Creating a Uniform Sales Culture

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Bringing 30 companies together to form one is not everyone's idea of a five-year growth plan, but that's the expansion binge that Clifton, NJ--based Allied Office Products just completed. The result is more than $300 million in annual revenues, a strong sales presence in the country's largest states, and some serious logistical challenges managing order flow. Allied has operated an aggressive plan for integrating the back-end processes of its acquisitions. "All the companies we bought came into our system within 45 days of being purchased," says Mike Palmer, COO at Allied. But the company was not originally as aggressive about exporting a selling methodology to the new satellite offices. This hurt efficiency, particularly in locations that before being acquired by Allied had only represented one particular product line, like logo-branded promotional products, rather than the full, soup-to-nuts office supply--line Allied offers. "What we were not able to do was create a sales culture...and we felt that a CRM product would be one of the ways to make this sales-culture change," Palmer says. "The other thing we were concerned about was that all of our corporate memory and contact with the customer was in Day-Timers, but we have to capture that corporate memory to better serve customers." To correct the process problems the company audited its sales flow in core, central sales locations, then worked with an outside consulting firm to verify the approach and build the design into a software solution. Allied steered away from packaged solutions due to IT infrastructure concerns, and instead selected Salesforce.com to provide a hosted front-end for sales and service. Not wanting to risk an embarrassing and costly false start, Allied took a careful, multitiered approach to training on the new system, with the sales staff going through mandatory self-learning online tutorials followed by road show training at each location. Roughly half the 165-member sales staff also got remedial PC training, to ensure they would be comfortable with the browser-based Salesforce.com application. Up and running since August 2002, the Salesforce.com application for the first time gives Allied a formal sales pipeline, with expected revenues based on pipeline stage and probability-to-close. Better still, building the pipeline is no longer a manual management chore. "For the first time management is able to look at their office and help the salesperson with a particular client or issue," says Steven Hartnack, executive vice president of sales operations at Allied. The unified opportunity views also allow Allied's small team of product line specialists, who help the sales staff with large or tricky deals in particular product line areas of expertise, to work more effectively. Rather than having to make phone calls to Allied's individual sales offices, they can directly comb the database, ranking opportunities by value and seeing the right places to intervene. "Now they are more able to more proactively go after the biggest bang for the buck," Hartnack says. Allied's push for better corporate memory includes more attention paid to failure as well as success. "If we lost an opportunity for whatever reason, we have the ability now to categorize it, and go back and revisit it," he says. "I want to go back and understand why we didn't win--was it price, was it service, what was it?" From the outset Hartnack and Palmer were realistic about the possibility that some in the organization would not gleefully embrace the new way of working. They dealt with the problem pragmatically, tying a lead-distribution mechanism to cooperative use of the Salesforce.com application. "It's a valuable resource, it costs money, and we want to make sure we get our money out of it. But you always have the resisters, and the carrot we used is, if you want to be on the [leads] program, you need to be on Salesforce.com, because all the results and communications are tracked through it," Hartnack says. "It's amazing, when you tell a salesperson 'I can make you $10,000 more a year' how fast they come up on Salesforce.com." Planned expansion for the CRM implementation includes the imminent integration of customer support and distribution data, along with better back-end integration and a wireless, mobile access solution for the sales staff in 2004. Including training and ongoing data-analysis charges, Allied budgeted in the neighborhood of $250,000 to implement and operate the Salesforce.com application over a two-year period. The payback is coming in the form of greatly improved visibility and lead distribution, as well as a reenergized sales organization. "They saw a two-year period where we spent a lot of money on warehouse and back-end operations and no real money on the sales force," Palmer says. "We came out and said we were going to spend the cap-ex dollars on [CRM], and it makes an effect on people when they see that."
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