How HR Can Become A True Strategic Partner of Sales?

By M.Peer Mohamed Sardhar 
In a recent Mercer survey exploring the relationship between the HR and Sales functions, some very interesting findings emerged. Our research reveals that although establishing a strategic partnership between HR and Sales may seem a distant goal, it is possible…and very important. By employing the best practices of successful partnerships and using fundamental customer-centric strategies, HR can become an effective business partner with Sales and a strategic asset in the revenue-generating function of a company. This excerpt from Mercer’s survey report looks at the characteristics of a successful partnership between HR and Sales.

Despite the challenges of developing a solid partnership between HR and Sales, our research found companies in which both groups had escaped the tendency to maintain the status quo and had successfully overcome the barriers. In the following best practices, we describe the key distinctions we discovered between “Strategic Partner” organizations and “Support Function” organizations – that is, companies in which Sales perceived HR as a “full strategic partner” and those in which HR was relegated to a supporting role or “basic support function.”

Best Practice 1: They collaborate frequently on key business issues.
Both Sales and HR cited a lack of knowledge about Sales’ business as a key impediment to partnership. Leading companies, however, remove this impediment through frequent communication. First, they share their respective business agendas at very senior levels. When asked how frequently Sales collaborates with its HR peers on important business issues, we found that Strategic Partner companies did so with much greater frequency than their Support Function counterparts. This practice ensures that HR understands Sales’ burning issues and is able to respond with appropriate types of initiatives. Without this executive collaboration, HR and Sales can become strategically misaligned, especially in light of their company’s overall goals and objectives.

Best Practice 2: They dedicate HR resources to Sales.
Strategic Partner organizations do not limit the exchange of information to their senior executives. To further facilitate communication between the groups, they commit resources at the field level to work side by side with one another. In more than half of the Strategic Partner companies, we found that HR maintained at least one dedicated resource to support the sales force. In stark contrast, not a single Support Function company assigned HR resources to team with Sales on an ongoing basis. Dedicated support resources offer a unique opportunity for HR to view the inner workings of Sales and to develop a deeper understanding of its business objectives and processes. Without this inside information, HR is disadvantaged and hampered in its ability to provide meaningful advice and support.

Best Practice 3: They develop additional skills.
Another barrier to strategic partnership that both HR and Sales executives identified was the level and mix of skills within the HR function. Whether the result of better hiring or better training, we found that Strategic Partner organizations perceived a higher level of HR skills across the board than did their Support Function peers. This discrepancy was most pronounced in areas such as analysis, leadership and general business acumen – skills deemed relevant to providing more sophisticated support to Sales.

Perhaps these distinguishing skills enable HR in Strategic Partner organizations to perform more support tasks for Sales than their Support Function counterparts can – on average, performing eight sales support tasks rather than five. It is also interesting to note the nature of the tasks where the Strategic Partner group outpaced its peers to the largest degree: training, performance benchmarking and the other tasks that Sales more frequently elects to perform itself. It seems that when HR is willing and able, Sales will hand over the reins of many of its mission-critical activities.

Both HR and Sales have much to gain from a strong strategic partnership. At a minimum, HR can showcase its ability to create measurable value for the company, and Sales can focus its attention on doing what it does best – winning and retaining customers. While there a few real barriers to developing this relationship, they are not insurmountable, and many companies have successfully overcome them through close collaboration and HR transformation.