• February 1, 2008
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Rumble in the Office

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Think of the two most different people in your organization, the ones whose personalities are like night and day. Chances are, one of these is a salesperson, and the other's a technologist. It's a fairly established fact that, like neighborhood gangs in an S.E. Hinton novel, the Slicks and the Propeller-Heads keep pretty much to their own turf and socialize amongst themselves. If you're lucky, the discord doesn't get in the way of their working relationship or, if it does, the individuals are not powerful decision-makers. Outside of casual chat around the water cooler, or at company outings, a sales rep and an IT runner might have little contact. The chief information officer and the executive sales director, on the other hand, can start a rumble that shakes a company to its foundation, paralyzing daily operations and stagnating innovation. It's more likely to be this way in larger companies, where job specialization is more clearly defined, but even small businesses can experience conflict between the people who set up the laptops and the ones who use them. Minimizing those conflicts -- and getting the two factions to communicate -- is of critical importance to any business that wants to move ahead. The Roots of Conflict Why the disconnect between sales staff and technical personnel, anyway? "This is a good example of left-brain/right-brain conflict," suggests Richard Bohn, the executive editor of independent CRM review and analysis site SellMoreNow.com. "The IT person is probably naturally inclined to be left-brain from the start. Then their professional training reinforces this mentality." The logical, analytical, and concrete thinking suits business technologists, leading them to the profession in the first place and then driving them to excel. "Most sales folks, on the other hand, are talkers who frequently have difficulty staying focused on specific topics," Bohn adds. This fits the sales lifestyle; sales folk don't succeed unless they're comfortable with extemporaneous speaking, and can adjust to new topics and situations rapidly. Salespeople are well served by an aggressive, competitive nature, combined with the desire and ability to keep somebody talking. "I believe it's a lack of understanding -- let's say a lack of lingua franca regarding process requirements and definition," says John Konczal, director of industry marketing for Sterling Commerce, an AT&T company. "For the most part, sales is about closing business at the current moment. The sales role is about responding to what the customer needs in the present. There is a fundamental fear of saying 'no' to any customer need or question." Not every member of the gregarious, sales-focused Slicks is an abrasive conversation-dominator, nor is everybody who wears Propeller-Head colors a contemplative introvert. But the stereotypes are there for a reason, and it's fair to make the generalizations. So what happens when you force the two sides to interact? Mutual loathing, if you're not careful -- which could fester to become something worse: non-cooperation. "Salespeople sometimes get carried away with the flash -- nice cars, fancy suits, big expense accounts, etc.," Bohn says. "So, sometimes, IT and other departments get jealous of salespeople -- this gets in the way of a healthy working relationship." What's the Problem?
The place where sales/tech conflicts play out is usually the company's infrastructure. Salespeople demand new applications or functions that the technologists can't deliver, or the Slicks abuse and ignore the tech they already have, infuriating the Propeller-Heads. Each group complains to management, who promptly tells them to sort it out amongst themselves. The time wasted going back and forth on issues that won't get resolved is time that could be better spent on real job tasks. Energy that might have gone into a sales call, or into adding some juicy new bits of computer gear, is dissipated as waste heat from anger. "Tech folk need to understand that sales and marketing are totally dynamic -- and always will be," Bohn says. "If these folks have worked on [enterprise resource planning], accounting, or other back-office problems, they get used to problems that are better defined and don't change as quickly." On the other hand, Bohn continues, "Sales folks tend to think, 'It's only a little software, what's the big deal?' Again, these issues need to be discussed in an ongoing exchange of working together to take better care of customers. People sometimes forget that that is really what their job is." The key is maintaining a continuous dialogue -- before things blow up into a crisis and fingers start pointing. Working together should be defined as a priority and included in annual performance evaluations. "I am big on top management setting a positive tone and keeping people focused on serving customers," Bohn says. Some of the most egregious failures occur in high-profile industries. Konczal cites as an example the communications industry, where the failure of informed exchange between sales and IT has caused marketing campaigns and sales efforts to fall well below forecasted expectations. "There are countless examples of sales and marketing going to market with a specific promotion or campaign that could not be supported by the billing system. Hence, revenue could not be collected and, of course, the campaign did not meet objectives," he says. But this seems to be a trend that is changing. Today's Slicks often have a technical specialist whose job it is to act as liaison to the Propeller-Heads, coordinating requirements and projects. "One example that comes to mind is the case of the sales organization of a large communications service provider that has decided to take back in-house its Web sales channel and some of its retail stores from a third-party sales company," Konczal says. "In this case, the sales and IT teams are working as one team to design and implement the communications retail experience of the future." Solutions Some would argue that software-as-a-service (SaaS) circumvents the Slicks/Propeller-Heads struggle. Indeed, the reduced impact on technical infrastructure and personnel has been among the chief selling points for SaaS. "I don't think SaaS provides an end-run around the problem," Bohn says. "The same problems are all still there. Look at any big Salesforce.com project and you will see all the same issues present." Whether or not this is true, the fact remains that many organizations have already invested considerable time and effort in their CRM systems -- investments they won't be keen on scrapping in favor of SaaS. Let's focus on the needs of those companies, the ones that have something in place and no compelling reason to change. Identifying and properly communicating requirements is one of the hardest steps for a sales team. "Users in general -- and this isn't limited to sales -- seldom can adequately express what they want from a system or a process," Konczal says. "They have a vague idea of what needs to be changed, but can't really articulate what an ideal 'to be' state should be." On the flip side, he continues, most IT environments have considerable inertia due to legacy systems, inflexible architectures, and other concerns -- hence the push for a new approach. Services-oriented architecture, business process management tools, and flexible-rules engines all can inject much-needed flexibility into a patchwork of IT systems without requiring costly, error-prone modifications to core systems. The technologists are thus embracing an environment that accepts and facilitates frequent change that will support what Konczal calls "the sometimes-schizophrenic nature of sales." Just as with any business, success starts with credible and reliable delivery. In manufacturing, for example, delivery of materials is crucial; in CRM, the key deliverable is IT resources. "Predictability creates a certainty for sales that they can sell what they have, promote where they are going, and encourage the prospect to participate in the future vision. It is process, process, process," Konczal says. "If there is a common, documented, up-to-date understanding of the business process -- like order-to-cash -- then it becomes easier to have a joint discussion around what needs to change." Sometimes it's a procedural change, sometimes it's a new system or feature -- and sometimes it's both -- "but you have to have the lingua franca of a common process model as your baseline," he says. One possibility for facilitating communication is the use of a mediator -- especially one already familiar with both sides' needs. (See "Engineering the Sale" sidebar, below, for more about a particular kind of mediator -- the sales engineer.) A special mediator may not be needed at all, though. Simply getting the Slicks and the Propeller-Heads in the same room with their mutual boss can be enough to create forward motion. In that setting, each team can present its needs, wants, and pain points so that the other side can hear it just as the neutral third party does. Rather than complaining about the other side, they complain to the other side. The solution is not going to arise from day-to-day griping and uncomfortable hallway conversations; it's going to come from seeking a resolution that both parties can agree upon after a reasoned discussion. And that reasoned discussion should not be a one-time meeting at the mount, either. Regular sessions not only foster understanding of issues as they develop, but create a sense of real communication. You might even find that the leaders of the Slicks and Propeller-Heads seek each other out proactively to deal with things that come up without waiting for the next scheduled meeting. Improvements Bohn is a believer in iterative CRM rollouts and agile development processes. "You folks [at CRM magazine] have written about many failed CRM projects; one of the common threads is trying to do too much at once," he says. "I always tell people to get a basic system up and running by focusing on the most obvious pain point, then expand to other areas as experience grows." In Bohn's experience, too many people still try to do a comprehensive needs analysis, and they proceed using old-fashioned project management. "I have always thought that no matter how conscientiously a team tries to define their requirements, they will fail," he says. "Until a team uses a CRM solution a while, they don't really appreciate the capabilities it offers and the things it can do. And then you must remember that sales and marketing needs will always be dynamic -- the system will never be done. Both sales and IT must fully grasp that simple concept," he warns. "More and more IT shops are moving to some kind of agile development methodology," he continues. "The better CRM solutions support these ideas. Microsoft Dynamics CRM, for example, is easy to use and grow in an iterative development process. One of Siebel's problems was always that they like big projects for big consulting teams -- they were not friendly to letting the system change and grow." No matter how you establish good working relations between the Slicks and the Propeller-Heads, you must get it done in order to move on to the proper focus for a business: outward upon its customers, not inward to damage control. "What is needed is for sales and IT to come together and form a consistent understanding of customer needs, business objectives, and business requirements," Konczal says. "From there, both roles can work together to form a joint solution to immediate issues as well as future opportunities." SIDEBAR: Engineering the Sale When it comes to bridging sales and technology jargon and processes, many organizations have a sales engineer -- a role uniquely designed for straddling both sides of the equation. "In many sales, there are two sorts of people at work for the vendor: the sales rep, who does the actual deal, talks about financing, and such; and a tech guy who runs demonstrations, handles RFPs, and is responsible for solution closure. We call that person the sales engineer," says Phil Janus, chief executive officer of aptly named software vendor Salesengineering.com. Janus notes that the process (and the sales engineer's expertise) often enables the organization to grow the size of a deal by identifying areas where the customer's capabilities are lacking. The sales engineer (SE) uses tech knowledge to move sales forward by working with the customer to establish technical requirements, functional needs, and points of integration. Somebody who understands the IT environment and is able to think like a salesperson could be the ideal moderator. In some cases, at least: "It depends on the seniority of the SE, and maybe on the kind of business the company serves," Janus says. "With applications vendors, the SE is always working with IT groups, and is sensitive to their needs" even while driving the sale to completion. On the other hand, Janus notes, in other businesses (such as medical-device sales) the SE interacts with specialist end users (such as doctors and nurses) and the connection isn't as strong. Contact Senior Editor Marshall Lager at mlager@destinationCRM.com.
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