Making the sale

Sales force automation, step one: put aside processes, software selection and business data, and concentrate instead on getting the people on side.

Without that, an SFA play will be dead before it begins.

SFA, even more than other IT initiatives, relies on the users. If sales staff don’t accept the new system, they can easily torpedo the initiative, either by not entering appropriate data or by simply keying-in what they know management wants to see.

Generating sales acceptance is the third link in a chain that starts with corporate management, who must provide strong sponsorship, and sales managers, who need to understand that sales tools can both build a stronger team and can also tear down what was there before.

Most importantly, the sales staff themselves have to be shown the value of this type of software. And then, a return on this investment will be manifested as ringing phones and busy factories.

The senior management

All IT projects require a strong corporate sponsor, an individual committed enough to work on the project and senior enough to ensure others do as well.

With SFA projects, that commitment is even more crucial, as widespread processes and work habits are on the line. The corporate sponsor has to understand the scope of those potential changes.

“With sales force automation, even the term suggests automation and technology, which is the wrong way to go about it,” according to Paul Battista, senior vice-president at Ernst & Young Consulting Services Inc. in Toronto. “The success of SFA change has very little to do with the application and very much to do with how an organization understands and deals with profound change to the way the sales force operates.”

Ernst & Young considers corporate support so important that a lack of it is reason enough to abandon an implementation. “We’re quite aggressive and dogmatic in our view that if an organization isn’t willing to put the required resources into the people side of the equation then we’ll often walk away,” Battista said.

But talking the talk isn’t enough – management has to follow through. Michael Johnson learned that, and the lesson convinced him to quit his job.

Until a few weeks ago, Johnson was a senior application specialist at Ontario Store Fixtures in Toronto. In December of 1997, the company began an SFA implementation. Since then the initiative has faltered a couple of times and is still only in limited use.

“I question the commitment of the executive-level sponsor – he was really committed in the meetings but there’s a role to play outside the meetings,” Johnson said. “He had to put his money where his mouth was and put these things into practice.”

The company was growing very rapidly, Johnson said, and that caused a shift in priorities that robbed the SFA project of the attention it needed. These changes prompted Johnson to look elsewhere for employment.

Michael Stuart, managing partner at SFA integrator Compu-Sales Consulting in Ajax, Ont., relates a similar story about another rapidly-expanding company.

“They formed a team to work on the project but within two weeks the entire team was in new jobs,” Stuart said. “The whole thing dissolved.”

Again, the problem was corporate commitment. “They didn’t have a clear project leader internally – tied in with the IT department, tied in with the sales department – who would manage this. So the whole initiative died out.”

Stuart eventually took his concerns to the top. “I invited their president out to lunch and had a heart-to-heart with him. He accepted that for a period of time they weren’t going to be successful (because they had other priorities) but they relaunched in August and it’s now rolling out steadily.

“They’re already getting a lot of benefit, just in the last couple of months, primarily because the president is championing this.”

Conversely, good support can deliver impressive results. Cynthia Kirkland, director of marketing at Teknion Furniture Systems Ltd. in Toronto, oversaw a Pivotal Corp. SFA implementation that began with a memo on Feb. 11, 1999 and rolled out April 26.

Kirkland’s team included representatives from marketing, sales, IT and an outside integrator. “We called it the warp-speed project. We dedicated ourselves to it,” she said. “IT were a great support in this. They literally dropped everything else, so this wasn’t one group going off and doing all this.”

The sales management

For front-line sales managers, the watchword is “restraint.”

Faced suddenly with piles of previously unavailable data – number of calls made and meetings held, work hours, dollars-per-day landed – sales managers can be sorely tempted to criticize poor performance.

Doing so, according to many users, will quickly turn sales staff against the new tool, and cause them to get busy subverting it. That was a danger Bruce Lazenby, vice-president of business development at FreeBalance Inc., identified early in his company’s GoldMine Software Corp. rollout.

“For the first time, I had information on what my people were doing, how many calls they made, on a real-time basis,” Lazenby said. “The important thing for me was to not hit them over the head with that. As soon as you start doing that, they will start doing all kinds of things to get the numbers in GoldMine up and get me off their backs.

“Sales people will do what they’re told, and they will stuff information into whatever system you provide them.”

Lazenby first investigated SFA tools when Ottawa-based FreeBalance decided to give away copies of its software to anyone who asked. It was Lazenby’s job to administer the hoped-for leads and sales that campaign would generate. After a two-day evaluation period, he selected GoldMine, mainly because it had the biggest marketshare.

