Sales: Sales force automation

Every few years something triggers me to revisit my opinion on the value of SFA (Sales Force Automation) in a sales organization.

Usually, it’s yet another experience of yet another company with yet another illusion that SFA is going to cure what ails their sales results. This time, it’s the opposite. Yes, a success story with SFA!

A long time client of mine just finished its first year of successfully rolling out an SFA system. I was involved on the periphery of the rollout so I can offer some firsthand observations on what they did to make it work.

Here’s the net-net:

1.    They made SFA a tool that has value to the salespeople using it.  The reason most SFA initiatives fail is that they exist almost exclusively to serve senior management’s desire for information. In this case, the company put the information needs of the sales force first.

2.    They were realistic about using it as a forecasting tool. Unfortunately, SFA’s forecasting ability tends to dominate SFA vendors’ value propositions. And for good reason. It’s oh-so-tempting for executives to be drawn to the push-of-a-button, real-time forecast illusion. Theoretically, accurate forecasting is possible with SFA. But everyone knows about “Garbage in/Garbage out.” If your forecasts are dartboards now, they’ll be prettier dartboards with SFA. In my client’s case, they kept the forecast tool pressure off completely until the second year of the launch. This worked beautifully to manage everyone’s expectations and gave the sales force time to populate the system with real information.

3.    They’re using it to document key interactions – in chronological order – between their salespeople and their customers. Key interactions include important phone conversations, emails, letters, presentations, live meetings and the like. Chronological order is important because it’s the easiest way for anyone else in your company to get up to speed on the history of the account. It’s also the most streamlined way for salespeople to document their activities at the account, especially call reports. When salespeople have to navigate the SFA software to put different information into different fields they fatigue in a hurry.

4.    They defined multiple sales processes to reflect the reality of multiple types of sales campaigns. This is huge! Most companies view a sales process as a series of milestones along the path toward closing the deal. They might define, for example: Step 1. Qualify, Step 2. Make initial contact, Step 3. Identify needs, Step 4. Submit proposal, and so on, as key milestones. Then with the attainment of each milestone, the deal is some percentage closer to closing. One problem with this approach is that it assumes all sales campaigns are created equal. This company defined five different types of sales campaigns: creating demand, winning a competitive sale, retaining a customer, displacing an incumbent, cultivating growth. The sales process in the SFA was different for each campaign type.

5.    They made it easier to enter data than to extract it. They reversed the model on this one. Instead of letting “report generation” drive the install, they made “data entry” the drive. This is a sure-fire way to gain acceptance from the trenches. So what if it happens to take a few more keystrokes to get that perfect report? At least it’ll be reliable.

If you’re considering SFA, or already have it, make it a slave to you – don’t become a slave to it – by following these five guidelines.

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