Most managers are excited by technology.
Technology enables us to get more done, faster. And technology is practical. Concrete. It’s not about ideas; it’s about execution.
This is certainly true in sales environments. It’s almost impossible to propose any initiative without prompting the question: is there software for that?
In sales environments, the answer to that question is yes. There is always software for that. In fact there are many thousands of software applications promising to automate every step in the sales lifecycle, from the generation of sales opportunities through to the provision of management information.
The dirty secret of sales environments is that, with few exceptions, this technology has done nothing to improve productivity. Nothing!
After a generation of investment in sales (and marketing) automation technologies, sales environments look (and operate) essentially the same as they did 20 years ago. There is little credible evidence that the tens (or, more commonly, hundreds) of thousands of dollars that a typical firm has spent on sales technology has caused a rise in revenues, a reduction in costs or even an improvement in customer-service quality[i].
This chapter addresses three critically important questions:
- Why is technology failing to produce the productivity improvements in sales that it has in other parts of the organization?
- What role should technology play in the design and operation of the sales function?
- What are the practical technology requirements of an organization transitioning to the new model?
At the end of the chapter we’ll tackle another more fundamental technology issue. We’ll explore who in the organization should accept which technology responsibilities and, more critically, which responsibilities should never be outsourced.
The sales software system
If the multitude of sales-related software applications was a planetary system, the sun around which all other planets would orbit would be called CRM. CRM stands for customer-relationship management. A CRM (application) is designed to automate the numerous workflows that exist in and around the sales environment – and to store the data that’s generated as a result of those workflows.
These workflows include the generation of sales opportunities, the prosecution of sales opportunities and the management of customer issues.
The other software applications that orbit the CRM in the sales system are dependent on the CRM, either because their reason for existence is to feed it data (new contacts, perhaps) or because they leverage the data that sits within the CRM to perform specialist functions (email broadcast, report generation and so on).
CRM is a subset of a larger class of software, known as ERP (enterprise-resource planning). ERP is the software that manages operational workflows in the organization as a whole. Things like the generation of orders, the scheduling of the production environment, the management of inventory, the processing of payables and receivables, and so on.
Although ERP and CRM are now intertwined, the two technologies had quite different beginnings. ERP evolved out of inventory control systems in the 1960’s. And CRM evolved out of contact-tracking applications in the 1980’s. Contact-tracking applications (like Act!) were software equivalents of salespeople’s day-planner calendars.
Although the two technologies have grown together over the years, their usage has not. In the modern organization, ERP is pervasive – if you removed it, the organization would simply cease to function. This is not the case with CRM. In fact, in many organizations, the removal of CRM would actually unencumber salespeople and increase their productivity!
What’s wrong with CRM?
Consider the list of standard promises made on behalf of CRM by CRM vendors:
- CRM will increase salespeople’s productivity
- CRM will cause an improvement in customer service quality
- CRM will drive a tighter integration of sales and marketing
- CRM will provide management with better quality information
As I mentioned earlier, most organizations have invested a king’s ransom in CRM but few have seen any (let alone all) of these promises realized.
Technically, however, there is nothing wrong with CRM!
As we’ll shortly discover, CRM has the potential to unleash enormous productivity improvements in sales environments. The problem with this technology is that it has been designed around the requirements of a sales environment that doesn’t actually exist.
It’s useful (and somewhat amusing) to understand why this has occurred.
A candid history of CRM
It’s arguable that the first contact-tracking applications solved a real problem for salespeople. These applications simplified the tracking of the numerous interactions between salespeople and their customers (appointments, phone calls, proposals and other tasks).
I say arguable, because salespeople’s legacy tool (their day-planner calendars) was actually superior to these applications for a couple of reasons:
- Calendars were (until very recently) much more portable than computers and did not take five minutes or so to switch on
- Most salespeople did not share their calendars with management – meaning they could make whatever entries they saw fit, without fear that the information would be used against them
Understandably, because contact-tracking applications provided salespeople with some (but not a huge amount of) value, salespeople purchased them (but not in particularly large numbers).
