Workshop Sales and finance are the two parts of business closest to the commercial coal face. One’s about generating money and the other’s about channelling and reporting funds. Both are occupied directly with customers: who they are, what they need, what they have bought, whether they have paid.
From the buyer’s perspective, the smoother the transition from sales to finance, the more straightforward the experience. And this depends largely on how information is captured, updated and passed between the two departments. Better information leads to more informed conversations with customers (“I see from our records that your organisation has bought these from us before,” for example). It also leads to more intelligent decision making.
It can also be make or break when it comes to business transactions. One organisation tells how its sales department was in the throes of closing a major procurement deal, only to find that the finance department was chasing the customer over an unpaid invoice amounting to tens of pounds. It didn’t scupper the deal, but it certainly added unnecessary complications.
A sale is not the end of the story either. Sales staff tend to focus on the deal, without worrying too much about what happens afterwards – that is, after all, how they earn bonuses. But a little information is useful for supporting post-procurement decisions such as whether or not the customer is a poor payer, or who needs to be involved client-side to take delivery. This can make a difference both to cash flow and future sales.
Several things can be done to join up sales and finance. For a start, IT systems can be shared between the two, avoiding the need to rekey details about customers and their purchases, and giving everyone concerned a comprehensive picture of the people involved, their payment record, and so on.
Can't we all be friends?
With the best will in the world, however, IT can only support best practice, not automatically bridge a gulf between the two departments. Is there mileage in bringing the sales and marketing teams closer together?
In principle, of course there is. Academic studies going back 20 years have shown how productivity can improve if the two groups collaborate better. It is hard at this point not to say “Oh really, Sherlock?”, but this common sense idea can be hard to implement in practice.
Some organisations are looking to deploy a cross-functional team that incorporates both sales and finance roles. Such teams exist in a number of other areas, such as project or product management, but how effective can they be in more customer-facing activities? The answer is that there is more to it than throwing gung-ho sales types into a room with stuffy accountants and expecting them to get on with it.
Three points emerge. The first is that the goal is as much about combining the broader functions of sales and marketing as about having individual people working together. The roles themselves can change to support a common approach to customers.
Secondly, cross-functional teams can generate a more strategic view of customers. Both sales and finance people can move beyond transactions, for example into helping customers develop more efficient procurement processes.
Don't waste your time
Thirdly, a joined-up approach helps to place more focus on the underlying business process rather than on individual deals, which improves efficiency. Much sales activity concerns prioritisation, as there is never enough time to do everything. By reducing wasted time, both sales and finance people can spend more time on bringing in new business.
Creating cross-functional teams cannot happen overnight because the people involved will need to learn new skills and build new relationships with colleagues. Technology can help, not least by showing how useful it is to see the broader customer picture, but it can only take things so far. A good first step in building awareness between the parties is focusing on specific goals, such as developing named customer accounts.
In the longer term, there is nothing to stop broadening the cross-functional exercise, for example incorporating service and support elements, or even product design and development. As more parties are involved, it becomes less about transactions and more about building up a comprehensive view of customer development, management and support.
We will look at these in the next article, but meanwhile do let us know about your experiences of bringing sales and finance together, whether good or bad. ®