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SFA Systems

Published
  • February 01 1999, 1:00am EST

Companies have continued to miss the mark in their quest for successful sales force automation (SFA) implementations. Industry statistics put successful SFA implementations at less than 30 percent. The reason: companies and system integrators overlook the most critical success factor ­ the user. In technology deployment, the implementation team assumes the intended users have a baseline level of computer discipline and experience. In a sales department, this is simply not true. In every successful project there is a user-management team that has experience, firm involvement and a set of best practices that they use to ensure the project is successful. In successful projects there is a base-line level of discipline and experience from the users being automated. And yet we break these fundamental rules and hope that a SFA project will be successful. With SFA systems, many implementation teams focus on the sales staff's general computer literacy, mistaking their lack of technology use as low literacy. Today's sales departments are made up of users who have been exposed to computers but who have never had to use them consistently to do their job and still struggle with how much strategic value SFA will have in meeting objectives. This means that traditional methods of defining technology projects and training users are completely inappropriate for SFA projects.

An SFA project's success hinges on managing a sales organization's behavior and culture so that both sales reps and managers can reap the benefits of the SFA tools. Unlike most parts of an organization, sales professionals and their managers have never been disciplined computer users and haven't relied on technology as a strategic tool to help them meet their objectives. Yet this is exactly how they are expected to use the tool. Why does this happen? Because companies don't take the time to examine sales manager and sales rep profiles. These people are trained to focus on revenue goals and are measured on their quota performance. Their compensation and job performance are very quantifiable and measurable based on how well they do against a set of revenue targets. This has created a group of users with unique characteristics. Because they tend to be very transaction-oriented, they will define SFA application requirements based on the list of transactions they work on when closing a deal. They will also measure the success of the SFA tool in this same way, looking for quick, measurable results. To ensure a successful SFA implementation, companies need to set realistic expectations within the sales organization and consider issues that are unique to this group when deploying the system.

Setting Expectations

The SFA market has done a good job of selling the benefits of SFA tools to drive sales performance. It has shown what's possible and convinced companies to purchase systems that leave sales reps with high expectations. In turn, this puts intense pressure on the company to achieve a strong return on investment and measurable results.

Once a company purchases an SFA system, however, the sales department is often left behind. The company doesn't consider the many cultural and change issues surrounding the effective use of SFA technology in a sales organization, and the tool fails. Some of the issues they will face include:

1. Fighting the art versus the science of selling. If this is not properly addressed, it will cause an incorrect perception of why the company is implementing the tool.

2. Over-emphasizing the SFA system as either a management tool or a reps' productivity tool, rather than a balance of both.

3. Asking sales reps to change how they interact with computers. Now they must update information consistently, access information on-line and use that information to help them sell and service clients. They must also use automated methods to organize their work in a completely different way.

4. Changing the way sales managers access information to manage their sales groups and understand the status of all sales opportunities.

5. Designing rigid SFA systems that don't recognize reps' and managers' style differences. Instead, the SFA systems tend to be designed around a certain type of sales style, and reps and managers are expected to change their years of training overnight to adapt.

6. Defining the process phase too narrowly without reflecting everything that happens in the sales cycle. There is also no proper linking and validation of key sales processes. This is a fundamental flaw in most SFA deployments ­ over-engineering the wrong sales processes and under-engineering the right ones.

Taking the Right Path

So how can a company ensure it takes the right path to implementing an SFA system? By assigning the right implementation team, correctly defining the processes, validating the system against best practices, prioritizing who will use the system, selling the project internally, defining the pilot project and managing the change.

Assigning the Right Team

The first thing a company must do is put together a team that has both technical and business experience implementing SFA technology. The company's internal team should include the vice president of sales, sales managers, sales reps and sales administration personnel. All successful technology implementation teams include users who have worked with SFA systems, know what to expect from the system and know how to manage their newly automated users after the installation team leaves.

If the company's senior sales management has not gone through an SFA roll out before, it should look for a consulting firm that can provide this level of business expertise to complement and balance the traditional project management expertise. When choosing a consultant, don't confuse project management experience with sales management experience. Given the need for practical recommendations, how effective can a consultant be analyzing sales processes without ever having run a sales force or used SFA technology?

Correctly Defining Processes

Once the team is in place, it can start the process definition phase. This is a critical phase and is almost always done ineffectively. Many events, activities and interactions (internal and external) occur during the sales cycle. Some are process driven and require a tight set of automated processes to streamline operations, while others should not be automated.

All design and development work comes from the definition phase. This phase also sets expectations of how the SFA system will impact performance. If this phase is done incorrectly, reps and managers will quickly lose patience with the SFA system and abandon it. This is where the culture and behavior change process must be fully utilized.

The problem is that most of the process design focus is typically geared to the sales cycle and the reps' activity. These activities are normally defined as a standard set of steps that a rep goes through to bring a prospect to a closed sale. All design criteria is centered on this sales cycle. This is a major error in the process design phase because of two issues ­ style differences and unique sales situations. No two reps will ever follow the same steps in the same order; and all reps are driven by the dynamics of each sale, so their activities and actions change with each sale.

There are also style and experience issues that companies can't change but must be accounted for. One rep might follow every defined step, for example, while another might go from first call to close in one step. Sales cycle definition must focus on major milestones in the sales cycle and should require reps to record advancements or milestone met, not the activities and actions they performed.

