Fixing Sales Force Automation


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For the past 15 years one of the most common causes of Sales Force Automation project failures has been that they have added approximately zero value to users. Most projects prioritized sales management first and sales people a distant second. SFA projects aimed to imprison sales people; tracking their daily activities, forcing them to give up the knowledge, scripting them through a sales process and creating admin for them. Is it any wonder that the majority of users treated these systems with utter contempt? I have spoken to countless sales people who looked upon their SFA systems as 2-3 hours of admin time per week, usually on a Friday afternoon.

Sales people who find themselves the victims of bad SFA implementations typically enter the bare minimum amount of information required to cheat their managers into thinking they were using the system effectively, paying particular attention to working out how best to game and not commit the ultimate sin of over-forecasting a deal. Despite the millions invested in SFA applications rogue pipelines in Microsoft Excel complimented by to-do lists on scraps of paper arguably remain the most widely used SFA platform today. Unfortunately this creates a vicious circle of failure. As soon as management start to mistrust the forecast coming from their SFA reports, they too start finding other ways of improving forecast accuracy. They arrange daily or weekly calls with sales people, drilling down on every aspect of a deal, mentally adjusting their forecast figures up or down.

So how do we fix this issue? Most successful CRM projects now adopt an approach of trying to help customers fulfill their needs or wants – in other words the jobs they are trying to do. If we can help customers create value and be successful then we stand a much greater chance of building a mutually beneficial relationship. Exactly the same principle needs to be applied to employee sales people. When embarking on an SFA project we must understand how to create value for a sales person and one of the easiest ways of creating value is through information.

Several years ago I worked on an SFA project for a pharmaceutical company in Australia. Their typical profile of a sales rep was a 50-60 year old who travelled vast distances around country Australia, visiting pharmacy customers, whom they had known for many years, selling them over the counter medications. Most of the reps were superb sales people – they had amazing relationships with their customers, knowing every detail about the lives and businesses of the people they were dealing with. Two major problems existed. Firstly the reps had to do quite staggering amounts of admin (mainly faxing orders to wholesalers and chasing orders from wholesalers). Many reps stopped productive sales work at lunchtime and spent each afternoon doing admin. Secondly, the reps had no information about their customers other than that in their head. They had no idea which customers were the most profitable, which had the highest share of wallet, which switched suppliers frequently based on price promotions or what other dealings their customers had with the company e.g. with Finance. Finally, for additional context a significant proportion of the reps (say 20%) had very little IT experience. My advice to them was that they badly needed SFA but that SFA would kill their sales force. Instead of blindly rushing to roll out a laptop based SFA solution that at least 20% of the reps would not have been able to use, we took some time to understand the needs of the reps and how they worked. Of course when we spoke to them (and also their clients) they all wanted to reduce their admin time, they all wanted to be alerted when one of their major clients failed to pay on time, they all wanted to spot new opportunities to upsell additional products to their clients or find new opportunities, they all wanted to manage their time better and spend time on the things the activities that would increase their commission stream. In the end we implemented an SFA solution. But it was a very different SFA solution than you probably have in mind. Sure, it had many of the same features and functions but they were embedded within a simplified solution that added value to the rep and that the rep would actually want to use. For the 20% of reps who had literally never switched on a PC in their lives we set up a sales support desk. They carried on taking orders with pen and paper but before they visited a customer they phoned the sales support desk to get an update on any missing orders or payments. After the visit they phoned back and the sales support clerk typed in the orders as fast as they could speak – no faxes, no re-keying, no admin.

Now of course the example above is rather crude. The project won an award for the best CRM implementation in Australia (I think in 2003), but frankly we had a fairly easy opportunity to generate huge benefits given the lack of effectiveness within the sales force. Most sales forces today are far more sophisticated but similar problems still exist around admin time, lack of science in how reps treat different customers and lack of intelligence. Fundamentally reps in more sophisticated sales organizations still want the same things – “make it easier for me to sell”, “reduce my admin burden and help me make my commission targets”. In today’s “big data” world information and insight is key but we cannot expect our sales people to turn into data analysts. We must find ways of blending insight into SFA applications in ways that genuinely add value to sales people. For example our SFA systems should hide complexity of front / back office integration but:

  • Supplement account knowledge, for example with information gleaned from social networking sites e.g. Fred used to work with Joe at ACME, he writes a blog about financial fraud etc. Information from social networking sites can be valuable in helping a sales person find and qualify a new opportunity or understand the relationship networks around a target account. Take a look at this whitepaper from InsideView for more information: “Sales 2.0: Tap into Social Media to drive Enterprise Sales Results”.
  • Alert sales people to potential new opportunities based on patterns of what other customers are buying or what other successful reps are selling.
  • Show sales people how they are doing against targets and model commissions and how these will change based on different levels of quota achievement.
  • Predict the revenue and profitability impact of changing focus to a different account or set of activities.
  • Show how different competitors are impacting discounting, credits & losses and show how this impacts commission.
  • Model the impact of complex pricing changes to help structure deals better for customers, provider and of course sales rep.
  • Alert the sales rep to back office information that could be crucial in structuring a deal e.g. supply chain information that might prevent an order being shipped on time. This ensures that sales people make promises that they can deliver on, which in turn makes them more successful and saves them time and effort in re-visiting bad deals.
  • Connect the sales person to internal social networks and knowledge bases to find knowledge experts, peers or content easily. This can be extremely valuable for competitive information or sharing case studies of wins and losses.

SFA implementations are tough. Sales people are notoriously protective of their account information and insight and bitterly resistant to admin and control, but information can be a key to unlocking value for both organization and rep.

This article was originally written to support SAP’s 21st Century Sales Warrior Guide. See

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Laurence Buchanan
Laurence is CEO of EY Seren and leads EY’s global Customer & Growth practice. He works with clients to help them re-imagine growth through human-centered design, innovation and the transformation of Marketing, Sales & Customer Service functions. He is a recognized authority on digital transformation, customer experience and CRM, he has worked across a wide range of sectors, including telco, media, life sciences, retail and sports. He received an MA in Modern History from the University of Oxford.


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