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Changing the Deal
Sigma Financial turns sales into something more than spreadsheets.
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In 2006, Sigma Financial was busting at the seams. In February 2002, the Ann Arbor, Mich.–based broker-dealer firm had embarked on a joint venture to manage its side of sales for Midland National Life Insurance, a company with nearly 900 sales reps. As a result, Sigma was swimming in a sea of paper and choking on its belabored business processes.

But that was just the final straw, says Terry Delongchamp, Sigma’s director of technology services. The main problem was, from the time Delongchamp joined Sigma in 1997 until 2006, the company didn’t really have a CRM system, surviving on spreadsheets, a rudimentary (and often-unused) Act! contact management system, and a whole lot of paperwork.

“We had a lot of problems with tracking issues,” Delongchamp says of his early days at the firm. “I couldn’t segment well—I didn’t even have a dedicated email for reps.” His first move was to implement an enterprisewide document management system to replace a paper-based system involving documents being snail-mailed and then passed around the office until a sale was finalized—tacking on unnecessary days to each deal’s close. Sigma finally shredded the last of that paper-based system in 1999. “We were an early adopter in the industry,” Delongchamp recalls. “But I knew [document management] would soon be a standard.”

As for the sales force itself, Delongchamp puts the situation bluntly: “I knew we would explode.” The limited sales-submission system in place, he says, wasn’t even suitable for reporting. “It was a very dedicated contact manager,” he says. “Some departments would enter notes, but there wasn’t a standardized way.” Act! was a centralized place for contacts, but one that was hard to keep updated—and it was hard for the brokers to see value in spending their time with the system. 

Sigma struggled with automating the simplest processes, such as emailing clients to ask for an address change. Instead, the company spent time and money sending out business questionnaires, responses to which eventually had to be keyed in by hand. 

With the joint venture between Sigma and Midland National essentially creating a second broker-dealer, Delongchamp says, “it was apparent that Act! wasn’t going to cut it.” Delongchamp saw a light at the end of the tunnel, however, after hearing Barton Goldenberg, the founder of consultancy ISM, speak at a conference in 2005. 

“I thought I knew how I wanted to do the project,” Delongchamp admits, but after hearing statistics on how many systems fail—and how many of those failures are due to poor planning—he says he realized Sigma might need some outside help to guide the company through the CRM process. 

Bringing ISM on board was a rare occurrence for Sigma; the company had never hired an outside consultant. That required quite a sell to upper management, but the Sigma executive team approved. “My idea was to pick the software, and then tailor it to what the users might want,” Delongchamp says. “[ISM’s] plan, though, is to query what the people want to do, what challenges they have now, and, based on that, go find the system that will work.” ISM advised Sigma to keep the users in mind for one critical reason: If you don’t meet their needs, adoption will lag. 

Out of the big players at the time, Sigma considered CRM solutions from Microsoft, Sage, and FrontRange Solutions. Salesforce.com and software-as-a-service were on the rise at the time, Delongchamp says, but after giving the on-demand solution some consideration, he ultimately shied away from its delivery format. “I counted out Salesforce.com just because, in my experience and the way I like to manage, I don’t like things outside my four walls,” he says.

Sigma instead signed on with SalesPage Technologies, a CRM vendor based in Michigan. Delongchamp and his team liked that SalesPage was local, and they knew that the company had experience with banking operations. (One of the SalesPage team members, for example, used to work in the financial industry and knew the ins and outs.)

Sigma purchased a total of 300 licenses—150 CRM seats for the main office and the rest floating among salespeople in the field. Sigma rolled the system out enterprisewide, rather than going department by department, but decided to take a phased approach in supplementing the CRM technology with applications such as compliance management and licensing management. “One of the things I learned from [ISM] is not to overwhelm people,” Delongchamp says of the adoption process. “I wanted people to first get used to the core function, and then we released customized functions for departments.”

Delongchamp says the initial goal in rolling out SalesPage was getting a system in place—similar to what Act! did for the company—for entering ticket information and tracking payments. Also, sales reps needed to see previous tickets called in, Social Security information, and the product-mix breakdown for each client—none of which had been done consistently. “The way of doing it before was all by spreadsheet and paper files,” he says. 

