How Marketing Can Destroy Sales Trust

I like to believe there can be professionalism in sales.

So I was struck the other day when I ran across an article that talked about “selling on message.” (Pharma Voice, May 2007).

It has always seemed a curious phrase to me—sort of the opposite of customer focus.

Who talks that way? The three Ps, it turns out—that’s who.

The first P is politicians. Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, gave this advice for dealing with the press: “Never answer the question they ask; only answer the question you want to talk about.”

McNamara’s view has since been echoed by Clinton (“it’s the economy, stupid”) and by Bush ("it’s 9/11, stupid!"). Good politics? I’ll defer to others. But it sure isn’t trust-enhancing—look at pols’ polls.

The second P is public relations and marketing. Google “selling” with “on message” and you get “A major concern for marketing and sales executives is that they are always ‘on-message’ with all of the communications that reach their prospects and customers—helping to create, establish and build a customer relationship that will ‘competition-proof’ their customers.”

This seller-centric view of sales comes from a self-described “provider of sales-oriented public relations and marketing services—” which, ironically, lists a “customer-centric selling program” as a key client.

Another source from the same search says, “Less than 27% of CMOs report confidence in having adequately prepared sales to be on-message,” and "How do we enable salespeople to be “on-message” and empower marketers to do what they do best? "

(Those darn salespeople, always wandering off to what customers want to talk about, when they should be doing marketing’s bidding.)

This helps explain the third P, which is the pharmaceutical industry. The article quoted at top, “Sales Training: Moving Beyond the Message,” says “it’s become vitally important for sales representatives to provide value beyond the marketing message.” It quotes Peter Sandford, “in the regulated healthcare environment in which we work, selling on message is vital, but it is the additional knowledge that the representative has that can also be useful to the physician. This allows them to essentially sell beyond the message, but still within the guidelines.”

A May, 2006 article in the same publication called “Rebuilding the Trust—Sales Managers Lead the Charge,” says, “… representatives need to differentiate themselves by delivering more distinct messages, tuned to the needs of the healthcare providers they’re dealing with. They also need to better understand what creates value and align the messages with that goal.”

All this is the language of a sales culture and community that has been mugged and drugged by marketing. Only in such a business can it actually sound radical to suggest that salespeople give customer-specific attention, as opposed to staying “on message,” or “within guidelines.” You don’t hear this kind of talk at IBM, or Nordstrom’s, or Starbucks, or Goldman Sachs.

Marketing is, by its nature, a monologue—it tells things people want to hear to the people who want to hear them.

Sales is, by its nature, an infinitely customized dialogue.

Nothing wrong with either one. Each has its place. But they are different.

When sales is overly-subordinated to marketing, you emd up with “selling on message.” Kind of like the stereotype of telemarketing, or scripted sales businesses like ballroom dancing, or pump-and-dump brokerage houses. It can create puppets reading canned speeches, or at least feel that way, because—the "message" is, above all, about the seller.

The folks at PharmaVoice are right; they are doing their bit to drag pharma sales (forward) into the late 20th century. It must be the most sophisticated business in which marketing chokes off oxygen to sales.

I suppose this is because in recent years pharma—for a variety of structural reasons—has come to be dominated by the marketing function. It has tended, then, to frame other issues—customers, trust, selling—in terms familiar to marketing and PR.

More’s the pity. Marketers do not help the trustworthiness of sales reps by urging “selling on message,” and trust isn’t something the pharmaceutical industry is long on right now.

Now, about McNamara…

0 replies
  1. Scot Herrick
    Scot Herrick says:

    "On message" versus "point of view."

    I’ve always thought sales should have a point of view so that their representation could differentiate their product or service from others.

    Points of view can be challenged, debated, and altered. In short, having a point of view allows one to learn other points of view — like  a customer point of view.

    Being on message is easy for a customer, though. Sales: here’s my message. Customer: thanks, I’ll see you next year.

  2. D Fisher
    D Fisher says:

    Really, good marketing is 1to1. Sales is an extension of marketing. Check out Peppers & Rogers work in this regard. "On Message" is really only effective–that is, it only will return long-term customer relationships– when a firm’s solutions match and evolve with the customer’s needs/desires.

    I don’t disagree with what you’re saying in relation to much of the world, but to broad-brush marketing, as you did so clearly, shows you need to brush up on the better marketing of today.

    My perspectives are primarily routed in B2B, where 1to1 marketing is easier, but look to Harley Davidson and Apple Computer, who do a pretty damn good job of communicating their message to the very receptive masses.

  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Scott, I like the POV point.

