Advances in data, technology and analytics continue to bring new opportunities for improving sales and marketing effectiveness. Digital capabilities have evolved from descriptive (reporting what happened), to diagnostic (understanding why), to predictive (projecting what will happen if), to prescriptive (recommending what to do). But the road to realizing value continues to be bumpy.
Publications routinely highlight individual successes with systems such as CRM, reporting and AI-enabled sales/marketing. Benefits touted include better leads and conversion rates, larger deal sizes, and increased sales productivity and growth. Yet surveys show widespread dissatisfaction with sales and marketing systems. For example, in a 2019 PCMag survey, the Net Promoter Score is negative for most major CRM providers.
Too often when these initiatives fail, companies blame a flawed strategy—poor vision or focus on inspection—not business impact. Other times, they point to implementation challenges: data quality problems or inattention to change management. But the one aspect that is often overlooked is the profile of the person leading the effort.
In the successes we have seen, in almost every case, there is a very special profile of the person leading the effort. This "most valuable player" of technology implementations is a boundary spanner.
Boundary spanners cut across business and technology in their experience. They have empathy for the commercial mindset (“Get it done. Produce results.”) as well as the IT mindset (“Design for the long-term. Control risk.”) Although our experience is with sales and marketing, we suspect this leader profile is critical in other domains as well. Not surprisingly, 62% of the respondents in PWC’s 2017 Digital IQ Survey identified “a lack of collaboration between IT and business” as the leading obstacle to the success of digital initiatives.
So what do boundary spanners do and how do they do it? Why are they so critical to the success of these initiatives? How do we mint more boundary spanners in organizations?
How Boundary Spanners Enable Success
Sales/marketing has certain priorities: innovating new ideas, chasing opportunities and getting quick results. IT has priorities, too, which are equally important but potentially conflicting: controlling costs and risks, developing enterprise capabilities and ensuring longer-term sustainability. Boundary spanners can rally both sales/marketing and IT around a common purpose. Boundary spanners can dream with the business stakeholders in the vision phase while aligning the same stakeholders with realistic priorities and the IT mindset in the implementation phase. Boundary spanners have the judgment borne of experience to know when to support IT instincts and when to support sales/marketing instincts.
For example, a boundary spanner will:
- Support IT by helping business stakeholders see the timeline, quality, and budget risks of adding new features too late in the process.
- Support sales/marketing by helping IT see the benefits of using an innovative technology that delivers better on business needs, compared to a tried-and-true solution.
- Push back against both IT and sales/marketing to keep things simple when design-by-committee is making the system unwieldy and hard to use.
- Bring new insights that may not come naturally to either sales/marketing or IT. A boundary spanner might launch a minimum viable solution with an early experience team to enable quick adaptation and tailoring. A boundary spanner can also align both parties around an agile, iterative and fail fast mentality when the underlying technology is new.
A Boundary Spanner in Action
When a software company developed an AI-powered system for its inside sales team, a boundary spanner led the project. The project created a system of interconnected models that scored and calibrated account opportunities and shared insights with salespeople. These insights included which accounts were likely to churn and why, what the salesperson could do to mitigate the risk, and suggestions for the next best product offering based on an account’s propensity to buy. The system delivered recommendations to inside salespeople in seven different time zones. The initiative came out of a grassroots effort within the sales force. The project champion and team leader came from sales but had previously worked in IT. With a boundary-spanning perspective, the leader cultivated a common belief and purpose for AI-enabled selling, bringing together dozens of people from IT, sales, marketing and product groups looking for sales team support. Ultimately, the initiative led to millions of dollars in new revenue and increased customer satisfaction.
The Making of Boundary Spanners and Why Their Ranks Are Growing
Boundary spanners are shaped through varied experience that allows them to develop broad empathy. Generally, their career paths span technology and business roles. For example, one boundary spanner started her career in IT where she focused on application development. Next, she moved to an analyst role, supporting the marketing organization with reporting and diagnostics. From there she joined a team that implemented a migration of reporting to mobile devices, interacting with designers and users throughout the implementation. Next, she was the business leader for the development of a global, cloud-based commercial data lake. The most successful boundary spanners have lived through multiple technology implementations in varying roles and have experienced both successes and failures.
Unfortunately, for all the value boundary spanners bring, we don’t see enough of them leading technology initiatives. In the past companies have been unaware of the importance of boundary-spanning capabilities. Also, siloed corporate structures have impeded the development of boundary-spanning skills. Leaders have advanced either in IT or in sales/marketing, with little opportunity to move between functions. But this situation is changing rapidly.
Recent trends point towards a spike in the supply of boundary-spanning talent coming out of IT. As companies use more pay-as-you-go services (e.g., SaaS, cloud computing, outsourced analytics), IT has become increasingly focused on bringing value by linking business needs with technology capabilities. This fundamentally changes the profile of corporate IT talent. Increasingly, companies seek IT professionals who can use leading edge technologies to design business solutions. We are already seeing more IT professionals taking initiative to seek out boundary-spanning roles. Companies can benefit from having a more formal program to develop such talent.
As companies develop more boundary-spanning talent, we expect to see more organizations embedding digital sales and marketing systems into core processes with greater success.