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Your company can reap growing profits hiring CRM-savvy salespeople--ones who know how to cultivate customer relationships.
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The concept seems too simple. If CRM helps a sales organization sell faster, better, cheaper or some combination of the above, then building a sales organization with experience in CRM software and with customer-centric business models should provide instant payoff. The model CRM-enabled salesperson always uses the software and always strikes the right balance between customer demands and long-term profit potential for his or her employer.

Of course, nothing is that simple. In fact, many companies aren't even trying to find this elusive creature. "I've been in this business 25 years, and not one client has mentioned [CRM]," says Bruce Green, vice president of Hasbrouck Heights, N.J.-based sales search firm Carter/MacKay. "A lot of clients are expecting people to be IT-proficient, but they don't specifically ask whether anyone has used a CRM package."

"Hands-down it would be a value-add, but that's going to be on top of industry experience," says Beth Lieberman, principal at Advanced Recruiting Resources in Irvine, Calif.

Even inside the industry, the focus at some companies is still quite traditional. "We look for great salespeople. It's a desired rather than required attribute that they have experience with a CRM or SFA tool," says Cary Fulbright, vice president of product strategy for CRM ASP salesforce.com.

Whose CRM?

Just asking candidates if they have CRM experience doesn't reveal much without an understanding of the widely differing definitions two organizations may have for what a customer-centric selling model is, or the myriad software packages that can be used to achieve the same goals. "There are enough applications out there that there's no default standard where you can say, 'This is the one you have to know. If you don't know it, you don't know CRM,'" Fulbright says.

AMR Research Senior Analyst Vanessa Fox says that in job interviews, a background in CRM is largely irrelevant--the almighty dollar is the ultimate behavioral cue. "Salespeople, like anybody else, are very driven towards making sure they're well-compensated," she says. "If they're goaled on customer satisfaction, they will do whatever they can to make sure those metrics increase. If people are goaled in a positive way to put information in a system, they're much more likely to put it in."

That means that the CRM dream of finding a sales executive who would hold off or renegotiate a deal that would generate short-term revenues but will prove unprofitable in the long term is probably too much to hope for, at least without a very complex compensation schedule. "Something like that would require not having weekly goals. And if you don't have visibility into what happens downstream, you wouldn't know [about profitability repercussions,]" she says.

"You have to incent them to care, or at least to pay attention," agrees Ron Raffensperger, vice president of CRM software provider Upshot. "If you forget that salespeople can read their compensation plans, you have made a fundamental error from which it will be difficult to recover. Make sure the comp plan and evaluation [criteria] align with your stated objectives of caring about your customer."

Supply and Demand

It is possible to get lucky. As CRM becomes a greater part of business, the market automatically provides CRM-savvy talent. "With most good sales executives, they are or have been using some technology tool to manage their sales forces," says Aaron Lapat, vice president of J. Robert Scott, a Boston-based staffing firm that focuses on top management.

Even so, there is hardly a ready supply of ideal salespeople. "Relatively few firms are using [CRM]," says Chris Fletcher, managing director of research firm Aberdeen Group. While businesses, the financial, technology and the health care fields are widely powered by CRM tools and philosophies, "in manufacturing, transportation and consumer packaged goods there is probably an overall lower penetration rate, and what is out there is primarily focused on contact management or one step above," he says.

In other words, only a sliver of the nation's sales professionals have even been exposed to CRM, let alone given a chance to develop marketable proficiency. But that doesn't make the skills any less important. "If CRM is a new implementation for these companies, they need people onboard that have experience utilizing those tools," Lieberman says.

Although identifying internal "CRM champions" to help improve adoption is not a new concept, Lieberman feels vendors and implementers need to do more to help CRM adopters seed their organizations with CRM-savvy salespeople. "I think there's a huge role that can be played by the companies offering CRM suites to educate those customers about bringing the right salespeople onboard, bringing experience to make that implementation and experience smoother for the whole organization," Lieberman says.

Several CRM vendors were contacted for this story, but none said they often do this type of consulting.

Hunting, Farming, Gathering...

One of the mantras of CRM is that it is much more about process, goals and attitude than technology, and hiring goals are no different. Interact Commerce Corporation President and Chief Operating Officer Kevin Bethke points to SalesLogix customer Plestel, an Australian business telephone provider, as an object lesson not only in how to make CRM-minded hires, but why. Faced with a decline in the Australian economy and generally shaky Pacific Rim financial conditions, Bethke says the company has had trouble generating new business. In response, Plestel has made generating consistent returns from its installed base top priority by using SalesLogix to analyze trends and an existing customer's propensity to buy new products or services.

