Reinvigorate a Disengaged Sales Force
A stunning 70% of U.S. workers say they are "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" with their work,according to Gallup's ongoing study of the American workplace from 2010 through 2012. Sales reps — the people who represent your firm with customers — are not an exception. What must you do, at a minimum, to regain the trust and recharge the talent of sales people? Two steps are foundational.
1. Understand and communicate, in the C-Suite as well as with the reps, the crucial role played by the sales force in strategy implementation. Some might say that sales forces have less relevance because customers are buying more online. In 2012, according to U.S. Department of Commerce data, online spending reached almost $200 billion. That may sound like a lot, but it's less than 5% of total retail spending (even in a recession) and less than half of what just one retailer, Wal-Mart, sells annually.
In fact, if you peek behind the server farms of online firms themselves, you will find traditional face-to-face sales organizations as the engine of revenue acquisition and firm value. At Groupon in 2012, over 45% of employees were in Sales; at Google, it's over 50%; and at Facebook the sales force's ability to translate "likes" into advertisers will make or break that company's valuation and fortunes going forward.
The issue facing most sales forces is not disintermediation. What is true is that online options are realigning sales tasks. Consider the century-old practice of selling cars at dealers. Relatively few cars are actually bought online. But an estimated 80% of Americans first research the purchase via Edmunds.com and other online sources. They visit dealers less frequently and sales reps must be better at closing the sale with more-informed customers. Selling skills are now even more important. The options available to customers put greater pressure on the rep's value-add during the sales experience, and this engagement has implications for the next foundational element.
2. Redesign processes with sales tasks, not the technology, in mind. Many C-suite leaders, years removed from actual customer contact in the field, welcome "Big Data" but don't understand the realities facing their salespeople during an information revolution. It's estimated that each U.S. firm with more than 1,000 employees already has more data in its CRM system than in the entire U.S. Library of Congress. The role of data is not to make a manager sound "analytical." In business, it's more important to be contextually right and make decisions that people can execute effectively than it is to be school-smart or statistically significant.
New technologies can improve lead generation and qualification (through Search Engine Optimization techniques and tailored online communities), determination of specifications (the use of third-party websites, webinars, and online demo's), and price negotiations and closing (online tracking systems and pricing algorithms). But despite good intentions, many Big Data transformations are failing because firms haphazardly download data onto sales reps.
Communication is mainly one way and there is too little of it. Smarter firms complement training with use of resources like Darwinator, a web-based tool that enables individuals to vote on ideas in a fast and effective manner. Others help reps cope with the growing analytical requirements of sales tasks through tools like visualizing.org, which helps to convert big amounts of spreadsheet or correlational data into value propositions that can be communicated to customers.
Equally important, firms should use these capabilities to off-load administrative tasks from salespeople to increase selling time. And that's a managerial and organizational issue, not simply a data or sales issue. According to Gartner Research, chief marketing officers will soon spend more on IT than CIOs, increasing the need for coordination between marketing and sales throughout the buying cycle at many firms. At a minimum, these groups need a shared understanding of their firm's strategy, value proposition, key sales tasks, and relevant selling behaviors.
Ultimately, companies don't execute strategy; people do. And talented sales people remain the key lever for strategy implementation in most firms. But companies must be worthy of real talent and, to benefit from that talent, provide the right environment for those people to flourish.