Hoisting the Sales

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In this final installment of a three-part series on challenges facing sales managers, we will examine increased competition and issues surrounding new hires. We will also look at how CRM/SFA technology can assist managers in meeting the challenge.

Increased Competition: Building An Advantage
Things have been changing like crazy in sales over the past few decades. Now management in sales needs to do the same. Seat-of-the-pants and gut-feel approaches can't keep up with the pace and lack the specifics needed to succeed in today's fast-moving business climate. Similarly, managers' old fallback position, "If I don't make my numbers, you can fire me," will provide little solace to the companies being outmaneuvered by their competition.

To compete effectively companies need to build a sustainable competitive advantage. In early-stage companies such an advantage may come in the form of breakthrough technology, but you'll hear over and over that windows of product exclusivity (i.e., competitive superiority) are shrinking. Another strategy companies depend on is "Our people are our only sustainable competitive advantage." But what happens when people leave, taking customer and corporate knowledge with them?

Open territories, aggressive recruiting of your personnel by competitors and poor coordination among marketing and sales all serve to put you at a competitive disadvantage. But there is a way out of these dark woods: tracking opportunities throughout a synchronized enterprise, which has linked the front office with the back office through the pipeline.

Process Execution
After defining your sales process, the first step is to track every opportunity against the synchronized model. Are your reps making the most of each opportunity? In account reviews with clients, a surprising number of high-payoff tactics are identified simply by rigorously inspecting current deals and determining which actions have or have not been accomplished. The cumulative effects of these actions-what moves to close, what falls out (lost to competition or no decision) and what is still in the pipeline-become measures of operation. As clear patterns and "hit percentages" emerge, managers will be able to forecast sales more accurately (a competitive weapon in itself) and to determine whether enough new opportunities are being identified. A general observation is that most sales reps do not have enough good opportunities in their pipelines to take action on. This continuing problem creates a further competitive disadvantage, because reps will continue to pursue and expend resources on marginal and even undesirable business. Because they are coming from scarcity, these sales reps will be far less selective and ruthless in their process execution.

Successful tracking and pursuit of client references is also a key component of competitiveness. How hard is it for your sales reps to sign up new customers when they can't count on existing customers for outstanding references? (Answer: very hard.) There is also the risk of overusing one or two positive, high-profile references. To proactively address this situation over time, look at whether sales is providing customer service/support (CS/S) with order detail of sufficient quality and completeness. Similarly, is CS/S providing marketing with an ongoing supply of highly referenceable accounts? And finally, is marketing providing sales with a similarly robust stream of quality leads? (Please see "Garbage In, Garbage?Well, You Know," January '99 SFFA.)

As before, using SFA technology to track these leading indicators is key to managing them. Instead of generally learning of diminishing quality when opportunities fail to close after months of effort, consider using existing SFA technology to track lead quality on an ongoing basis.

As soon as you recognize the downward trend in the quality of pursued leads, corrective actions can be initiated, rather than stanching the wound several months later when sales fail to materialize. Similarly, what are we learning from the opportunities that are lost? Are we becoming smarter, tougher competitors as a result of these learning experiences? What I often ask clients is, "You've paid the tuition. Have you learned the lessons?" Too often the answer is no.

"More and more often, sales reps are asking about support systems, infrastructure and the like. Laptops, cell phones and e-mail are basic issue today."

Attracting/Retaining Great People
"How successful can I be? How can I be successful?" I believe these are, and increasingly will be, the two questions sales reps will ask their employers. Yes, money matters and having money is better than not having money. But great people move beyond basic money issues pretty quickly. Having a competitive compensation program and product/service offering will be basic requirements for attracting and retaining great people. However, more than one company has lamented the loss of a star sales rep who was making plenty of money.

In addition to earnings potential, top performers are interested in growth potential and the availability of support-technological and human-to help them reach their potential. More and more often, sales reps are asking about support systems, infrastructure and the like. Laptops, cell phones and e-mail are basic issue today. Beyond these basics, some productivity, collaboration/communication and coaching tools are expected. Does your CRM/SFA system provide these? How are leads distributed? How frequently? How quickly? Are these leads pre-qualified by telemarketing or an inside sales counterpart? And what of the quantity/quality of leads?

One of the things that make an environment great for sales reps is having a consistent flow of good leads. In the November '97 SFFA issue I wrote: "Sales reps will sign up for higher productivity and higher quotas if at the same time they're offloaded the responsibility of generating all their own leads." This statement is more pertinent than ever. Take, for example, the Tennant Company in Minneapolis, which has been a client for a few years. It views lead generation/demand creation as a corporate responsibility. While its sales strategy is much more complicated than this, it is a reflection of its corporate culture. Not surprisingly, in 1998, the Tennant Company was again ranked one of Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For in America.

Steve Jobs had a great philosophy about attracting top talent. He's credited with saying: "`A' players recruit `A' players. `B' players recruit `C' players." If you're unable to attract/retain great reps, look at your systems of defining, supporting, coaching and compensating successful performance.

Ramping Up New Hires
Finally, now that you've brought a new sales rep on board, what is available to get this person up to speed? You might examine your organization to see if the following sales-support elements are in place: (1) a clear, field-proven sales process to act as a road map for your newbie; (2) an easily accessible knowledge base of best practices and timely/relevant tactical alerts; (3) a fertile territory seeded with several promising opportunities and consistently irrigated with a steady flow of high-quality marketing drips; and (4) a CRM/SFA system to support all of the above.

If your reaction to this list is, "Anyone could sell in that environment. You're dreamin'!" then the following may sound more typical-and realistic. We hire experienced people and expect them to bring talent, ability and territory equity (read: connections) to the party. We pay for performance and the good ones make it. We offer a competitive pay package and provide two weeks' company/product training (read: take a drink from this fire hose, before we parachute you into your territory).

This approach suggests a standing start-hardly the fastest way to get a new hire up to speed. For a running start, having several of the components listed above is a huge advantage for both the rep and the rep's manager. This is increasingly important as managers have less time because they are spread across more sales reps and/or geography.

The Last Word
In part one of this series I wrote about the convergence of "people, process and technology." So where do we look to find this convergence? Look for best-of-breed tools and add-ons that beef up reporting and knowledge sharing. The key point, though, is to look at the big picture and try to determine if your CRM/SFA system not only gathers the right kind of data, but interprets it to provide sales managers with actionable information.

And as promised, my prediction for the future: Over the next two years the sales managers' role will shift dramatically away from chasing the numbers and toward growing the organization. Measurable improvements in key metrics will be the order of the day, and while quota/revenue attainment will continue to be key, it will no longer be the only standard by which success is defined. Having strategies and CRM/SFA technologies in place to support this evolution and address the six issues discussed in this series will be essential.

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