Building a CRM-Savvy Sales Force

If CRM helps a sales organization sell faster, better, cheaper, then building a sales organization with experience in CRM software and with customer-centric business models should provide instant payoff. It's so simple. 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 easy. Many companies aren't even trying to find this elusive creature. Clients look for people who are IT-proficient, but they're not interested in a candidate's experience with a CRM package, says Bruce Green, vice president of Hasbrouck Heights, N.J.-based sales search firm Carter/MacKay.

"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 a customer-centric selling model, or the myriad software packages that can be used to achieve the same goals. "There's no default standard where you can say, 'This is the one you have to know,'" Fulbright says.

AMR Research Senior Analyst Vanessa Fox says that in job interviews, a background in CRM is largely irrelevant. Rather, salespeople will do more of whatever they are compensated for, whether it is closing deals or satisfying customers or putting information in a system, she says.

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. Remember that sales people are familiar with their compensation plans, says Raffensperger. "Make sure the comp plan and evaluation [criteria] align with your stated objectives of caring about your customer."

Supply and Demand
You might get lucky. The growing CRM market automatically provides CRM-savvy talent. Most good sales executives already use technology to improve 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]," especially in manufacturing, transportation and consumer packaged goods, which have limited their focus to "contact management or one step above," says Chris Fletcher, managing director of research firm Aberdeen Group.

With such limited exposure to CRM, only a sliver of the nation's sales professionals have had a chance to develop marketable proficiency. But the skills remain important. "If CRM is a new implementation for these companies, they need people onboard that have experience utilizing those tools," Lieberman says.

Vendors and implementers need to do more to help CRM adopters seed their organizations with CRM-savvy salespeople, says Lieberman. "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. Hiring goals are no different. SalesLogix customer Plestel, an Australian business telephone provider faced with a decline in the Australian economy and generally shaky Pacific Rim financial conditions, has had trouble generating new business, says Interact Commerce Corporation President and COO Kevin Bethke. In order to generate more consistent returns from its installed base, Plestel has used SalesLogix to analyze trends and existing customers' purchasing habits.

"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," Bethke 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." By asking open-ended questions, smart organizations can determine whether generating new business or satisfying customer needs are more important, he says. 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. Anne Collins, chief people officer for CRM consultants Peppers and Rogers Group, says she will sometimes push people in interviews to see how they react. "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 the most important CRM-based skill traits is visibility, and the willingness of the sales rep to provide it. "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.

Edward Garry, assistant vice president of the CRM Solutions Group of financial services firm Quick and Reilly, says he looks for two major traits of 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. He notes that candidates from other brokerages may not have exposure to Siebel (which Quick and Reilly uses) but they do know Act. "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."

Channel Changers
Respecting the enterprise's need to present customers with multiple transaction channels, a sensitive problem in the modern sales force, is a potential stumbling block to finding people who will work consistently within a CRM model. 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. "CRM-enabled firms look for sales reps that have a high degree of customer business knowledge and the ability to create unique value."

The first signs of CRM-minded hiring are emerging at the management level. "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.

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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