This incursion of technology into the sales environment was observed with some interest by two groups of people: management and technologists. Managers were excited because they had witnessed the profound productivity improvements that had been delivered to production environments by ERP. And technologists were excited too: they had seen the unimaginable wealth generated by the ERP pioneers.
In fact, the only party in the organization that wasn’t particularly excited by CRM was salespeople! After their experiences with contact tracking, they were nonplussed by the breathless promises of management and technologists.
It took technologists only about 15 years to transform those simple contact-tracking applications into technology that is as mature as ERP applications in almost every sense. And, every step of the way, the technologists’ progress was cheered by management, who fell over themselves to purchase each new iteration of the technology – despite the lack of any evidence of returns on their expenditure to date.
Unlike ERP – which evolved around the requirements of real users – CRM has never really been embraced by users in any meaningful sense! Absent useful user feedback, technologists have had no choice but to design the technology around their vision of what a sales environment should look like.
Hence my claim, previously, that CRM has been designed around an environment that doesn’t actually exist.
The good news – and who’d have thought this story would end well – is that the environment technologists imagined is disarmingly similar to the environment evangelized in this book. Specifically, technologists imagined an environment where actors work as teams – rather than as autonomous agents – and engineered CRM around this idealized vision of reality.
I don’t think this fortunate outcome is the result of incredible prescience on technologists’ behalf – although, they do tend to be pretty smart critters – I think it’s more that CRM has naturally inherited the architecture of ERP, which has collaboration in its genes.
This short history lesson should make it clear why CRM has consistently failed to deliver on its promises.
All those promises were premised on the existence of a team environment in sales:
The 360° view of the customer – available to anyone in the organization – is of no value to anyone at all if the salesperson is working hard to monopolize the customer relationship (often with the customer aiding and abetting their cause).
The technology to tightly-integrate sales and marketing is of no value to anyone if sales and marketing are fundamentally distrustful of one-another – and even less so if the two departments are held accountable to metrics that propel them apart.
And, the ability for management to have visibility of salespeople’s effort and outcomes is of no use if salespeople have the power to flavor the data they enter into CRM, along with huge incentives to do so! (These incentives emerge from the bizarre game that sales managers and their salespeople play where both pretend that it’s possible for salespeople to simultaneously be team members and autonomous agents.)
Sadly, many (perhaps, most) salespeople have come to despise the software that originated as their productivity tool. The refrain, CRM sucks, is one that’s frequently heard in the modern sales environment!
How technology can add real value to sales
Despite the many (well publicized) problems that large organizations have had with the adoption of ERP, this technology has become indispensable to the modern corporation.
The reason is that it facilitates the division of labor. It enables data to be shared across geography and departments in real time. It allows repetitive processes to be automated. And it allows management to extract information from oceans of data and, as a consequence, to make better decisions, faster.
These are exactly the benefits that CRM (and associated technologies) can provide to sales environments.
In the new model, it’s critical that data is shared across both geography and departments.
As discussed earlier, clients expect a single conversation with your organization. Of course, this conversation has multiple participants (often in both your organization and the clients’), and those participants are in different locations and in different departments.
For example, in a complex sales environment, the conversation might consist of the following interactions:
- Your field-based salesperson and your prospect’s commercial decision makers
- Your salesperson’s sales coordinator and your prospect’s executive assistants
- Your project leader and your prospect’s engineering team
- Your customer service team and your prospect’s operational people (assuming the prospect is an existing account)
The availability of data is a necessary condition for the synchronization of these interactions into a single conversation – but it’s not a sufficient one. Sufficiency requires that each participant in this conversation is presented only with relevant data – and that this data is presented in a meaningful way.
For example, a salesperson, on their way to a meeting with one of your account’s senior executives does need to know the general status of that account – however, they do not need a log of every transaction your organization has had with that account this year!
CRM can assist with both of these conditions. Because the heart of the CRM is a giant database, the sharing of data is easy. But the CRM also makes it possible for you to provide different people in your organization (and even people in your client’s organization) with custom views of the central dataset.
