these challenges to maintain a cohesive approach?
I have to say most businesses could do a better job of information architecture and this impacts how we collaborate.
There have been various technological attempts to improve collaboration through the use of different tools. Sales will tend to ‘own’ Salesforce and Marketing will manage their Gant charts and creative, the Dev team use Jira or Azure, the Product team use A-Ha! or Miro… and folks try to do what they can in Sharepoint or Confluence. But Info Architecture takes discipline and consistency – things humans are pretty bad at!
What we have now is a suite of point solutions all containing different lenses on ultimately the same issue – how and when are we delivering value to customers?
Many non dev teams have moved to Agile-like practices, including daily stand-ups, monthly cross departmental catch-ups. But there is still an issue of information overload, and actually having access to the right information at the moment you need it. Slack has become the tool of choice, but it can be overwhelming to stay across every channel you are added to.
Working in software, I understand that for anything to be successful it requires people, process and technology all to be working in harmony. Behaviour change has been the biggest obstacle in every business I’ve worked at when it comes to aligning teams, specifically around organising data to make better decisions and communicate with certainty.
I am excited by the potential of large language models (LLMs) to help with this issue. We have begun investigating training on internal company data from across the departments and tools, especially when it comes to personas, products, sectors, tone of voice, product information and so on. Ultimately we want to enable folks to get the information they need when they need it and then use that to craft whatever artefact they are looking to create.
How do you ensure that the collaboration between these teams remains customer-centric?
I believe everyone ultimately wants the same thing for customers, but product, sales, marketing and UX all engage with customers and users in their own forums. These teams also communicate internally to the rest of the business through various means, but the lack of time and cognitive load on everyone is immense these days and they simply tune out.
We need to design our comms and information much more than we do. I feel most businesses miss this – we don’t get taught it at school and we mostly fumble through, creating inefficiencies. Death by Powerpoint is still a thing.
I see product marketing as an attempt to bring together information from both inside and out of the business, with a specific purpose of going to market. The function sits at the intersection of the disciplines I mentioned earlier, and empathises with each of these groups, connecting information and people. I’m a bit more of a proponent of the PM function adding most value as a comms function, not so much a marketing function per se.
One of the ways we do this in my current role is “15 minutes with product marketing”, a weekly zoom with Q&A held in multiple time zones, shared via Slack and email as well. It is bite sized (we cover up to 6 products) and provides information that sales can use with customers right now – whether that’s in person or via a LinkedIn post. This is a good way to provide a steady stream of fresh content, but does rely on sales to take some initiative. We also have a centralised social media sharing tool, where we upload content and then staff can sign in and share to their platforms from there – basically encouraging each rep to share content to their networks as much as possible.
I think the most effective technique that embodies customer centricity though is in-person workshops where we have a range of customers in a room with product, sales, UX and key development people. We are social animals and there is something about being in a space together and listening to our customers that creates greater empathy. When you deliver on these workshops it builds trust and a great product helps everyone do their job better.
How well do you feel the SaaS industry as a whole is using integrated data and analytics into the collaboration between sales, marketing, product, and design to enhance performance and outcomes?
I am sure there are businesses nailing this, but perhaps in B2C it is a bit different, as sales cycles are quicker. I’ve worked in enterprise software the last seven years and the siloed data across point solutions and lack of information design is a barrier to greater effectiveness across teams.
These days you attend an event, scan everyone and upload them to a list for Business Development Consultants (BDCs) to contact, and then they go into a CRM for a nurture campaign. The event’s effectiveness is measured in those terms. In that way, yes there is far greater integration and accountability for everyone to ensure that spend yields results. But we are still manually taking data from different sources and creating reports that show the flow from campaigns, events, pipe and sales which is not ideal.
Maybe there is a Zap for that.
Product marketing often involves introducing innovation. What steps do you think need to be in place for a team to foster innovation in their product?
That’s a good question. A few ideas:
Tech debt is something that I’ve seen impact the biggest and smallest of companies. It always seems to be a result of committing to a course of action for an immediate gain vs a longer term benefit and inevitably impacts customers and the businesses reputation. Organisations are inherently political and no current administration wants to be the one to spend on fixing the infrastructure. But tech debt is like compounding interest in the red and it has the biggest impact on innovation, because it eats up dev resources that could be better spent elsewhere. I know dev teams are changing how they work to mitigate tech-debt after learning some hard lessons in the early naughties and teens. Incremental tech debt mitigation needs to be better understood by non-technical folks and baked-in to dev ops.
If you create a successful enterprise product that is deeply embedded in a customer’s business process, constantly changing things can actually be very counterproductive. Users at the coal face of a document management system or a cost controls application get very upset when you change things, so incremental change is more the norm than ‘innovation’ as such. And of course, most large companies simply buy innovation by acquiring smaller companies.
