Breaking Down SFA Adoption Bottlenecks

Updated: April 30, 2009

A career in sales is no picnic, even during an economic bonanza. In times like these , when the Feds have to bail out even the biggest of the Wall Street banks, commissioned-paid reps in any industry can find themselves first in line at community soup-kitchens. Given that sales are so hard to come by these days, are sales reps more open to SFA (Sales Force Automation) — or even more threatened by it?

"As far as how the economy will affect SFA adoption ... it may actually help," said Jim Berkowitz, president and CEO of CRM Mastery Inc . "Tough times can cause a sense of desperation. Salespeople who want to keep their earnings stream stable or on an upward trend are more likely to try anything that they think might help ... including a new SFA system."

Desperate Measures for Desperate Times

But sales reps are not the only ones feeling desperate. Their employers do too, and one can almost hear the snapping from the tension of quick cinching. "The economic downturn will, I'm sure, cause many companies to hold back on their SFA technology investments as they tighten their belts," said Berkowitz.

Even so, any quick-draw belt tightening isn't showing in the numbers yet. "We're not seeing a huge dip in IT spending at the moment. In fact, spending appears to be somewhat healthy as several CRM vendors have been reporting strong revenue growth for the year as well as recent quarters," said Pete Marston, CRM analyst at Forrester Research Inc . "Certainly, some IT projects are being put on hold and canceled, but SFA IT initiatives that are geared to assist resources in generating revenue are still being undertaken and rolled out."

Salting the Rub

Since SFA, at least for the moment, continues to roll out in company after company around the globe, and given a renewed interest in the technology by sales reps everywhere, one would think the oft-bemoaned SFA bottleneck would at last be blown wide open. But alas, this is not the case.

"The bottleneck between management and sales reps over the use of SFA tools tends to stem not from economic woes, but from a misunderstanding of the power of SFA and CRM," said Ed Siegel, director of marketing at SuperOffice CRM Inc .

Despite the new incentives thrust upon sales reps and company management by desperate economic times, the rub between the two has not been greased and mastery of the tools has not been heightened.

"Management often uses these systems to count the activities of the salespeople as if the quantity of sales calls somehow relates to the quality of the rep," observed Siegel. "Sales reps often feel like these tools are being implemented to monitor their activity and, therefore are reluctant to use them. Or worse, embellish the information to make themselves look good.

"Both of these attitudes lead to SFA/CRM failure," added Siegel.

Closing the Sale

If both sides understand the strengths and features of these tools, argued Siegel, they are more likely to adopt them as integral additions to their information arsenals.

Similar to the recent epiphany in CRM where "outcome per contact" trumps "cost per contact," management has to realign its interpretation of the proper use of SFA. It can no longer be viewed as a mere contact-management system; instead it must be fully realized as a comprehensive closing tool. In other words, SFA must be seen as a tool that assists in closing the maximum number of sales rather than as a tool that tracks the sales reps' daily activities.

After all, if a sales rep makes a dozen person-to-person calls a day, but closes none, neither the company nor the rep makes a cent. It's not surprising then that both the rep and management incorrectly assume the problem lies in SFA if tracking rep activity or performing simple contact management is the sole use of the technology.

Show Me the Money

"When management's goals and objectives are aligned with sales reps' goals and objectives, we've witnessed that SFA application adoption is higher," said Forrester's Marston.

In short, everybody's happy when everybody's making money, so focus on making money rather than managing the sales rep's calendar. "Sales reps will use tools that help them be more effective and meet their revenue targets," explained Marston. "If management imposes tools onto reps that don't assist the reps in being able to deliver better, adoption flounders."

Beginning Steps

Once that mindset is established and focused on a mutually beneficial end goal, how should management proceed to ensure the SFA bottleneck is permanently banished?

That depends on where you are in the process.

"When the sales professionals play an active role throughout the SFA -software selection process, especially when they give their feedback to a ‘usability' demo of SFA alternatives, then they are much more likely to adopt the solution, than if their role in the selection process is minimal to none," observed Berkowitz.

If you have not yet selected an SFA product, Berkowitz recommended you take the following steps to ensure adoption after purchase:

  • Have the salespeople help select the SFA solution so that it meets their actual needs.
  • Show how the new SFA technology clearly helps the salespeople to be more efficient; i.e. better use their time, prioritize prospects, etc.
  • Show how the new SFA technology clearly helps the salespeople to be more effective; i.e. close more deals.
  • Give the salespeople real-time access to the same analytics and reports that management will be using to evaluate their performance. Transparency builds trust.

Starting in the Middle

If you already have an SFA solution in place, Steve Willson, partner at Panoptika Inc ., a Toronto-based boutique consultancy, suggested the following:

  • Communicate to the sales force why you are implementing the system. If you can't clearly state reasons why a sales rep will benefit from the system, then you need to rethink why you're spending the time and money on it.
  • Involve the sales force in the design of the system. The more you listen to their needs, the more likely you are to, at a minimum, have features that offer real benefits to the field.
  • Invest in sufficient training, both initially and as an ongoing process.
  • Put a feedback mechanism in place to collect both the good and bad experiences. You can learn and adjust from knowing what's wrong, but it's equally important to know what is going well and communicate it to others in the field.

How to Make SFA Fit the Plan

However, the process of freeing yourself from the SFA-adoption bottleneck doesn't end with reaching a consensus on the use of the new SFA tools. There is the matter of the tool itself to consider. Here are some tips from Tom Moriarty, president of sales and marketing consulting firm Kensingtonhouse Ltd ., to ensure your SFA selection delivers best value:

  • Embed your actual sales process in the application so that it reflects and enables the way sales are made in your company. Otherwise, it fails from the start.
  • Ease of use is key. Salespeople are not data-entry clerks. Favor point and click over massive typing.
  • Provide real tools and content that actually aids the sales process, for example: add sales letter content, a product-knowledge library, key sales benefits, objection-handling information and information on competitor strengths and weaknesses.
  • Provide training beyond how to navigate the software. Teach how to use the software to actually help close the sale.
  • Align both the incentive and compensation systems to include incentives for SFA use.

While all these tips are infinitely helpful, at the end of the day the evidence SFA works, thus breaking the bottleneck forever, lies solely in the commission check. "There's really only one way for salespeople to be convinced of the value of SFA ... if they make more money using it than not using it," said Willson.

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