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Latest Research on Sales-to-Marketing Transitions [Key Insights]

Latest Research on Sales-to-Marketing Transitions [Key Insights]

Jeff S. Johnson and Joseph M. Matthes

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Sales professionals often move into marketing roles to pursue their own career ambitions or follow a predefined career track at companies. While sales and marketing are complementary and integrated functions, they also have different areas of focus. Marketing is inherently strategic, focused on corporate, industry, and digital strategies, advertising, and PR, among other responsibilities. Meanwhile, sales can be both strategic and tactical, focused on winning major new customers, deepening relationships, and executing customer calls and visits.

Intra-organizational mobility can help employees develop cross-functional skills, enhance their understanding of firm functions, and increase their job satisfaction and loyalty. However, job transitions can also potentially create substandard outcomes, such as lost time and poor performance. 


Past sales to marketing job transition research has focused on a subset of the transition process, starting when professionals are preparing to take on new roles. Our study sought to analyze the motivational factors prompting job transitions and the acquisition strategies used to secure new roles, providing valuable insights into how employees successfully executed their transitions. In addition, we explored the drawbacks of role shifts, not just the positive benefits previously studied. By so doing, we create a more complete model firms can use to prepare sales staff for their transitions into marketing roles. 

To understand the successes and challenges more fully, we conducted in-depth semi-structured interviews with 56 professionals who had transitioned from sales to marketing within their organizations, professionals who transitioned but did not remain in marketing roles, and executives involved in creating and monitoring these transitions. Participants were diverse in terms of their ethnicities, organizations, and industries. 

Of the 56 participants:

  • 32 were successful transitioners with an average of 4.1 years of experience in sales and 6.2 years in marketing. Some 37.5% were female.
  • 11 were failed transitioners, with 3.8 years of experience in sales, 3.5 years in marketing, and 5.9 years in other roles. Of this group, 36.4% were female.

Based on the interviews, we identified six key facets of the sales-to-marketing transition process: motivation, acquisition, preparation, encounter, adjustment and stabilization. Participants provided the most interesting insights for the first four phases, which are provided here. For the adjustment and stabilization phases, participants providing insights that reinforced existing research. As a consequence, they are not included in our research.

Interview findings included:

Motivations: Participants said that intrinsic motivations, such as taking on a more strategic role, helping an under-performing department, or applying educational knowledge in a real-world setting were most important in deciding to purse a new role. These factors outweighed extrinsic motivations, such as meeting unspoken organizational expectations, working for a more powerful organization, or achieving work-life balance. 

Acquisition: Sales professionals recognized that marketing role requirements differed significantly from their sales jobs and stressed sales achievement, strategic thinking, and an analytical mindset to win their new roles. Most reported sales achievement as the least effective skill to showcase. Early-career sales people promoted their analytical gifts, lacking strategy experience, while late-career sales staffers found strategic ability more compelling to interviewees.

Preparation: After winning new jobs, some respondents prepared themselves broadly, by reading current marketing texts and taking marketing courses. Others took a targeted approach, interviewing organizational marketing peers and gathering data on their new role. Most respondents felt the targeted approach was better, as it provided more relevant content they could use immediately. 

Encounter: After transitioning to their new roles, newly minted marketers noted that they lost certain benefits associated with their sales roles. Some noted they were working for lower pay, had lost the freedom to set their own schedules, had less customer interaction, and had less exciting jobs as they worked on longer-term projects. Challenges included increased pressure due to more difficult roles, increased ambiguity with setting goals, and greater exposure to organizational politics. Later-career sales staff felt the loss of benefits more keenly than early-career staff, who were more focused on surmounting new challenges.  

Respondents identified several traits that helped them transition, including having a marketing mindset and a team orientation, seeking proactive feedback, gathering information, and outsourcing certain tasks. Other factors which aided the transition, but were outside their control, were working for an older firm with more institutional knowledge, selling products rather than services, and marketing differentiated products. Firms can support transitioners by providing them with a marketing academy to gain proper training, cross-training marketing and sales to give staff early exposure to different roles, creating cultural openness to transitions, formalizing marketing roles, and providing continued customer exposure. 

Helping employees make the sales-to-marketing job transition increases the likelihood that marketing strategies will be implemented successfully. In addition, successful transitions can reduce tensions between sales and marketing organizations and provide sales staff with aspirational career goals. Drawbacks of facilitating the sales-to-marketing transition could result in more reactive and less strategic marketing, suboptimal pricing due to excessive customer empathy, and the loss of customer relationships. In addition, these transitions can create a misallocation of human resources if high-performing sales staff move to marketing solely for career advancement, depleting the sales force. Despite these conflicting potential outcomes, respondents concluded that the benefits of the transition process outweighed the drawbacks. 

Our study provides managers with valuable guidance as they set human resource strategies in their firms. They can use study insights to choose the right sales people, prepare them for new roles, and create a supportive culture with instructional tools to gain new skills and capabilities.. 

Read the full article​.

Read the authors’ slides for sharing this material in your classroom.

Jeff S. Johnson and Joseph M. Matthes (2018) “Sales-to-Marketing Job Transitions,” Journal of Marketing, 82 (May), 32–48.

Go to the Journal of Marketing  

Jeff S. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Henry W. Bloch School of Management, University of Missouri–Kansas City.

Joseph M. Matthes is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Marquette University.