New Study Finds Keys to Sales Force Automation Success

Many organizations spend considerable resources in equipping their sales forces with information technology (IT) and sales force automation (SFA) tools. It is estimated that the cost for automation may rise to $12,000 per salesperson. Still, many companies fail to effectively implement their sales automation systems.

In a study undertaken by Penn state University's Institute for the study of Business Markets and Freedom Technology Media Group, which operates destinationCRM.com and CRM Magazine, we took the perspective of the end-users of sales automation, namely the field salesperson. Our objective was to shed light on how salespeople view their company's sales automation initiatives and assess the major factors that drive salespeople to adopt sales technology. In reading through the results it is important to understand that we defined SFA technology as an umbrella term of computerized systems that are specifically designed to support individual field sales representatives. In our definition, SFA programs do not comprise general office automation tools (e.g. office-suite software such as word processing and presentation applications) or separate e-mail and Web applications.


This report is based on a survey of 233 sales executives from as many companies and 787 sales representatives, gleaned from the subscription list of CRM Magazine.

Our sample contained salespeople employed in a broad range of industries (e.g. manufacturing, services, trade, finance and information). The sample is predominantly male (76 percent) and the median age of our sample lies between 36 and 45 years. The average experience in a sales job was 13.4 years and average company tenure 6.8 years. Participants were asked how long their SFA tools had been in place. As Figure 1 shows, the duration of SFA is widely spread; many companies have just recently implemented SFA, showing that they are still automating or fundamentally renewing their systems.

SFA Functionality

SFA systems can support a variety of sales activities, from contact management to the price and product configuration. Participants were asked to check which modules were available in their SFA technology. The applications most frequently cited where contact management tools (e.g. tracking contacts and call history)--88 percent; account management applications (e.g. tracking customer and related buyer information)- -83 percent; and time management tools (e.g. calendaring)- -81 percent. The lower occurrence of order management, sales analysis and product configuration tools may be due to the fact that these tools require more customization and development effort for companies. Another reason might be that order management and product configuration is not relevant in all selling situations and thus less represented overall.

How Frequently Do Salespeople Use SFA?

The frequency with which salespeople use SFA tools is amazing: 63 percent of our respondents indicated using their system more than once per day. In addition, salespeople seem to spend significant time with their system during an average working day. However, some caution is warranted in interpreting these high usage levels. Some applications or modules of the SFA systems may be forced upon the sales reps by the company (See Figure 2). High frequency of SFA usage does not necessarily mean that salespeople use their system to the fullest of its capabilities, or that SFA is a crucial component of their sales activities.

This reasoning is confirmed by Figure 3. Although seven out of 10 reps strongly agree with the fact that they frequently use their SFA system, one out of three sales reps disagrees with the statements "I fully use the capabilities of our SFA system" and "I have completely integrated our SFA applications into my sales process." There is a clear gap between making people frequently log in to a system and actually infusing sales technology throughout the sales process.

How do salespeople evaluate their SFA system?

The next section of our survey asked salespeople to evaluate their SFA system on different dimensions. Overall, salespeople seem to be satisfied with their SFA tools. Still, almost one out of five (17 percent) salespeople indicate that they are rather dissatisfied with their SFA applications. Nevertheless, almost 60 percent states that their systems are useful and improve their job performance. So were does the difference between the usefulness and satisfaction lie? The salespeople in our sample were less enthusiastic about the ease of use of their system and match between the system and their work processes. (See Figure 4.)

Interestingly, the salespeople in our sample did not believe that using SFA technology afforded them the image of the state-of-the-art salesperson. Furthermore, the chart also shows that only 28 percent of the salespeople believed their SFA system to be truly voluntary. As mentioned earlier, forced adoption may be one of the reasons for explaining the high usage levels.

Organizational Efforts Toward SFA

Companies have much more work to do in terms of providing user support and training (See Figure 5). The salespeople in our sample evaluated these levels much more negatively than the other organizational efforts. In fact, 18 percent of our participants reported that they strongly disagreed with the fact that their company has extensively trained them in the use of the provided SFA tools. Only 14 percent of the salespeople were clearly satisfied with the level of training received. Similarly, 11 percent disagreed completely with the fact that there was good technical support for the SFA system. Only 15 percent was noticeably positive about the user support provided. On the contrary, their were less complaints about sales management efforts and their signaling function.

What is the state of the Art IT Solution?

In addition, we asked salespeople to rate the extent they used other information technology on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (to a great extent). (See Figure 6.)

What are the Key Drivers for Salespeople to Accept SFA?

Based on an elaborate, multivariate statistical analyses, the most critical variables in explaining salespeople's adoption of SFA technology were identified. The following bullets summarize our findings and provide some recommendations for companies when introducing new technology to the sales force:

  • Usefulness of the system: Convince your sales force that your system improves their effectiveness. Increase acceptance by introducing applications which directly serve the salesperson. Salespeople will only embrace technology if they believe that the technology improves their job performance and productivity. This finding may not be surprising considering the fact that salespeople are probably the most performance oriented of all white collar workers.
  • Personal Innovativeness: Personal innovativeness was defined as the attitude toward adopting new IT. The failure to consider this individual characteristic during the implementation process may be one of the reasons why so many sales automation initiatives fail in the field. Technology suppliers and companies implementing sales technology could use the innovativeness variable for several purposes throughout the implementation process: e.g. during pilot and usability tests, to segment the sales organization and target innovative salespeople during roll out first. In addition, innovative salespeople are important advocates and will spur the internal adoption process of SFA among their peers, making the implementation a success.
  • Supervisors as Change Agents: Supervisors have an important signaling function. They can convince their reps of the system's benefits and can make their subordinates comply with their persuasions. Thus, making sales managers advocates of the SFA system is extremely important if the new solutions are to be accepted by the salespeople in the field. Companies need to inspire multiple layers of the sales organization during the SFA implementation process. In other words, organizations and technology suppliers do not need to focus their efforts on end-users alone, but also on sales field management.
  • Easy to Use Systems: Although our analyses showed that ease of use was a secondary determinant, its importance for the acceptance process is twofold. First of all, systems that require exhaustive mental effort will obviously hamper usage, even if the system is perceived useful. Secondly, easy-to-use systems enhance salespeople's perception that the system improves their productivity, and thus indirectly the adoption of technology. Our analyses further showed that companies can make their systems easier to use by improving their organizational efforts in terms of user training, technical support, top management commitment and internal marketing campaigns.
  • The Use of SFA technology by peers: The degree to which a sales rep's colleagues use the SFA system has also shown to be of some importance for acceptance. The acceptance of the technology by others spurs adoption in two ways: First, it clearly signals the benefits of the system to others and it creates a form of social pressure within the sales organization for the others to comply.
  • Competitive pressure: The feeling that competing sales reps were also equipped with and relied on state-of-the-art sales technology directly impacted a sales rep's decision to adopt his or her own SFA system. However, this factor was less important than expected.
  • Customer Influence: The perceived pressure from customers for salespeople to use IT was found to be of less importance. Such buyer influences only affected the sales rep's perceptions about the usefulness of the SFA system.
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