Although many salespeople willingly embrace SFA (Sales Force Automation) as a means to improve their jobs, some fear that automation may one day make the sales profession obsolete. This is not a totally unjustified idea as to some degree, SFA already has automated and eliminated the need for reps in many sales processes.
Is this indicative of the future of the sales profession? Will automation completely replace the human hand in sales?
The SFA takeover is most readily seen in conjunction with the advent of e-commerce, in which customers can order from a Web site and never once speak to an actual person. Automation tells the customer what's in stock, takes the order, tries to up-sell, processes the payment and arranges product delivery. Plus, it keeps the customer informed every step of the way and then follows up with cross-sell pitches. In this sense, salespeople are unnecessary, replaced almost entirely by bots, live chat and all things CRM.
But order-taking is only one side of the sales equation. Other areas of sales still need a human touch. "For complex sales, you still need that face-to-face interaction and no SFA tool can do that; even an interactive Web application can only go so far," said Bryan C. Webb, principal at Test Point Marketing.
Therein lies the difference between sales automation and SFA. Sales automation augments or replaces simple order-taking functions. SFA, on the other hand, automates back-office support of sales reps in the field or on the floor. "SFA provides tools for salespeople to do their job better - it is not like factory automation that replaces workers with robots," explained Flyn Penoyer, telesales guru at Penoyer Communications.
On the professional side of sales, where social skills reign and product knowledge must be extensive, SFA is the always on-call, instant assistant that can accelerate processes. "I think most sales professionals are embracing SFA technology, especially Web-based, as it allows us to do our job more effectively and have a higher sense of control over where we choose to focus our time," said Dave Cox, account manager at Blackstone Technology Group.
As any pro that closes million-dollar deals will tell you, more sales are done over lunch, at the golf course and during happy hour than are ever done in the office. Even so, before SFA you still had to return to the office to write the contract or log the order before you had a done deal. Sometimes that minor delay allowed the client just enough time to cool off and walk away. Always, the paperwork prevented the sales rep from immediately moving to the next deal.
These days, SFA allows you to wrap the deal up at the bar, in the gym or even while you're propped against a golf cart. This translates into more deals for more reps. Nevertheless, it's not a silver bullet. It still can't sympathize with clients' woes, address an unspoken need or tee up. "In my industry ... the Net has made my job a lot easier because there are so many tools available to assist my account base in buying my chips. But there's more to sales than product specs: a friendly face, a lifetime of trust and communication, generic-free responses, to name a few," said Patrick Hollister, regional sales manager at Fujitsu.
In the end, sales professionals sell more with SFA but still keep their jobs. Order takers, in contrast, end up being replaced by automated processes.
"Salespeople are like pilots. For years they have been trying to eliminate the pilots and use a highly-developed device to pilot the plane instead. But no matter how hard they try, they will always need the guy there," said Ramon Ruiz, CEO of Openings, a sales coach company.
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