So, in the example above, customer service representatives will see your account’s discrete transactions, but when your salesperson scans their calendar in your client’s reception area, they will see just a brief summary of sales volumes, categories of products purchased and your organization’s on-time-delivery performance.
Like all software, CRM is brilliant at the automation of repetitive operations.
At a basic level, the sharing of data (discussed above) is an example of automation. A single data element can be entered once and viewed by multiple parties in different locations without additional (human) effort.
Where promotion is concerned, there are more dramatic examples of automation:
- A prospective customer who completes a form on a landing page, can be automatically subscribed to one or more automated communication programs, and the data they volunteer can be used to automatically populate company, contact and opportunity records in your CRM
- With the push of a single button, personalized invitations to an event can be broadcast to thousands of contacts on your house list
It’s worth noting that the benefits of automation tend to be over-hyped by the vendors of CRM. In a complex-sale environment, the automation of the opportunity-management process is the responsibility of a sales coordinator – not of the CRM. If you have humans involved in the prosecution of sales opportunities (salespeople) it’s safe to assume that that it’s impractical for this part of the overall sales process to be managed by a machine.
We’ve already hinted at the distinction between data and information – and at the ability of CRM to convert the former into the latter.
This distinction is particularly relevant to management. The design of the modern organization puts management in the position where it wields tremendous power – but this power can only be put to good use if management is presented with the right information at the right time.
CRM stores data in a structure that makes the provision of this critical management information relatively easy and CRM (if it’s used sensibly) gives management access to real-time reporting (eliminating the requirement for anyone in your organization to have to prepare standard reports).
Your general technology requirements
Beware the all-in-one solution
Your technology requirements start with CRM, but they probably don’t finish there. In all likelihood you will need a number of technologies to power your entire sales function.
While many CRM’s are billed as all-in-one solutions, it generally makes more sense to assemble a small collection of best-of-breed technologies. This is because (at time of writing) all-in-one solutions tend to suffer either from missing functionality or from hideous complexity.
The power of CRM is its ability to model the complexity associated with both sales and customer support.
The standard model looks like the following. At the base level, we have our house list (accounts and potential accounts). We then have initiatives that we perform that involve those accounts (each initiative is a workflow). And each of those workflows consists of a sequence of events (phone calls, appointments, proposals, and so on).
While other relationships tend to be supported, the most common CRM approach
is to associate activities with initiatives, and initiatives with accounts
All CRM’s have this basic model hardwired into their architecture – which is a good thing, because this is exactly what reality looks like! This structure makes it easy for team members in various departments to enter and retrieve data – and it makes reporting easier too.
Website (content-management system)
Years ago, your website was a static document (brochure-ware).
Today, your website needs to be integrated (not necessarily in a technical sense) with many of your business functions and, for this reason, you need the flexibility to manage your website internally (rather than relying on a design firm). This means that even the simplest of websites should be built within a content-management system (CMS).
Where sales is concerned, your website will make a significant contribution to the generation of sales opportunities. Your website (in conjunction with search engines) will doubtless generate some sales opportunities organically but, more importantly, most (if not all) of your promotional activities will drive prospective clients to your website where they will complete forms on custom landing pages.
These landing pages are likely to be among the most frequently edited content on your website.
Lead-management (marketing automation) systems
In recent years, a particularly valuable class of software has emerged to bridge the divide between your website (or, more specifically, your landing pages) and your CRM.
Lead-management (or marketing automation) software consists of a class of web-based applications that provide the following functionality:
- The design and hosting of forms (the forms that appear in your landing pages)
- The management of contact lists (the data that’s collected when prospects submit forms)
- Auto-responders (sequences of automated email messages)
- Mass email broadcast
Applications that bill themselves as marketing automation tend to target the enterprise market with total solutions that include things like website analytics, landing-page hosting (rather than just forms) and the ability to build quite sophisticated automated communications around a range of prospect behaviors (web pages visited, links followed from emails, forms completed, etc).