In the summer of 2008, Sigma embarked on a few development projects to help get full mileage out of its CRM system. Delongchamp reports that about 50 percent of the system was developed by SalesPage, and the rest in-house thanks to Sigma’s technology expertise. 

The first project was in licensing, a crucial part of bringing new reps on board and making sure they’re qualified to work where they say they are. In the past, without an automated solution, Sigma relied on spreadsheets and other papers to track data about reps, such as where they were licensed and when their continuing education credits expired.

The licensing system builds the annual fees for a particular state, and the automated system allows users to click buttons and build an invoice on-the-fly. This means dealers and customers can interact on the Web portal. This not only cuts out a bundle of paperwork, but saves time for reps earning commissions. 

All that aside, there’s an even more significant advantage to linking the CRM and licensing solutions: When reps leave the firm, they can be taken out of the CRM system, but any company-owned or client data stays with Sigma. 

In September 2009, Sigma added compliance tracking. Before, Delongchamp says, no one really knew what was going on with any individual sales rep. Auditors can now look at a given rep’s status simply by clicking a button. “We’ve saved quite a [few] errors,” Delongchamp says. The ultracustomized compliance application allowed Sigma to coordinate audits via territory and timelines, along with features for mapping and integrated reporting.

With that reporting in place, Delongchamp reports, Sigma was able to take on a project for its case-planning department, adding visibility to financial data and improving the department’s decision-making abilities. “We’d never officially reported on how many cases we had or how many were closed,” he says. “That functionality justifies adding the information into CRM.” 

With case management, a rep can now pull up and review a project plan, and can collaborate with others. Prior to the new solution, those views were inaccessible to reps. Whenever a rep would call in to inquire about a deal, a licensing person typically had to dig through files. Now that licensing person has all sorts of information at her fingertips. “We want reps taken care of on the first phone call,” Delongchamp says.

Delongchamp says the implementation was really a dream, with only one issue: SalesPage’s programming-language shift from .Net to Java a few years back. The Sigma technology department likes to get its hands dirty, Delongchamp says, so it had to switch as well. In the end, he notes, the change was more than just a necessary evil: Java, after all, can run anywhere, whereas .Net is Windows-based. 

What’s the payoff? Delongchamp estimates that Sigma increased productivity in every department by at least 50 percent. After enabling reps to be more collaborative and cutting down on paper use, Delongchamp says the firm has eliminated both hard and soft costs. And SalesPage enables Sigma to lock down secure data, which the company wasn’t able to do within Act!.

Reps benefit in other ways as well. The success of the CRM implementation has changed Delongchamp’s approach toward technology projects. “Normally, projects are very [technology]-driven—me coming up with an idea because people complain,” he says. Now, Sigma’s technology department seeks ideas from reps in the beginning.

As for new project ideas, “Each department is happy at this point,” Delongchamp says, adding that SalesPage is very “on the ball” in advising Sigma on up-and-coming features and functions that will benefit the broker-dealer industry. What’s more, he notes, with most of the CRM initiative’s heavy lifting now complete, Sigma might implement a few new applications, such as email management. 

Because of Sigma’s positive CRM deployment experiences, Delongchamp says he’s surprised when other organizations don’t see similar success. “It always shocks me how many companies don’t have or have failed with CRM already,” he says. 

THE BREAK

Company: Sigma Financial 

Founded: 1983

Industry: Financial Services

Original CRM Implementation: Used Act!, 1996–2008; implemented document management in 1999

Go-Live Date: February 2008

Any Subsequent Updates: Added a licensing component in June 2008; built compliance tracking in September 2009

IN THE POCKET

Since developing Sales Vision’s MESA sales force automation tool in 1998, McGraw-Hill Higher Education:

  • has developed a more-streamlined sales process; 
  • wastes fewer sample books; 
  • better targets promotion and communication;
  • tracks misconceptions about customers; 
  • shares relevant customer information; and
  • has helped blaze the trail in Web-based CRM, a sector that was barely in its infancy at the time.

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