To avoid the appearance that management was introducing a surveillance tool, Lazenby began using the software himself, and telling his staff they had to wait. “One by one the sales people would say, ‘Hey boss, that’s cool, can we use it?’ and I’d say ‘Not yet.’ So it got to the point where they could hardly wait to use it.”

Creating that type of enthusiasm is important, said Ernst & Young’s Battista, but instead management often creates a “head-office solution” mentality.

“Organizations that…just foist a system on users create a compliance approach to change. You say ‘Thou shalt use this system’ and sales people are very good at complying without in fact changing their behaviour. They subvert management’s intentions in implementing the system, and all that is accomplished is to add more work with little benefit.”

The sales people

Users and vendors agree that sales people are an independent bunch, accustomed to working in their own ways. That means no matter how much positive light is shone on SFA, there may still be some push back.

The best advice is to train users well, and then tell them they simply have no choice on whether to use the system.

First, don’t make the mistake of relying on one big-bang training session, according to Compu-Sales’ Stuart. “A lot of companies think a half day, one day or even two days at a national sales meeting is going to be enough training. That’s not the case – you have to invest in on-going training.”

At Ontario Store Fixtures, the one-stop training approach was another stumbling block, according to Johnson. “We had the big kick-off training, where you get every business person in North America into one location and try to breath Pivotal down their throats for three days and then expect them to go away and miraculously start using the system.

“But it really [should be] an iterative process, you need on-going hand-holding to help them change their habits.”

Teknion’s Kirkland believes in hand-holding. Her company held a central introductory meeting, but she credits subsequent training sessions with making the project a success. “We knew if they had any problems. The follow-up got us over the hump,” she said.

However, according to FreeBalance’s Lazenby, national training meetings are a bad idea from the beginning.

“There is nothing worse than generic training,” he said. “I [selected] an inside sales person and said, “You are Ms. GoldMine. Any time there’s a problem with GoldMine, it’s your problem. If a sales person can’t get a connection it’s your problem, if the data isn’t coordinated it’s your problem, if we’re losing records it’s your problem.

“We made sure she had the appropriate technical people available and we sent her to generic training so she would come back and say, ‘Here’s some features that we might take advantage of,’ but the last thing I wanted to do was fill sales people’s heads with what could be done or what some other company is doing. Their job is to sell, not learn software, so we only taught them what they needed to know.”

Another approach is to create SFA champions from within the user group. These are users who value the software and who convince others of its merit, said Bob Runge, vice-president of marketing for North Vancouver-based Pivotal.

“We’ve had customers who took their best sales people out of the field, paid them as if they were making 100 per cent of their quota, and turned them into super users,” he said. “These people…got everyone’s buy-in, because the top sales people are always the gods in the company, and if they say, ‘This stuff is great, this is how I make my numbers’ then others will listen and you have a much better chance of success.”

But sooner or later, managers must simply say: use it. This can be accomplished by making it impossible to sell without the SFA system.

“We automated core functions of the business that they had to do. If they wanted a quote the only way to get it is through the system,” said Teknion’s Kirkland.

Lazenby’s approach was similarly unbending. “We had one basic rule: if it’s not in GoldMine it didn’t happen. So I’d say, ‘Why isn’t that sale advancing?’ and the answer would be, ‘Well, I talked to the guy last week.’ I’d say, ‘No, you didn’t, it’s not in GoldMine, which means it didn’t happen.'”

the payoff

The point of all this work is to improve the bottom line, and the return on investment can be impressive. It may, however, also be tough to quantify.

The problem, according to Stuart, is companies often have no idea how long it takes to complete common processes, which makes it difficult to assess progress when modifications are made.

“Most users insist that if they [make improvements] then customers will be happier, and they don’t have to measure anything,” he said. “We do time studies – we’ll physically measure how long it takes to do certain activities – and then we’ll have benchmarks in place before the implementation starts, and then we can measure when we’re done and see if we achieved the desired effect.

“I wish more of my customers would actually go through that process.”

But some benefits are more tangible. Sales staff in one company Stuart worked with relied on information in paper catalogues to generate sales quotes. By automating those processes, “we identified two hours of savings per day per inside sales person, and they had 80 of them. That was a clear, definite, measurable benefit.”

According to Lazenby, FreeBalance could never have pulled off last year’s big product give-away without software-based help. “1998 was our best year, and we couldn’t have done it without some sort of automation tool. There’s no way we could have collected all the information, shared it and managed it, without a tool like this,” he said. “Any organization that sells more than 500 things a year, which has more than three sales people and doesn’t have a sales force automation tool is just begging for trouble.”