I was speaking with a CRM vendor the other day about positioning and messaging for sales force automation. The vendor was telling me that the company wanted a back-to-basics message that would focus on the importance of SFA (sales force automation) in helping salespeople recover some of the time they invest in unproductive activities.
On the face of it, this sounds like a reasonable approach, and in fact it is one of the staples of the SFA world. Sales force automation got going when companies like Siebel began telling their customers that sales force productivity could improve if salespeople could spend more time in front of customers and less in dealing with administrivia. It’s been a grail quest ever since.
I gently tried to point out to the vendor that since this message has been a staple of SFA messaging for over 10 years that it might be time to look elsewhere for a way to improve selling. After all, the need for new messaging is all around us. All you need to do is look at the inroads made by Sales 2.0 ideas and Web 2.0 technologies to see.
Jumping the Boundary
We ended the conversation without any minds being changed. I continue to believe in the changing nature of selling, the need for new positioning and the messaging it entails. The vendor is committed to a back-to-basics approach. Perhaps I was not making good arguments, or maybe I was just speaking with a person who is not able to decide on change and further internal discussions will result in a different tack. We shall see.
It all got me thinking about the limit or, graphically, the asymptote, of the sales productivity improvement curve. If “asymptote” is an unfamiliar term, imagine a curve that rises from left to right and gently falls over like a blade of grass in a breeze. The asymptote would be an imaginary flat line above the curve that the curve never actually reaches. In mathematics, the curve reaches the asymptote at infinity, but, as a practical matter, in real life it takes progressively more effort and energy to close the gap.
In business, when confronted with an asymptotic boundary condition, savvy managers look for ways to change the game and, in effect, jump the boundary so that the ceiling becomes the floor and a new curve, or blade of grass, is established. That’s what is so intriguing about the Sales 2.0 movement that incorporates Web 2.0 technologies and social networking ideas.
As I have said before, we have spent a lot of time and effort trying to improve the sales process with products like SFA and sales methodologies. Those tools have been great at making big gains in productivity and face time, but there is only so much time in a sales person’s day to optimize, and at this point, pushing further will come at great cost. For a company or a salesperson who does not currently use automation, the opportunities for improvement are still vast, but that population is dwindling.
For example, the other day at the Force.com event in San Francisco, a CEO told me that these days his company rarely has to hire a salesperson who does not have experience using some form of SFA. It has become ubiquitous.
The move now, in my opinion, is not to proceed further in trying to wring out more face time, though some improvements can still happen. For me, the biggest opportunity is not in improving the sales process but in improving the inputs to the process which include the lead itself and the information flow to the customer.
If you look at Sales 2.0, that’s exactly what is happening. Companies are using advanced marketing technologies to better segment and mature prospective customers so that when a salesperson gets a lead, it is far more actionable than the leads that were handed out just a few years ago. In taking this approach, the ceiling has become the floor from which a new productivity curve is rising.
A whole industry segment which was once called “sales effectiveness” is growing up around this idea. What was once considered a hodgepodge of disparate point solutions is organizing itself into solutions for the pre- and post-sales processes.
So that’s why I am not a great fan of the improved productivity message. Productivity is still important, but truth be told, it has had its day. Productivity improvement is now taken for granted, table stakes in the larger conversation about how to sell today.
Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at email@example.com.