CRM Plays a Critical Role in Sales Success

The first-line sales manager (FLM) is one of the most critical drivers of a high-performing sales organization. While a low-performing rep may impact one territory, a low-performing manager affects many. Not surprisingly, research validates that strong first-line sales managers drive superior business results by raising the bar for everyone on their team. Over time, sales reps with good managers outperform reps with weak managers by a significant margin.

Creating a high-performing FLM team requires attention to several elements. One critical success factor is making sure the FLM team is well supported with systems, tools, and data required to effectively perform each role. The CRM system can be a critical tool in driving FLM effectiveness, provided it is designed with both the salesperson and FLM in mind. An effective CRM system creates value for both the salesperson and sales manager. But before we can understand the role of CRM, we must first understand the key components of an FLM's job.

There are three fundamental management roles performed by a FLM: business manager, people manager, and customer manager. In addition, the FLM serves as a facilitator of change for the sales force in each of the management domains. The relative focus on each management area often differs across sales models, industries, and sales channel types (e.g., key account selling, field sales, telesales, etc.).

This essay will describe how CRM systems can play a powerful role in enabling the FLM to be effective as a business manager and a people manager. A CRM system's value to support the FLM as a customer manager is already well-documented—and is quite similar to the CRM function in supporting front-line salespeople.

The FLM as a Business Manager

An effective CRM system should support the company's FLMs in effectively managing the business related to their sales team. An embedded FLM-specific performance dashboard can serve as a critical enabler that provides access to all the key pieces of information required by the FLM.

A good performance dashboard includes the critical information required to manage the team. Some typical pieces of information, presented at both the territory and district/region level, include:

  • Sales performance, including growth (often by product) and sometimes profitability
  • Progress against goal/quota
  • Pipeline status and productivity
  • Sales force activity summaries
  • Expenses and/or resource management
  • People statistics (e.g., number of days territories have been vacant, number of people on a performance improvement plan, etc.)

A good CRM system can also provide valuable insight into other performance drivers. Reports on win-loss analytics, untapped opportunity, target prospects, and lead follow-up can all provide valuable insight into the performance of the region.

In many cases, other systems supplement the CRM system and further enable key parts of the business manager role. In these instances, the CRM dashboard can serve as a central portal and provide links to all key systems and information (e.g., expense management, business plans, etc.) required to effectively manage the business.

The CRM system can also serve as an enabler of key sales management decisions. As an example, one transportation company has integrated its CRM system with a territory alignment management system to help FLMs make decisions such as how to assign new accounts to territories, or how to divide accounts when reps go on temporary leave. This helps ensure that accounts are assigned to the channel and salesperson that will best address their needs. Another module in the CRM system provides annual sales quota setting, which allows access to preliminary quotas that the FLM can refine based on local knowledge. Lastly, data in the CRM system can also be exported into FLM business plans as part of the company's annual planning process.

Finally, the CRM system can serve as an important channel of field intelligence and feedback to headquarters. If marketing and sales work cooperatively with the CRM system, this system can become the centerpiece of developing customer-centric marketing strategies.

The FLM as a People Manager

As people managers, one of the critical responsibilities of FLMs is to coach their salespeople to be more effective in their roles. As such, clearly defined coaching expectations—sometimes referred to as a coaching process—are critical. A good coaching process includes clear expectations around the frequency, nature, and content of coaching interactions. A CRM system should be closely aligned to the coaching process for high-impact sales coaching.

One medical device company puts particular emphasis on the quality of field coaching between its FLMs and salespeople, with the goal of driving a high degree of customer satisfaction and impact. As such, the company has defined clear expectations around how its FLMs should conduct field rides and the role of the CRM system in supporting these interactions before, during, and after the interaction. In doing so, the role of the CRM was carefully considered, balancing the desire to drive effective and consistent behaviors with the risk of creating an additional reporting burden for FLMs and their teams.

In this organization, salespeople are expected to submit their precall plans to the FLM 48 hours in advance of the field ride, specifying the specific objectives of the sales call and how it will drive value for the customer. This way, the FLM can prepare for the day and coach the salesperson on the quality of his/her preparation. Following each sales call, the FLM conducts a debrief to provide timely feedback and agrees on specific actions to be taken and documented in the call notes.

At the end of the field ride, the FLM provides additional verbal feedback and documents feedback in a CRM-enabled coaching feedback letter. This ensures every salesperson receives clear, targeted feedback on key elements of the company's salesperson competency model. This process also allows FLMs to track the progress of their coaching interactions with salespeople.

The first-line sales manager is often the highest-impact role in a sales organization. Strong FLMs retain top performers, develop average performers, and replace salespeople who are unlikely to succeed. They also develop the right strategies and tactics to enable the success of their teams. The CRM system can be a powerful tool in helping the FLM be effective in each of the three roles. Aligning the CRM system to support each of the FLM's key roles can have a significant impact on FLM effectiveness and drive long-term company results.

Marshall Solem is a managing principal on ZS Associates' executive team and the leader of the company's sales solutions area. Tony Yeung is an associate principal with ZS Associates. He works with sales organizations across a variety of industries, primarily on issues relating to go-to-market strategy and transformation.

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