If your business has separate sales and tech-development department teams, it's safe to assume they've had communication issues in the past. Maybe your sales team promised an unrealistic deadline to a customer and doesn't understand why the software development team can't meet that deadline. Maybe your senior developer keeps trying to explain a new software feature in a way that doesn't make sense to sales staff.

In any case, there's a communication barrier that extends beyond straightforward communication skills. So why does this barrier exist, and what steps can your company take to resolve it?

Reasons for the Barrier

Let's start by examining why this communication barrier exists.

  • Different "languages." There's a fundamental difference in how salespeople and technologists communicate. These people tend to come from different backgrounds and have different types or levels of education; for example, tech-focused staff usually have experience, education, and training in a key technical area, which gives them a vocabulary that's difficult for anyone outside the industry to understand. Similarly, sales staff are forced to communicate in a way that allows them to persuade people and/or build relationships, which are mere secondary goals of your development team. When two people attempt to have a conversation using these different "languages," miscommunications are bound to occur.
  • Silos. Operational silos form when two separate departments with separate goals, motivations, and responsibilities end up working in isolation from one another. If your tech staff are focused on meeting objectives and completing projects while your sales staff are focused only on closing deals and keeping customers happy, there's going to be a mismatch of goals. For example, software developers will consistently fight for achievable, realistic timetables while sales staff will push for more ambitious goals. Different goals and motivations will keep these teams separated, and things can grow even worse if the members of those individual teams develop an "us versus them" mentality.

Tips for Resolution

What can the average business owner or team leader do to begin resolving these issues?

  • Establish a mutual language. First, try to establish a "language" of communication that works for both parties. This usually means identifying one medium and a set pattern of interaction that makes sense for both teams. For example, you might have your sales staff ask questions and resolve differences with your development team leader via instant chat, and encourage them to frame their requests as questions rather than demands. You could also work with at least one high-ranking member of the tech team to communicate in more straightforward, non-technical terms. It takes time to develop this mutual language, and it's going to take compromises from both teams.
  • Set team goals. You can also incentivize more cooperation and less resistance by setting company-wide goals that apply to both teams. For example, you could categorize projects by size and complexity, then establish a goal timeline in which to complete each category of project. That way, salespeople know what to expect (and when they're potentially overpromising), and tech staff are incentivized to push harder to achieve ambitious timelines.
  • Cross-train. It's also a good idea to implement cross-training between your different departments. Make it a requirement for your salespeople to spend at least a few hours with IT or with your software developers, shadowing the people who are doing the work and learning more about the technology they sell and use regularly. They'll become more acquainted with the real demands of the job and the technical terminology being exchanged, so they'll have a broader vocabulary while simultaneously building empathy for the other team. Likewise, your tech team can tag along to sales meetings so they can learn exactly how picky or demanding your prospective clients truly are.
  • Encourage more interdepartmental interaction. Not every improvement has to be made in a formal setting or with a documented process. Instead, try to allow more interdepartmental interaction throughout the day and in informal settings. Having an open office plan, where your employees can all intermingle, and hosting team-based events, where people can interact personally, can all help improve communication.

It's impossible to improve your team's communication overnight, so be prepared for a relatively long process as you start to resolve these differences. Proactively identifying that a communication barrier exists is always the first step to resolution, so if you know your sales and tech teams are regularly miscommunicating, you're already ahead of most companies.

Published on: Mar 19, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.