Management information system
Your next requirement is for a management information system (MIS). Most CRM’s come with reporting capabilities but in many cases it makes sense to use a discrete MIS because:
- More often than not, you will want reports that merge data from multiple sources (e.g. CRM, ERP and web analytics services)
- Each level of management will have quite different information requirements
- Less is more (it is not beneficial for a manager to have to browse hundreds of reports to find the two or three that are relevant to them)
Choosing specific technologies
I’m sure you wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t make some specific technology recommendations!
However, because this advice will age quickly, it will undoubtedly be worth paying more attention to the reasons for my recommendations than the recommendations themselves.
In line with my earlier comment about the danger of all-in-one solutions, my first piece of advice is to avoid purchasing the CRM that is provided by your ERP vendor.
You should avoid this for two simple reasons:
- You will likely make significant sacrifices in the areas of functionality and (importantly) useability
- The tight integration that your vendor promises will come at the expense of terrible complexity
It’s important to stress that, in the new model, tight integration of ERP and CRM is not required. This is because your division-of-labor means different people will require different data or different views of the same data. As mentioned earlier, your salesperson (for example) doesn’t need access to transactional data, they just need a summary view of this data.
The only data that does require (relatively) tight integration is address book data – and this can certainly be achieved without purchasing an all-in-one solution. Similarly, your other integration requirements (like the salesperson’s transaction summary) can be achieved either at the reporting level or with low cost add-ins.
My second piece of advice, where CRM is concerned, is that the core technology is relatively mature, meaning that the differences between CRM’s are minimal – and are tending to diminish with each new release.
For this reason, I recommend that you give special consideration to:
- The size of the support community (and the availability of third-party plug-ins)
- Ease of customization
With these considerations in mind, let me tell you our three current recommendations:
- Vtiger. This is an open source application – meaning that you need only pay for hosting and that customization is very easy. It has a decent-sized support community, it has tons of functionality and it’s very easy to use. The downside is that it’s not the prettiest application and it lacks some cutting-edge (but not particularly useful) features (like Facebook-style comment streams).
- Salesforce. This has every feature known to mankind and an enormous support community. It’s also a beautiful and very user-friendly application. The downside is that it’s expensive – really damn expensive – particularly if you want to integrate it with third-party services!
- Microsoft CRM. This is the obvious choice for those organizations that have made a big commitment to the Microsoft enterprise environment because of its out-of-the box interoperability with SharePoint and other MS services. It’s a feature-rich and user-friendly application (particularly for users who are used to the MS environment).
The new model does make two critical requirements of CRM that you should be mindful of:
- MS Exchange or Google Apps integration. Because field salespeople spend all their time in the field, it’s critical that your CRM pushes appointments into your salespeople’s mobile devices (not just into their Outlook calendars). This tends to require either MS Exchange (not Outlook) integration or Google Apps integration. Be warned, most CRM salespeople are less than truthful where this requirement is concerned!
- Batch-generation of sales opportunities. In the new model, sales opportunities are generated by promotions and not by salespeople. Because promotional campaigns tend to target batches of prospects, it’s important that your promotional coordinator can generate a sales opportunity against each campaign recipient. MS CRM is the only CRM that I’m aware of that comes with this functionality. Ballistix (a company I founded) has written plug-ins for Salesforce and Vtiger to achieve this.
Website (content-management system)
The choice here is easy.
The most popular content-management system with the biggest support community and the richest feature-set (by a country mile) also happens to be free! Like Vtiger, WordPress is open source.
Do not, under any circumstances, allow a web developer to sell you their in-house CMS or (worse still) to build you a custom website from the ground up.
Lead-management (marketing automation) applications
As mentioned, these applications are all web-services nowadays.
You have the services that bill themselves as lead management (our pick of these is Aweber) and those that offer the full marketing-automation solution (a good example of these is Marketo).
My advice is to start with Aweber and avoid the (expensive) marketing-automation applications until you are convinced there is a good business case for upgrading. If you use Aweber in conjunction with WordPress, Google Analytics (see next section), and a 3rd-party CRM plug-in, you’ll find that you can enjoy most of the features of a marketing-automation application at a fraction of the cost.