Validate Against Best Practices

Companies need to look at the sales enterprise, define a business design model that addresses all the critical sales areas, focus on the major sales group functions and validate them against what the sales reps and managers really do (best practices). For example, if during the discovery sessions the reps describe a detailed list of steps they go through to close a sale, validate those steps against the sales tools they commonly use and the tools that sales management uses to inspect them. If there is a disconnect, the sales cycle has been too rigidly defined and does not represent reality.

Companies should also validate the model against many different prospect/customer scenarios. There are two main areas that an SFA system can address: sales efficiency and sales effectiveness. Sales efficiency tends to impact the sales administration functions of the rep and manager. Sales effectiveness drives higher levels of sales performance and is what the sales organization is most interested in achieving. Make sure the ultimate design is practical, properly integrated to all the critical areas that sales management invests in and positively impacts reps' performance.

Prioritizing Users

Next, companies must prioritize who will use the new system first ­ the sales manager or the sales rep. Some companies focus on the sales managers first, looking at automation primarily as a management tool focused on streamlining reporting. The goal is that by automating reporting, managers will receive timely information with less effort on the sales reps' part. However, this backfires because reps feel like big brother is watching. They reject the system and use it only when ordered to use it.

Other companies look at the SFA system as the reps' tool. The thinking behind this is that since the reps rejected the last attempt at implementing a tool, this new project will focus the system on them and give them whatever they want. The goal of this type of roll out is if the reps like it, they will use it and be more productive. However, this approach also backfires because the sales managers, not just the reps, need the SFA system to access critical data to help run their operations.

What companies must remember is that regardless of the software tool they put in the sales organization's hands, sales managers will still manage and sales reps will still sell. If the tool does not do both groups any good, then they will go back to manual methods and the SFA project will fail. What must happen is a balance of functionality across both groups for the life of the project. From pilot through full roll out, each function that improves reps' productivity must also improve management's productivity. Both must see value in the system and use it as a strategic tool.

The ultimate goal is to have sales managers comfortable using the SFA tool to consistently inspect reps' work and the sales cycle and to have the reps consistently using the tool to manage their sales efforts.

Selling the Project

There must be an ongoing internal selling effort throughout the SFA project's life. Sales reps are conditioned to look at things in terms of progress and advances that move them closer to or farther away from a sale. They know that they must continually reinforce their value proposition throughout the sales cycle to close a deal. This is also how they will judge the SFA project. A company must build an internal sales awareness presentation and continually update and present it to the sales organization. The project plan should include sales presentations outlining the business benefits of the SFA tool and progress toward achieving them. This means there must be continuous demonstrable results.

Defining the Pilot Project

What should the pilot project include? Who should be involved? These are critical questions that usually get standard answers such as, "Use standard functionality like contact management and give the reps a feel for the system" or "Only include your most computer literate and interested users." Neither of these answers is correct. Instead, the pilot project should include a cross-section of users from the sales organization. The group's technology experience should also represent a subset of functionality that is aligned with the benefits a company hopes to realize.

The pilot project provides a road map for successfully executing an SFA environment prior to rolling it out on a large scale. It is the dress rehearsal for testing the training, customization and help desk support, and should be measured based on how well the pilot users adapt to a new way of running their business. The key success indicator is if the sales reps and managers show an interest in using the system.

Managing Change

Training is one of the most under-invested and poorly designed areas of all SFA deployments, yet it is critical to success. A company's training approach is most important. Training should really be called change management because it is the process of managing the change the sales organization will go through ­ it is not a features' dump. Too often companies place a heavy emphasis on training sales reps and managers on the SFA system's features and which buttons to push before they fully understand how and why they should use the system. This approach is very ineffective and causes reps and managers to quickly tune out. Remember the user dynamics ­ they need to be transformed into disciplined technology users. Disciplined users view SFA tools as strategic to meeting their sales objectives.

This must start with defining each person's role in managing the change. The vice president of sales must act as the change sponsor and is directly involved in the project as the key visionary. The project must clearly align with their strategic objectives. The sales management team acts as the change agent and is responsible for implementing the change. This group (not the IT group) must deliver the message and train the reps on the change. The sales reps and the managers are the change target and must be taught how to change to use the technology in a disciplined fashion.

This means training must focus on business benefits, not features. To achieve this focus, build scenarios that show users how to address critical parts of their job using the SFA tool. By training them on the benefits, companies will keep users' attention while showing them how to push the right buttons.

This is only the beginning of change management. A company must recognize that like the implementation, training is a phased process, not a one-time event. They should reinforce training gradually during what is known as the "honeymoon" period. Companies can do this in one-hour blocks remotely (using on-line tele-demonstration tools) with a well-crafted curriculum that reviews critical functionality in small blocks. This is also a great way to roll out new functionality and shorten learning curves.

It is also critical to establish an effective internal help desk. The key here is availability and speed. The help desk must be well staffed and provide immediate response during the initial SFA deployment. This is important because reps will not casually use the system; they will use it at critical times and typically within minutes of needing the information. As they learn how to change the way they use computers, reps will typically pass through many stages ­ from initial awareness that a change is taking place to full internalization of the new status quo. Sales professionals, however, will not wait long for answers. If the help desk is not responsive, sales reps will think the system doesn't work and, after a few attempts, abandon it.

SFA projects can be successful, helping reduce turnaround time, administration and costs, while driving sales performance by making reps more productive. The key is to have the correct focus on and investment in the most critical success factors ­ the users' dynamics and experience.

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