Just before World War II, General Motors introduced the "Vacuum Shift," a transmission that purportedly improved upon standard manual transmissions by making the shifting of gears-never a particularly taxing exercise-virtually effortless. As GM told it, with the Vacuum Shift, drivers could give the stick shift a light tap, and it would be sucked into the next gear position, saving valuable right-arm energy.
My father owned a 1942 Chevrolet featuring the now-infamous Vacuum Shift transmission. He vividly recalls the night he backed his Chevy into a parking place against a wall, leaving the car in reverse. When he returned several hours later, the temperature had dropped below freezing and the car wouldn't start. Unlike regular gearboxes, without the engine running, GM's futuristic transmission wouldn't budge, with or without the clutch in. The car was locked in reverse and against a wall, where it stayed until the weather warmed up.
With the Vacuum Shift, GM tried to use technology to fix something that wasn't broken, a dynamic that in today's sales force automation solutions is all too common. SFA software now comes with enough diverse functionality that it could keep the average sales rep locked to a computer and off the phones all day long. Consequently, the well-intended sales managers who purchase these solutions and mandate their use are perplexed if productivity falls and discontent rises. These managers, like GM, fail to realize that implementing technology for technology's sake won't bring improvement. Only when it addresses specific needs will technology reap rewards.
Getting Sucked In
That managers feel the urge to blindly automate is completely understandable. The hype surrounding business technology is currently at a fever pitch as America and the world retool for the brave new Web-based economy. Internet stocks, even those from companies that have never made a dime in profit, are ridiculously overvalued. IT consultants, who can theoretically advise companies on actual technological needs, are the hottest commodities in town. Everyone now feels they must automate, but few really understand how technology can improve their business processes.
In this "automate or die" atmosphere, many companies unfortunately implement complex, expensive SFA systems without first consulting the people who will be using them-the sales reps. Different reps have different needs and different selling styles. Likewise, some companies embrace a regimented, formulaic sales approach, while others ignore process and reward results. Today's SFA systems are easily customized to meet such unique needs, and without a doubt, the right SFA functionality can improve sales. But for applications to meet unique needs, one must first identify those needs. What better place to start than with the reps themselves?
Automatic transmissions replaced the stick shift and some argue that customer-based sales technologies will ultimately replace the sales rep. Don't bet on it. Salespeople will always be with us, and with the right supporting SFA tools, they will be more productive and efficient than ever. However, without their input on selecting and implementing these tools, companies may find their sales initiatives backed up against a wall and locked in reverse.