Who Owns the Pipeline: Sales or Marketing? That's the Wrong Question.

Sales and marketing have been fighting over who owns the pipeline since the pipeline was invented, but lately, it’s started to look as though marketing might win this tug-of-war.

Perhaps we need to think about how the pipeline is defined before going any further. The pipeline used to be a sales term specific to prospects that were in an active sales cycle. Consider how this terms is embedded into Salesforce.com’s forecasting reports—it’s a clear part of the sales vernacular. But now, as customers take more control over their buying process and as technology supports greater customer autonomy and corporate automation, we often see terms such as pipeline, funnel, lead lifecycle, and customer journey being used interchangeably. They all describe a prospect’s journey from the point of awareness to decision. We’ll use all of these terms in this post.

In the beginning, marketing occupied the farthest outer edge of the funnel, spending its time broadcasting advertising messages in the hopes of smoothing the sales path with a little brand or product familiarity. Then email precipitated the invention of lead generation, and marketing expanded a little further into the funnel.

Today, most marketing departments have gone even deeper, propelled by two main trends:

Marketing Technology Has Matured

Marketing tech has matured rapidly and is now able to anticipate and support buyers’ needs in increasingly intelligent, sophisticated ways. Personalized experiences can now be delivered by technology as well as human beings, which means that salespeople may not need to step into the process as early. Resources such as chatbots, ROI calculators, on-demand webinars, video demos, and even crowd-sourced review forums can now perform many of the functions that salespeople would previously have been called on to deliver.

Customer Preferences Have Changed

Many people now prefer to “self serve” as they define their challenges and explore the solutions. According to the latest Forrester research, self-service interactions have overtaken all other customer service channels for three years running, and that trend towards DIY is evident earlier in the customer lifecycle, too. Prospects want to do their own research and consume multiple pieces of content before they are ready for a sales conversation: one Forrester estimate suggested that buyers are 75-90% of the way through their journey before reaching out to a salesperson.

To complicate matters further, different customer segments may demonstrate different preferences. Many companies we’ve worked with have a bifurcated lead lifecycle where they offer a fully self-serve buying process to support one set of prospects while also offering a second pathway to support prospects who desire a more high touch sales interaction. The former demonstrates a zero-touch sales process that is on the rise due to changing expectations and attitudes around purchasing behavior.

What Does This Mean for the Pipeline?

Year over year, the length of the pipeline that sales occupies has gradually shifted as marketing has started to not only generate, but qualify, nurture, and enable customers. Where the solution comes with a hefty price tag and has the potential to impact multiple roles or business units, there is still a higher reliance on sales and personal relationships. But even in these cases, the marketing team and technologies are actively supporting the development and maintenance of these relationships.

If we have to choose an “owner” based on who manages the longest stretch of the pipeline, marketing wins hands down. But it’s a hollow victory because when the pipeline gets fragmented by this kind of territorial thinking, both sides lose out.

The sales pipeline is strengthened by collaboration, not ownership, which is why “who owns it?” is always the wrong question. We need to ask “How can we share it?”

The Sales Pipeline Is Strengthened by Collaboration, Not Ownership.

According to a 2017 global research report from LinkedIn (gated), a lack of collaboration between sales and marketing results in 60% weaker financial performance, 59% poorer customer experience, and a 58% reduction in customer retention.

The marketing engine is definitely guiding leads farther along the buyer’s journey than ever before, but that doesn’t diminish the sales function. In fact, if anything, marketing’s expanding role is helping sales by taking away much of the grunt work and enabling them to focus their energies on high-value activities. In this regard, many marketing teams perform the same function as sales development reps (SDRs)—identifying, nurturing, and qualifying leads before handing them off to the sales experts.

So, What Are the New Pipeline Rules? 

If marketing manages a longer stretch of the pipeline, how does it change the way sales and marketing interact?

Overall, it makes collaboration, coordination, and trust between the two teams that much more essential.


Both teams need to agree on the definition of each stage in the lead lifecycle—from awareness to MQL to target to closed won/lost to renewal—and these definitions need to be detailed and specific. What actions must each prospect take or what criteria must they meet before moving on to the next stage? What actions do the marketing and sales contributors need to take with each prospect based on their stage? The sales-accepted lead (SAL) stage is likely to require the greatest level of coordination, but both sides need to understand and agree on how the entire funnel progresses.


Leads are spending more time interacting with marketing content, and those interactions need to be shared with sales to facilitate a more seamless customer experience and a more effective sales engagement. Just as marketing and sales teams need to collaborate, so do their systems. The MAP (marketing automation platform) needs to flow lead data collected from progressive profiling activities, data enrichment, and content consumption into the CRM, so that salespeople have the information they need to reach out to prospects in a targeted, meaningful way.


The handoff from marketing to sales gets a lot of attention—and it should—but a minority of companies look at the handoff from sales to marketing. The information should flow both ways. When sales shares information about which prospects became customers, which customers see the greatest success, and which generate the most revenue, that information can be plugged back into engagement plans as well as earlier-stage evaluation, such as scoring, to strengthen the customer journey and the pipeline even further.


When marketing is able to prove their impact on revenue, it helps them speak the same language as sales and prove the value they bring to the process. While attribution is still a big challenge, it’s becoming more realistic for marketers to draw a straight line from marketing efforts to revenue earned. At the very least, marketing needs to be able to track the leads generated and the percentage converted across every stage of the pipeline so that they can demonstrate both the quantity and quality of the leads it produces.


It’s called a ‘customer journey’ for a reason and the lead lifecycle process needs to align with the needs of the customer. As more and more people seek to conduct their own extensive research before reaching out to a salesperson, more and more of that pipeline will be driven by marketing activities. That doesn’t diminish the importance of sales, but it does mean that to reflect customer preferences, sales and marketing roles and processes may need to adjust.

The sooner sales and marketing get past the turf-war mentality, the sooner everyone can see the benefits. Teams are more likely to hit their targets, the organization is more likely to reach its revenue goals, and the customer is more likely to experience a seamless journey. As with most business challenges, when you put the customer’s needs first, the pieces start falling into place.





About the Author

Rhoan Morgan

Rhoan is DemandLab's CEO and Co-Founder. She is an award-winning digital marketing professional with more than 15 years of expertise and a strong track record of generating results for B2B and B2C marketing and sales teams through advanced integrated marketing automation campaigns. She is also the host of the Revenue Rebels podcast on SLMA Radio and the author of Change Agents: The Radical Role of Tomorrow's CMO.

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