I am a big fan of the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works® concept, where you partition off a team and a chunk of time and let them test and iterate. We do this to a limited extent with hackathons. I’ve recently been able to have a ‘Skunk Works’ period of working with a new platform called Folloze, trialling a new way to deliver ‘sales plays’ that bring together content, sales and marketing for a more tailored experience for specific sectors. This test, if it shows promising results, is designed in such a way that it can be repeatable across regions.
But can the non-technical teams afford to get off the treadmill for long enough to have the space to think deeply, build, iterate and improve new ways of working, new ways of communicating and new product ideas? Time seems to be a bit of a luxury these days and while many businesses try to do innovation through various programs, I find there are many who cannot participate because they are simply under the pump.
Silos can be a challenge in all organisations but particularly large ones. How can someone reading this overcome departmental silos to foster better communication and collaboration between sales, marketing, product, and design teams?
- Get out of your chair and talk to people.
- Respect that everyone is time-poor and at full cognitive load.
- Segment your internal audiences and deliver the relevant information to that segment
- Read ‘Made to Stick’ by Chip and Dan Heath.
- Understand how work flows through your organisation and what the needs of each person in that chain are to deliver well and help them to help you.
Do you think cold calling still has a place in SaaS sales? If so why, if not what else should people be focusing on?
No. If you have to hustle, you have to hustle, but if cold calling is where you are at, something has gone wrong.
LinkedIn Sales Navigator is the modern cold-call. Instead of interrupting someone’s day with a telephone call, we’re sliding into their feed and trying to grab their attention that way.
All those ads I see in my Facebook and Instagram feeds (based on my random internet usage) are ostensibly ‘cold calls’… measuring intent and serving up what I didn’t know I needed still have a way to go. I definitely prefer just not clicking relevant content rather than a call that interrupts my flow. I’m pretty sure we all get this in 2023.
I think it can be hard to do discovery on the phone and BDCs have a hard job, I appreciate them. But the whole point of MQL and SQL is to help them so that we aren’t bothering folks and crushing a BDC’s will to live.
We have lead scoring in place to try and counter the ‘pitch slap’ and I personally dislike being called seconds after downloading some content. Information gathering does not equal a warm lead. If we are going to use corporate surveillance to track people, let’s at least commit to not hounding them the second they engage. It’s a relationship after all.
Can you share examples of successful initiatives where sales, marketing, product, and design worked seamlessly together to create and promote a product, and what were the key factors contributing to that success?
Haha, not seamlessly. Human relationships are messy things with egos, bias, agendas and quarterly targets. I’m often amazed that human beings work together to create anything of value, and yet we do.
We assume, we communicate poorly, we make mistakes, we make unilateral decisions that upset people because we didn’t consider their needs. How do we get back on track? How do we do better next time? I am a big fan of the ‘Retro’ for this reason. No blame, just be open to iteration.
I think the key factor to success is empathy and working hard on relationships. I think everyone should read Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan to more thoughtfully design how we actually work together. That IS the culture of your business (not the free soda) and it needs to be more than a handful of motherhood statements, like company values.
Regardless of your hierarchical position, understanding how to help people help you (and how you can help them) is the key. That’s the behaviour I’ve seen lead to the best outcomes.
Looking ahead, what do you see as the emerging trends in the interplay between sales, marketing, product, and design, and how would position your team stay ahead and navigate these changes?
It’s hard not to anticipate AI playing a role in the inevitable merger of all things. As I suggested earlier, we need a better way to disseminate and synthesise information from across the business. Endless meetings, quarterly reviews, stand-ups and all the fancy apps in the world aren’t solving this.
So I can definitely see the potential in custom use of LLMs trained on corporate data to help improve the ability to surface the information you need when you need it. Similarly, generative image AI trained on the company’s look and feel, and tone of voice, so that everything is on brand. These tools are already available and should help break down information silos – we’re all going to be synthesists and remixers of information in the future. AI will enable us to better identify correlation, causation and have greater predictive capability.
I am interested in the field of Decision Intelligence – how we use technology to better understand the bigger systems we are part of and the 2nd and 3rd order consequences of decisions we make. Lorien Pratt’s book ‘The Decision Intelligence Handbook” is another recommended read.
As Pratt suggests, perhaps as we develop AI and machine learning we can also take a moment to pause and articulate what human beings actually need to be in the future? It won’t be labour.
We exist in a series of interconnected relationships to each other, the environment and so forth. So focusing on the soft skills, empathy, emotional intelligence, respectful communication and so forth that make working together a joy will probably come to the forefront as our machines do most of the ‘information work’ for us.
Finally the four volume, Thriving on Disruption by Roger Spitz and Lidia Zuin is also a very good read that covers off a lot of what I have discussed here and much more!
Keen to chat with Scott about product marketing or more specifically, the relationship between product, marketing, sales and design? Connect with him on LinkedIn today.