What Is Marketing’s Unique Core Competency?

DATE: July 30, 2012

Adele Revella, President, Buyer Persona Institute


No one questions that the finance team is best-qualified to keep the books, or engineering’s ability to build useful products. But marketing tends to be everyone’s playground.

While stakeholder input is useful, the consequences are enormous when marketing isn’t the respected authority on decisions that impact buyers and customers.

Many marketers respond to internal pressure by perfecting ROI metrics or doubling down on efforts to be responsive to stakeholders. These are worthy goals, but marginal progress on the credibility front suggests that we’re not on a path to resolve the core problem.


Quick–Name One Competency That Distinguishes Marketing

Unlike other professional roles, marketers are not positioned as the owners of specialized, high-value competencies.

While people have plenty to say about the results expected of marketing, few actively consider the team’s distinctive competencies–the unique knowledge, skills, or attributes that would assure stakeholders that marketers, above all others, are best-qualified for the job. For example, senior management entrusts the IT department with decisions because they have extensive knowledge of available technologies and their application to the company’s business.

What is the parallel for marketing?

I recently posed this question to a LinkedIn Group, the CMO Network. Most offered responses that we would find in the typical marketer’s job description: great communication skills, capacity to think strategically and understand the big picture, plus innovative and creative ideas about how to reach the target market.

While true, are any of these distinctive? Wouldn’t stakeholders outside of the marketing department say they share these qualities?

In my work with thousands of B2B marketers over the past few decades, I’ve seen most organizations draw the line between marketing and other departments for the purpose of dividing labor rather than building a team with specialized competencies. The highest-potential marketing teams toil away on endless lists of deliverables, operating with little more autonomy than a factory production worker.

Until we address the competency question, marketing will not have the foundation to build its role as a strategic resource that can be trusted to deliver competitive advantage.


A Competency Gap Awaits Marketing

Check out the invite list whenever company executives meet to devise strategies to reach new markets, achieve difficult goals, or overcome competitive obstacles. Does anyone at that meeting have access to factual insights about how and why different types of buyers will respond to each of the company’s alternative courses of action?

Probably not. Instead, it is likely that the meeting’s participants are charged with the responsibility to clarify and resolve concerns about the impact on their departments. The buyer’s needs may be partially represented, but only to the extent that sales has concerns about specific high-value prospects or customers. It is rarely within the scope of anyone’s responsibility to speak to the needs of a market full of target buyers–an interesting conundrum given that the success or failure of most of these decisions will be decided by those very buyers and markets.

There is a vacuum of insight into how buyers make decisions to buy the company’s products, a competitor’s, or no one’s at all. That’s because no one, in the normal course of business, has the exposure to the buyers’ thinking that this role requires.

In fact, the only way to gain the needed non-obvious insights is to engage directly with buyers through unscripted conversations. The interviewer must skillfully probe beyond the buyers’ first answers to get to as-yet unarticulated facts about how and why buyers make the choices the company wants to impact. The competency to conduct these interviews is simply missing.

Developing this competency requires marketers to challenge the existing rules about their roles and permissions to interact directly with buyers. Plus new skills must be mastered; marketers will need to engage buyers in one-on-one interviews in lieu of surveys, focus groups, and other arms-length interactions that are relatively useless for the purposes described here.

Marketers frequently respond to this need by outsourcing buyer interviews, maintaining the team’s comfortable role as project manager for third-party resources. Those who take this step miss the goal to become buyer experts because the people who conduct the interviews are the experts, not those who pay for them.

Marketers who become buyer experts are among the company’s most valuable competitive assets. As a proxy for the buyer, marketers are the source of information that informs many of the decisions at the highest levels of the company. From acquisitions to market expansion and product extensions, the buyer’s perspective is of utmost importance.

Marketers who know their buyers are also perceived as the experts for decisions within their own domains. For instance, real insights into the factors that influence different categories of buyers drive the most effective market segmentation and targeting. Messaging is no longer debated because marketers have clarity about the precise attributes of the solution that customers evaluate to compare their options. And a team filled with buyer-experts has confidence in the deliverables that buyers seek at each stage in the buying process, reducing the number of tactics and enabling higher quality investments.

Arguably the most important beneficiary of buyer insights, however, is the sales team. Consider the sales people’s reaction at a launch event where marketing presents the facts about:


  • which buyers will agree to meet and how to get that meeting
  • positives to emphasize, objections to overcome
  • what buyers are saying about each competitor
  • which buyers are critical at each step in the buying process/journey
  • the sales tools that were developed to assist with all of the above

Along those lines, the Sales Executive Council published an important book last year, The Challenger Sale, reporting the results of studies with more than 3,000 salespeople in 90 B2B companies. Its original intent was simple: to learn about the characteristics of a small subset of sales people who remained successful during the economic downturn. To their dismay, the researchers learned that this was no economic blip, that fundamental changes in the way buyers make decisions had permanently changed the playbook for both sales and marketing.

One of the group’s most significant findings is that buyers are now 60 percent of the way to a final decision before they agree to talk to a sales person. This puts vastly more pressure on marketers to deliver persuasive marketing content that buyers can find and consume at will. Plus, marketers will not want to hold a lead until it is “BANT” (Budget-Authority-Need-Timing) qualified, as the buyer’s decision is essentially complete by that point.

Marketers who conduct regular in-depth interviews with buyers would have noticed the change in buyer behavior long before their competitors could learn about it from the Sales Executive Council. These marketers would see that they could increase competitive advantage and grow revenue by radically overhauling the company’s approach to lead management and measurement.

Would the company’s management be willing to adjust these strategies? Building a foundation for the company’s confidence in marketing must come first, or the answer is probably no.

In The Challenger Sale, the Sales Executive Council also explores the impact of their findings on sales management’s recruiting and staffing decisions. The book’s title derives from a category of sales person named “Challenger” for their aptitude to debate the buyer’s limited perspective of value and position the company’s solution to deliver success that exceeds expectations. The researchers found that Challenger reps average results that are 200 percent of core sales performance, ranking far ahead of the “Hard Worker” (reps who go the extra mile), the “Reactive Problem Solver” (reliably responsive), or the “Relationship Builder” (builds strong advocates, gets along well with others).

The report is a call to action for sales management to build the competencies that will be most effective in today’s climate. They make it clear that a new set of training priorities and management directives will enable most reps to become Challengers– that this is not about replacing the existing team.

Today’s CMO has this same opportunity, with a team of marketers that is likely dominated by Hard Workers, Reactive Problem Solvers, and Relationship Builders. It’s time to focus on building Challenger Marketers–buyer experts who have the aptitude to debate the company’s limited perspective of value and deliver success that far exceeds expectations


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