In case you’re wondering, I’m suggesting Aweber, rather than MailChimp and other contenders because Aweber has an invaluable feature that enables you to create multiple sequences of automated emails and then automatically move prospects from one sequence to the next as they complete forms on your landing pages.
For example, you might have a first-time visitor watch a video and prompt them for an email address one-third of the way in (there’s a WordPress plug-in for this!). The receipt of that email address might trigger a sequence of automated emails that encourages the visitor to request a document of some kind – and each email would provide a link to a new landing page the visitor can use to do so.
When the visitor requests the document, they would be automatically unsubscribed from the first email sequence and subscribed to a new one. This new sequence might encourage the visitor to express interest in a conference call with one of your salespeople – and, again, provide a link to another landing page the visitor can use to accept this offer.
As an aside, I would encourage you to mark automated emails as such. The reason is that the most effective emails are the ones your prospect could easily believe you custom-generated for them. Best to aim for the most effective emails possible and to simultaneously ensure that no one will be deceived.
Management information system
Those who love purchasing new technology will be disappointed by my recommendation here.
In my opinion, the most valuable reporting tool – by a country mile – is Excel. Or more specifically, the Pivot Table (and Pivot Chart) functionality within Excel.
To convert Excel into a full-blown management information system, all you need to do is:
- Find a way to import the data on which you wish to report into Excel
- Show management how to drive a Pivot Table (or Pivot Chart)
Fortunately, both are relatively easy.
The most elegant way to achieve the former is to organize for a technical person to make the data on which you wish to report available to you as (password-protected) XML feeds (one feed for each dataset). Excel can easily digest these feeds and provide you the ability to manipulate them to your heart’s content in a Pivot Table (or Pivot Chart).
Conceptually, Pivot Tables are difficult to comprehend but managers tend to take to them like ducks to water once they see them in action. This is because they are incredibly powerful and because you can quickly assemble the reports you want with a combination of drag-and-drop and trial-and-error!
Imagine Mary’s colleagues have requested a report that compares her firm’s return-on-investment on LinkedIn and Facebook advertising.
She will request access to three datasets from IT. Cost-per-click data from LinkedIn and Facebook (these can easily be merged into one table). Opportunity data from CRM (this will enable Mary to see the opportunities generated from online campaigns – as well as whether or not they go on to become clients). And, monthly client expenditure data from ERP.
IT will provide Mary with an Excel workbook with each of these datasets in a table on its own sheet. Mary can then generate a number of Pivot Tables, each referencing one or more of those datasets (Excel will prompt her to identify common fields in each dataset that can be used to join the three tables.)
Mary might start by creating a pivot table that lists customers that originated from each of those promotional sources. She can then create a second table that compares Facebook and LinkedIn expenditure with the total sales generated by customers originating from those sources.
Mary’s pivot tables, along with the raw data (from three sources)
she used to create them (with minimal help from IT)
The beauty of this report is that, once Mary has access to that raw data, she can answer most questions without additional recourse to IT. This is in contrast to alternative approaches to management information, which tend to make management dependent upon the IT department for every change they wish to make to their reports.
The importance of in-house technical capability
As you may be starting to suspect, I’m a big fan of open-source applications. Obviously, the fact that most of these applications are free contributes to my enthusiasm – but this is only the beginning.
I believe that open-source applications make a lot of sense for two more important reasons:
- With any major application (ERP or CRM) you will save enough on license fees to employ a full-time developer to work on the application for you
- These applications are extremely easy to modify and to integrate with other applications, meaning that your in-house developer will enable you to get incredible mileage from your limited technology expenditure
Now, it’s quite likely that you may not find the idea of employing a full-time developer appealing. It’s tempting to conclude that it will make more sense to purchase a commercial application from a (value-added) reseller – who can then provide you with ongoing technical support.
In my experience, where small-to-medium enterprise (SME) is concerned, this conclusion is wrong. The harsh reality is that, to extract real value from enterprise technology, you simply must have in-house technical capability. In almost every case, those organizations I work with that depend on third-party technology providers, discover that their enterprise technology becomes an incredibly expensive bottleneck (which is the exact opposite of the intended outcome).
