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Interfunctional Coupling: Implications for the Selling Process


Alvin J. Williams, Ph.D.
Alvin J. Williams, Ph.D., Chairman and Professor of Marketing, The University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS 39406-5091, 601/266-4634.

79th Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1994 - Atlanta, GA

Purchasing professionals are in frequent pursuit of opportunities to enhance performance and overall effectiveness. Some of the options require slight modifications in process and effort and others demand monumental shifts in the way things are done. So it is with interfunctional teams in most organizations. The idea that teams of people from assorted areas are now required to make decisions on everything from sourcing to new product development is still somewhat of an anathema to many in the supply management field. However, this reality is likely to become a mainstay in industry for years to come. In addition to the obvious changes or adjustments internally, cross functional coupling also demands changes from external stakeholders. One of the most obvious of these is the marketing representative of suppliers. Thus, the focal point of this paper is to examine how marketing and sales should change to accommodate purchasing differences.

Given the rapid pace with which firms are embracing cross-functional efforts, it is managerially useful to determine how the selling tasks change as teaming escalates. Since purchasers and other members of the supply management team are more effective if sales professionals respond to their specific needs, it is imperative that marketers understand what is happening, the rationale for the changes, and the long-term implications for them. The key question to be answered is: What specific changes should salespeople make to more adroitly address the requirements of dynamic, interfunctional decision units?

Marketers must address fundamental changes in the phases of the selling process, including prospecting and development, presentation, responding to objections, gaining commitment, and follow through. At each level something different must take place to successfully accommodate interfunctional sourcing teams. The ensuing sections of the paper discuss how sales professionals can enhance effectiveness by making particular adaptations in what they do.

Prospecting basically involves determining the possibilities of doing business with an organization. It can focus on generating leads, qualifying the business, and all of the ancillary activities associated with making sure a firm may have use for your product or service. As part of this process, sales reps may now use the presence or absence of interfunctional sourcing teams as a means of segmenting prospective customers. Since the selling styles required by traditional buying groups and teams are markedly distinctive, the approach itself must vary. The depth and breadth of information needed to qualify a prospect will be more comprehensive.

As part of the preparation, more concerted attempts must be made to gather more detailed data on the nature of the problem, the salient issues, areas of potential disagreements within the team, background information on team members, time frame for decision making, and the authority of the team to commit resources and to obligate. In traditional buyer-seller interactions, these same data are useful, but their degree of specificity is less pronounced.

The actual sales presentation or interview requires considerable adaptation. In this new environment, sales professionals must become more attuned to understanding such things as alternative approaches to conflict management within the team, obvious and latent sources and bases of power, and more sophisticated communication methods.

If teams are more involved in decision-making, then conflict, both constructive and dysfunctional, are natural outgrowths of this approach. Sales professionals, in a sense, become conflict managers and/or mediators due to the different perspectives shared by representatives of diverse functional areas. Possession of this ability or trait can prove healthy and productive for marketers.

The proper identification of power sources and power-sharing processes within the cross-functional team can heighten the probability of successful exchange. Salespeople should be cognizant of non-traditional power sources resulting from coalition-building within teams. As with any setting of this nature, private or non-pertinent agendas can emerge and derail any substantive efforts.

Another key change regarding the presentation, is the communication style used by sales and marketing. More attention should be paid to the mechanics of the communication process, including the content and structure of the messages. Fundamentally, marketers must determine the best way to communicate and share information with those from different functional orientations. Traditionally, sales reps could "read" particular individuals, but the difficulty of the situation is exacerbated with a structured team. Thus, both communication and selling styles must be adjusted to reflect this difference.

As in any buyer-seller interaction, gaining commitment for the sale and overcoming objections and resistance is a critical element in the process. In a cross-functional team context, this requires a greater capacity of the sales team to see and perceive the "big" picture from the multiple perspectives of the sourcing group. Awareness of the interdependencies that shape the dynamics of the process is going to be a key success variable. Potential buyer resistance must be convincingly overcome with facts, qualitative concerns, value added, benefits vs costs, etc. All of the usual factors, plus those peculiar to the situation, are needed to develop responses to satisfy demands and expectations.

In the uncertain world of cross-functional exchanges, sales professionals must be more assertive and directive in gaining commitment from purchasers and others in the buying center. Given the nature of competition, much more sales diligence is demanded in closing the sale and obtaining agreement. Sellers must genuinely convince the sourcing team of its merits and its capacity to add value.

Once the deal is closed, special care should be undertaken to develop a nurturing and trusting relationship. Relationship marketing is a skill that the new breed of sellers must hone to previously unimaginable heights. It requires thoroughly matching the current and future expectations of both parties to the exchange process.

Effective selling in a sourcing environment dominated by cross-functional teams requires considerable adaptation in both mindset and behavior. If sales professionals are to be responsive, they must fully understand the challenges posed by this structure. The selling process has to be viewed as a more integrative, interconnective web of dynamic phases possessing both challenges and opportunities.

Cross-functional sourcing teams compound the nuances of the traditional buying center. As team members adjust to the demands of this new approach, ancillary uncertainties impact the nature and workings associated with sourcing decisions. Concomitantly, sales and marketing professionals must also develop and implement changes in selling styles and methods to accommodate the team orientation. This may also necessitate changes in how sales reps are trained, compensated, motivated, and evaluated. Whatever the circumstances, the new milieu compels novel approaches on both sides.


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  2. Powers, Thomas L., Modern Business Marketing: A Strategic Planning Approach to Business and Industrial markets, West Publishing Company, St. Paul, MN, 1991.

  3. Weitz, Barton A., Stephen B. Castleberry, and John F. Tanner, Selling: Building Partnerships, Richard D. Irwin, Inc., Homewood, IL, 1992.

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