Recently we interviewed fourteen sales executives to learn what they think really contributes to improved sales performance. We asked them the following question: what is the correlation between the tools they provide to their sales teams, and the results those sales teams achieve? Our colleagues told us that the way management goes about selecting, designing, and implementing sales practices, processes and software applications makes the difference in sales performance, not the tools themselves.
Our colleagues all represented major corporations in the B2B sector, with large sales organizations, major or national account teams, and well over a hundred years of combined field experience. They included senior executives, sales managers, and individual contributors. But overall, they agreed on four key points, with a bonus point thrown in for good measure:
1. If they build it, they will use it. In other words, if sales people who will use the sales tools have a say in building or selecting them, those sales people are much more likely to adopt and use the tools.
2. They will use it if they understand it. In the world of sales, ease of use seems to mean rate of adoption. If the tools make sense to sales people, if they produce useful insights without imposing a lot of data entry overhead, then sales people will use the tools.
3. If they use it, they are more likely to get desirable results. Once sales people have easy access to tools, methods, training programs, or technology that they had a hand in building, they use the tools. Then both sales and management can measure results. And once you measure the results you can manage them pretty well.
4. Once they get results, they want more and better results. So it was worth the effort to get the right technology, training and business processes in place, in the first place.
And the bonus: if you don’t let them build it, and they don’t adopt it, you probably won’t get the results you want.
Ease of Use vs. Rate of Adoption
The first thing we discovered was ease of use doesn’t really mean ease of use at all. It means “did you guys come up with something that makes sense to us sales people and makes it easier to do our jobs? Because if you did, we’ll use it. If you didn’t, forget it.”
Of the fourteen people we interviewed, one thing was absolutely consistent, regardless of the size of business, industry sector, experience level of the sales team, or anything else. The sales team simply won’t use any processes, methodologies, training programs or technology tools if they don’t make sense and provide meaningful feedback no matter how elegant, popular, powerful or fashionable they may be.
In our limited sample, those who reported the greatest success and the happiest outcomes said that their sales force had had direct input into the choice or design of the tools, understood what they were designed to accomplish, or both. Further, several interviewees reported a correlation between the narrowness or specificity of the problem to be addressed, and the success of the tools chosen to address it. In other words, solving a small and easily identifiable problem had more success than sweeping change.
- A high-tech manufacturing firm sought and obtained sales input to design a new CRM solution to replace their outdated investment. Result: a streamlined system with significant increases in adoption followed by improved employee engagement and measurable growth in sales dollars.
- At a transportation company, the account managers had a hard time managing their pipeline, so they chose a web-hosted software package to simplify pipeline management, and do nothing else. Result: high adoption, greater sales control, increases in business and virtually no budget impact on the IT department.
- A provider of commodity products wanted to change from a product/channel focus to a market-segment focus. To make it easy for the sales force to adopt the new approach they invested in a formal change-management process that engages the people involved in the change. Result: a sales organization that has renewed motivation and is showing positive early results.
- A large communications company maintains its competitive advantage with a consistent focus on customer retention and executive sponsorship based on carefully documented processes and policies. Sales people find it easy to engage a senior executive, even a C-level person, in account campaigns and visits. Result: commanding market share. Sales people in this company really know that Sales is king.
On the other hand, those reporting lower rates of success believed that management seemed not to understand or appreciate the realities of the sales mission, function and organization. As a result, sales people were less likely to be included in designing the desired tools and methods, or in identifying the need for change in the first place.
- An otherwise successful company provided all kinds of useful tools to its sales force, with high levels of adoption and success, but management decided not to address the need for mid-tier sales support. So those senior sales people must do their own “administrivia” at the cost of hours of productive face-time with customers.
- One large industrial firm has spent years changing the business model from product focus to industry focus to account focus and back again, producing the response of “duck, here comes another initiative!” from sales people. Sales reps distrust management and are reluctant to adopt the next iteration. It’s tough for this company to improve results in a systematic fashion.
- A group of technical experts, none of whom had field sales experience, launched a successful business. But when they decided to launch a national account team, they failed to provide effective sales-force automation or rational sales processes. The national account team now spends a considerable amount of its time making the internal sale, again cutting into productive face-time with customers and prospects.
Sales Performance and the Right Tools
So what’s the relationship between sales performance and the right tools? The answer lies not in the tools themselves, but in the strategies by which those tools are selected, designed and deployed.
When sales people are equipped with the right tools, they have two advantages. First, the right tools capture pertinent information and data that helps sales people to make consistently good decisions, contributing to predictable and consistent sales results. Second, and even more important, good tools, methods, and processes make the sales job less time-consuming, more efficient and less costly. And that means that sales people can devote MORE time to selecting the most qualified prospects, cultivating high-potential relationships, offering the most beneficial solutions, and winning the most profitable deals. Those are the sales tools that predict success, no matter what the state of the economy.