I have always found that a helpful way to understand overall sales and marketing trends is through conferences. Gaining a perspective outside of your organization helps you understand issues other companies are tackling that you may need to be concentrating upon and what some of the challenges may be to solve these issues. From my perspective, it helps to understand the level of sophistication in the marketplace.  Many times authors, consultants and speakers identify a vision, but where the market actually resides could be something completely different.

I attended Frost & Sullivan's Sales and Marketing Executive Summit in January. This event showcased a different format that allowed more interaction with the attendees, which resulted in more of a free flow of ideas and communication. This allowed me to gain an understanding of key issues across industries for sales and marketing departments.  

One noticeable trend throughout all of the sessions at the three-day event was that the leading-edge organizations did not show up or were not interested in sharing their strategic visions or even current state. The technology that supports sales and marketing has clearly become a competitive differentiator, and the organizations that feel they have made critical breakthroughs were absent from the conversation.

This fact was reinforced by the larger organizations that did speak and share their strategy. Both Verizon and Kodak continually used the word "transformation" to describe that they are in the process of radically changing strategies and trying to take advantage of customer information and innovative new tactics, as opposed to having already been through the process.

Data Quality

The data quality discussion was extremely interesting and heated. Many organizations are now recognizing the scope and resource intensity of a data quality program.  The following points were articulated regarding data quality:

  • Data quality is a standalone initiative that impacts all aspects of the business and definitely customer relationship management (CRM). Embedding data quality inside just one initiative usually suboptimizes a data quality program and even marginalizes an individual initiative.  For instance, so many different functions within an organization touch customer and product information that just trying to solve the issue within CRM will meet with excessive resistance.
  • Data quality is a process as much as it is a technology.  Many organizations build new staffing charts and staffing plans, buy expensive tools or outsource to vendors and wind up with little that is actionable. The process by which a data quality representative can approach systems, business units and process owners, and help improve the quality of data needs to be designed, approved and supported by executive stakeholders.
  • Many organizations were confounded by how to structure a data quality initiative. These frustrations stemmed from who should own and manage the initiative, the division of responsibilities between IT and the business, how to manage the initiative, how this initiative relates to projects such as data warehousing, product masters and customer masters, and how to staff the initiative long term.
  • Difficulty in defining different terms such as data management, data governance, data stewardship and database administration is a common problem.

It seems that the market has definitely come to grips with the importance of data quality and data governance but may be swinging in the completely opposite direction.  Whereas in the past, data quality was blatantly ignored, it now stands on the critical path to starting significant CRM, marketing data warehouse, or customer or product master initiatives.  Specifically, the inability for organizations to understand how to start their data quality initiatives (ownership, process, management) is causing a delay in creating customer, value-added applications.  Though these are difficult discussions, there are many frameworks that work and should not be causing such a standstill.

New Face of Sales Force Automation

The final big trend was the continued migration of sales force automation from a data entry vehicle to a management-by-metrics tool. Many organizations are putting a significant effort into creating sales dashboards, which is the first screen many sales representatives see when they log in.  Instead of seeing the "account entry" screen, they see forecast, pipeline, compensation estimates, late shipments, delayed orders, revenue and win/loss rates.

Companies that have evolved in their thinking are focusing on presenting sales force alerts. Information such as customers whose purchase behavior is decreasing, low satisfaction scores or excessive customer service are presented to the sales force in a way that they could proactively try to solve issues and save sales. Organizations that have taken this analytical and metrics-driven approach to sales force automation seem to have a higher adoption rate and obtain their ROI.

The Frost & Sullivan Sales and Marketing conference was an excellent format for organizations to share best practices and collaborate on solutions to common problems. Marketing and sales leaders were able to compare notes and relate experiences, which created an excellent learning environment. 

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