The problem is that the economics of a technology services firm (in the SME space) prevent those firms from developing a detailed understanding of their clients’ businesses and prevent them from being as agile as is necessary to really add value.
But there’s another reason why my position on open-source makes sense. And that’s that building your own in-house technical capability is the third step in my three steps to embracing technology.
It’s worth pausing for a minute to consider the role technology plays in business in general.
One view is that technology allows us to simplify or automate activities. But this view would lead us to conclude that technology is a tactical consideration only. And this conclusion would be wrong.
Throughout history there have been a number of advances in technology that are so significant that they fundamentally change the way business is conducted – as opposed to simply automating an activity or two.
In recent times, information technology seems to be resulting in these fundamental changes occurring at an increased rate, as is evidenced by the impact of Amazon on retail, iTunes on music, Etrade on stockbroking and so on.
The result is that it’s exceptionally dangerous, in my opinion, to make strategic decisions without a sound understanding of technology. And, if you’re the business owner (or a senior executive) it needs to be you with that sound understanding – not a board member, partner or employee.
Your understanding of technology needs to be deep enough to enable you to appreciate the implications of technology implicitly – and deep enough to enable you to communicate effectively with technical people.
If you’re not sure where you rank, where tech-fluency is concerned, I’ve composed a set of three questions you can use to make your own evaluation. To answer these questions, you need a reasonably deep understanding of technology – rather than just the ability to decipher a technical acronym or two.
Here are those questions:
- What is a relational database – and what would a non-relational database look like?
- What is multi-tier architecture – and what problems does it solve?
- What is the essence of the Agile approach to software development – and what is the alternative?
If you struggle to answer these questions, I have a solution for you – in three steps. Sadly, it’s not a quick fix – it’s more of a journey. But, I do think it’s a journey that’s well worth embarking on. Remember, software engineers have a history of mastering business faster than business people tend to master technology!
Here are those three steps:
- Read about the history of technology. This is a great way of gaining an appreciation of technology fundamentals (which rarely change). Read biographies of Alan Turing and John von Neumann; read about the history of Xerox PARC; and about the history of algorithms.
- Get your feet wet. Create a simple database-based application for yourself – from scratch. Use Microsoft Access or Zoho Creator to create a personal expense tracker, a catalogue of your wine collection or an application to track your exercise or food consumption. MS Access and Zoho Creator are great because you can make good initial progress with simple drag-and-drop functionality – before (inevitably) you’re forced to write a line or two of code. (Yep, I’m serious, I’m actually expecting you to write some code!)
- Get some in-house development capability. Now you’re attacking your neophytism in a pincer move you can strike a decisive blow by employing your first developer. If you’ve taken my advice and installed one or more open-source applications, you can employ an engineer with broad experience in the LAMP stack (Google it!). Otherwise, it might make more sense to employ a technical project manager and have them outsource your coding requirements. If you’ve never managed a development specialist before, you’ll discover that this is no small undertaking. Nonetheless, it’s a lesson that needs to be learned. By the way, if you have a third-party technology service provider, it makes a hell of a lot of sense to have this firm recruit your in-house person and assist you with the management of them. This will be money well spent! Oh, and one more thing; if you are a SME, and you have a IT systems administrator you should definitely keep systems administration at arm’s length from software development (these two functions have radically different world views and they tend to be antagonistic).
I hope I’ve sold you on the point that technology is an executive leadership responsibility – not something to be delegated, in its entirety. Either way, our discussion of technology has delivered us at the feet of management: the subject of our very last chapter.
[i] At time of writing, a Google search for “ERP productivity improvement” returns a link to 21,000 references from scholarly articles, followed by numerous vendor case studies citing measureable productivity improvement. A search for “CRM productivity improvement” returns numerous vendor articles promising productivity improvements but few (if any) citing quantitative outcomes. Amusingly, the second entry in those search results is a link to an article entitled Why CRM sucks!, by yours truly!
[ii] By the way, my advice doesn’t apply if you’re a retailer and you need an Amazon-style website that is essentially a front-end for an ERP system. I’m assuming that not too many retailers will be reading this book.