    Dave, if I"m guilty of broad-brushing marketing, it wouldn’t be the first time I have to plead guilty to hyperbole.  But let me clarify, this post was mostly about the relationship between sales and marketing in a particular industry, pharmaceuticals. 

    From a structural economics point of view, pharma has evolved–for many complicated reasons–from a very research and science-driven industry several decades ago to one which is much more marketing-driven.  This is not a good-and-evil morality play here, simply the confluence of issues like competition, regulation, health care industry structuring, approvals processes, patent law, etc.  What we have is, simply, an industry in which the marketing function plays an outsized role, both on the consumer side, and in more the B2B components. In that environment, I would argue, the marketing perspective has, not surprisingly, tended to crowd out the sales pespective.

    While I often exaggerate (hyperbolize?) to make a point, I am not trying to dump on marketing; I’m simply pointing out the consequences of a situation in which one business function has come to dominate. You will find similar examples of distortion in retailing, high tech, financial services, or any industry where one function is, by the industry’s nature, more critically important than others.

    Still, to keep the discussion going, just because Pepper & Rogers (for whom I have a lot of regard, by the way) say that sales is an extension of marketing doesn’t make it so (did they actually say that, by the way?).

    In fact, I think they coined the 1-to-1 phrase as an aspirational concept–in essence, arguing that marketing, at its logical extension, ought to be uniquely targeted at an individual level. Which, one can argue, looks a lot like sales. In which case sales isn’t an extension of marketing, it’s what marketing aspires to be! (Now, I don’t buy that line of argument either, but I think it’s no less valid than saying sales is an extension of marketing).

    I’m mainly B2B myself, and I agree 1 to 1 is easier there, but of course that doesn’t mean mass marketing doesn’t work well in the consumer arena.  DTC has worked very well in pharma, kids still buy RTE cereals from TV, and men and women spend billions to indulge the fantasy that a mass-marketed product will make them smell better/worse than before it had occurred to them to think about it.

    Mass marketing works because a major influencer is our opinion about whether we’re in sync or not with the rest of the masses. We don’t want 1-to-1 marketing all the time. I don’t want someone 1-to-1 telling me I smell; I want a nice depersonalized message telling me how to be sure I won’t offend others. That’s mass marketing, and it works; your Apple and Harley examples are well taken.

    No argument. My concern has to do with injecting marketing perspectives into the point in the (B2B) buying process when one should be making personal connections and listening to the client.

    Is there another B2B industry where the salesperson is told so strongly to sell "on message?" Not in management consulting. Not auto suppliers. Not commercial printers. Not accounting. Not wealth management. Not in my experience, anyway.

    Any sales training course to those populations will insist on the importance of letting the customer be heard before you start telling them what their needs are, no matter how good the targeted research. That idea is beginning to get more play in pharma sales training than it used to, and that is great; customer focus starts with active listening and empathizing.

    This is the potential problem with overly injecting marketing into sales–it is innately telling, not listening. It is a fundamental fact of human nature to resent someone who tells you what your problems are before having heard you state them.  It is experienced as arrogance. 1-to-1 isn’t a fix for that problem, in fact it makes it worse if the person telling me what my problem is is right about my problems–it just pisses me off even more.   No problem with marketing telling me, on a 1-to-1 targeted basis, about things I might like; that’s fine.  That’s marketing.  But when you start telling me, in person, what it is that you think I want–that’s sales, and that’s my turn to tell you what I want. 

    Going all the way back to master marketer Ted Levitt, there is an academic tradition of marketers looking down on sales.  It is shocking to read the classic Marketing Myopia today and see what a low opinion Levitt had of sales. That pattern continues today in academia and business in general; a lot of people indeed do view sales as an extension of marketing, and of course the head of sales often reports to the SVP marketing. True enough.

    I think there’s a useful distinction to be made, however, though I’m less sure what it is.  But I think it rhymes vaguely with (in B2B terms):

    –marketing’s job is to identify target buyers, their most likely motivations for buying what we sell, and inform them of what we sell;
    –sales’ job is to engage targeted people as individuals and help them, usually featuring what we sell as part of the solution.

    Even if 1-to-1 literally succeeds in developing marketing at the individual level, it would still be–by my definition–impersonal, dealing with that person as a targeted buyer.  Sales’ job is to click with them personally.

    Or so it seems to me. What do you think?

  4. Chris Denny
    Chris Denny says:


    This is a great article – well said. 

    As marketing messages get closer to, and more directly targeted at, meeting customers’ at their points of demand (e.g., search engines) the customers/clients who work with salespeople will be more receptive and willing to consider those salespeople as helpful professionals instead of message driven product pushers.

    The effective use of technology is helping the sales profession by helping customers find what they demand while offering salespeople better leads.


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