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The "last three feet" in the marketing chain -- the distance between the salesperson and the customer -- is the most challenging link for many agribusinesses. While greater resources are going into analyzing market trends, identifying important segments and developing specific strategies for communicating with and selling to targeted segments, there is often a disconnect between brilliant marketing plans and implementation of those plans by salespeople in the field.

Both marketing and sales have the same ultimate objective -- to increase customer satisfaction and generate profitable sales. Both have an important role to play. These roles are complementary and can be highly synergistic -- when marketers and salespeople understand each other and work together. How can agribusiness create harmony that can release this synergy? The answer begins with a clear understanding of the unique responsibilities of each -- and the differences.

Marketing Strategy Should Give Direction to the Selling Effort. It is amazing how often companies develop a good marketing strategy in one department while sales is treated as a separate function in a separate department, managed by a different set of managers. It is not rare to see direct conflict between the two, sometimes even hostility. The marketing staff says, "If sales would just carry out our programs like we design them, then we would get someplace." At the same time salespeople are saying, "If the marketing plan made any sense ... Why don't they ask us and then develop something that is practical that would help us sell stuff?"

Actually, both sides have a point. It is just too bad that there are sometimes "two sides." Both sales and marketing are critical functions to a successful business. The challenge is how to bring them into sync.

Be Sure You Have a Well-Defined Marketing Strategy. It is very difficult to communicate the company's target segments when the company has not specifically identified them, which is often the case. When the marketing plan has not clearly identified target segments, the message to the sales force is simply "go sell," leaving the prioritizing process to each individual salesperson. This lack of direction and purpose will undoubtedly be less and less successful as competitors sharpen their focus and go after the customers they want. Selling success then will be a function of individual capability rather than a leveraged company effort.

Good marketing, of course, always begins with careful analysis of the market environment, identifying and evaluating the value of key segments, prioritizing segments and understanding unique needs of selected targets. Then the agribusiness is ready to design and communicate an offer that is attractive to the targeted segments and profitable for its own company. The point is, it is difficult to communicate a marketing strategy that has not been developed or articulated within the company.

Communicate Your Marketing Strategy Internally. It is not uncommon for a well-thought-through marketing strategy to be only partially communicated to sales management and field staff. To get the expected synergy from a well-developed marketing strategy, it must be explained and justified so that those in the field who are responsible for much of the implementation understand and can more easily support the strategy. The reality is that even the best strategy must be constantly interpreted in each local situation -- and that requires judgment calls by people in the field who are going belly-to-belly with customers. When they understand and support the strategy, they are in a much stronger position to make it work.

Make Sure Your Field Salespeople Have the Ability to Implement the Strategy. It is unreasonable (and unfair) to expect people to do things they do not have the ability to do. For example, it is increasingly common for marketing strategy to identify market segments that are sophisticated and demanding -- often requiring technical knowledge that some more traditional salespeople may not possess. Creating unique value for some targeted customers may require technical expertise or business savvy that is beyond the current capability of some field salespeople. This means, of course, either they must receive additional training or that customer must be assigned to a different salesperson. If competency to implement a strategy is a broad-based concern, training or changing the makeup of the sales force must be part of the strategic plan.

Make Sure Your Field Salespeople Have the Tools to Do the Job. Products that perform, effective programs and competitive prices are always important. All of these terms are relative and somewhat subjective, of course. But it is very difficult to compete well unless one is "in the ballpark" on most of the issues that customers consider. When salespeople feel they are "not in the ballpark," or do not have confidence in what they are taking to their customers, they are usually less than enthusiastic in their delivery.

Having the proper tools to communicate the offer effectively and being trained on how to use them are important to success. Most salespeople tend to have favorite products, programs and support materials with which they feel comfortable and confident. Tending not to use options that they are less comfortable with limits the scope of solutions for their customers and their ability to communicate value to that customer.

Involve Your Sales and Sales Management in Market Strategy Development. This starts, of course, with a close working relationship with sales management. While marketing is much more than a selling strategy, the field salesperson's role in communicating the company offer to the customer in a business-to-business agribusiness market is a critically important component of the marketing strategy.

Actually, sales management and its field staff should be an abundant source of good information about trends, customer information and market opportunities -- if the company can find a way to efficiently tap the knowledge and experience of the sales staff. And having field input into the marketing plan also does wonders for field acceptance and cooperation. There are many possibilities. Periodic reports on market activities are seldom popular but can provide excellent information. Involving respected senior field salespeople in a market strategy planning task force can be very effective.

Turn Your Salespeople Into "Field Marketers." The ideal situation is to help field salespeople become marketers -- field marketers -- within their own territory. Today, the most successful salespeople act very much like marketers. They understand their company's strategy -- which market segments have been prioritized and why. They aggressively seek out customers who fit into priority segments and work to build long-term business relationships with those accounts. They work to understand the unique needs of targeted accounts and use a wide array of corporate resources provided by their company to create unique value for them. They allocate resources under their control (especially their time) strategically based on the current and potential value of the account. They have an understanding of the lifetime value of a key account and are willing to invest the time and resources to gain and maintain those relationships. They understand the importance of market intelligence and proactively contribute useful information to appropriate channels within the organization.

Field marketers are no longer rare. The most successful companies have at least some field marketers who are masters at strategically managing important key accounts. As the agribusiness market continues to mature and consolidate, there will be more and more "field marketers."

Summary: Marketing and sales should go together hand-in-glove. Theoretically, marketing should give direction to the sales effort. That just makes sense. Marketing looks at the "big picture," analyzes the environment, identifies market opportunities and develops a company marketing strategy that will capitalize on those opportunities. But such a marketing plan will not likely succeed if sales does not have input into and implement the plan effectively. That is reality. Field sales offers much to the development of a sound and workable marketing strategy -- especially in agriculture where business-to-business selling is the norm and where intimate knowledge of the customer is critical to success.

Excellent communication and cooperation between these two business functions is essential to success of an agribusiness -- both in the planning and the implementation of marketing plans. AM

Dave Downey is a professor of agribusiness marketing and executive director of the Center for Food and Agricultural Business at Purdue University. Additional information on this topic can be obtained by e-mailing Dr. Downey at

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