"They're shifting their type of hires from being more hunter-oriented, to more farming--those people that are very good working with a customer base, generating revenues out of a current customer," he says. "Many salespeople are motivated by the chase...it's not necessarily the same high you get from just keeping revenue going from a current account." Smart organizations, he says, will ask open-ended questions to determine whether generating new business or satisfying the needs of a customer are more important. While it's not a perfect proxy for CRM-driven success, it's a good way to establish intent.

So is asking the tough questions about business priorities. "I'm not so far above myself that I won't start pushing people in interviews. If I sense they're not up-front with me, I will push them and see how they react," says Anne Collins, chief people officer for CRM consultants Peppers and Rogers Group. "That's important for dealing with a customer, especially a customer who is going to say 'no' to you time after time."

Interact Vice President of Sales Steve Schatz says that he can boil down the important CRM-based skill traits to one thing: visibility, and the willingness of the sales rep to provide it. "The first metric we look at is visibility. If we can get 90 percent-plus visibility, we know just about every single deal happening out there that the direct and indirect sales force is working on and it gives us the ability to look at the pipeline [accurately]," he says.

Channel Changers

Respecting the enterprise's need to present customers with multiple transaction channels is one of the most sensitive problems in the modern sales force and one of the potential stumbling blocks to finding people who will work consistently within a CRM model. Edward Garry, assistant vice president of the CRM Solutions Group of financial services firm Quick and Reilly says that even though his industry's massive shift to a multichannel approach has made it easier to find brokers who understand this need, his company still has a secret weapon. "Every customer is assigned a consultant whether they want it or not, and that gives you the ability even on a slow day to talk to customers you may have never spoken with before," he says.

Garry says that Quick and Reilly look for two major traits that indicate CRM savvy: loyalty to a brokerage firm, which implies acquiring customers and building long-term relationships, and some sort of self-starting exposure to CRM or SFA tools. "You don't have a lot of people coming from Morgan stanley Dean Witter or Merrill Lynch who are Siebel users [as Quick and Reilly is], but you have people who are ACT users, and those are the people you want; they understand the value in tracking and capturing data and being able to draw from that and make sales," Garry says. "They understand everything is linked."

Tim McMahon, president of Merrimack, N.H.-based business consulting outfit McMahon Worldwide, says that the way a sales rep deals with multichannel realities is one of the best measures of his or her value in a CRM environment. In his view, CRM makes it possible to do better than just blindly compensating an outside rep for a sale made later through another channel. "When you have to start compensating me for things that go through other channels, it says I'm spending my time in the wrong way," he says. "If you go to a lower-cost channel after working with me, then I haven't established my value. CRM-enabled firms look for sales reps that have a high degree of customer business knowledge and the ability to create unique value."

"In the customer-centric model, companies typically want to find sales executives who can do more than transact, but who can add value in the duration of the implementation," says Eric Joseph, partner in charge of the North American IT services and software practice of recruiting firm Heidrick and struggles. He says that consulting firms are fertile breeding grounds for that profile. "At the end of the day [in consulting], all you have is your reputation. Partners are responsible for sales, but ultimately responsible for quality and relationship development."

CRM has long been considered a top-down initiative, and it is at the management level where the first signs of CRM-minded hiring are emerging. "You're going to see those [CRM qualification] requests more when they're looking for leadership," Lieberman says. In her experience, call center managers are often directly screened on their CRM knowledge and experience, as they are often expected to manage a heavily automated organization offering sales, marketing and service to high volumes of customers.

"Companies have to hire management that can understand not only operational tools, but know what to expect from the analytical aspects [of CRM]," says SAP Director of CRM Communications Jon Wurfl. "That's what really determines the fate of what deals are going to close this quarter, who's on target and who's not, how to change the sales organization, how to pull out the bottom 25 percent achievers and how to re-staff."

Management can be slow to change, however. "You've got managers who can read reports and recognize trends in the pipeline, but there's still a lot of screaming at Friday morning meetings, even at companies that are very sophisticated," Fletcher says. Of course, there's nothing about CRM technology or philosophy that says managers can't continue to manage with the old one-two-punch of fear and intimidation--but CRM should help them create just-in-time fear and intimidation.

If you haven't thought of the merits of building CRM skills and attitudes into your sales force, it might just be a buyer's market. "With the economy the way it is today, this is a good time for sales managers to look at skill sets with their people and rank which ones are the top people and which ones aren't," Schatz says. "With the abundance of people outside the organization, use people with CRM backgrounds or the ability to fill in the gaps. Now is a good time to make that upgrade in your sales force."

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