Big Data and the Process Revolution

A wave of change is now making its way through the front office with uneven results. CRM is moving from a data capture and retrieval solution to something that supports end-to-end processes — and as with ERP, data analysis is helping to improve what once were purely manual processes.

The trick is in producing knowledge from data. Alone, data is useless; it first has to be digested and turned into usable information by analytics.

Data is the fact that a person with certain demographics bought something. Information comes from knowing that a high percentage of people in this demographic buy the same thing. Knowledge comes from understanding that such a person is standing in front of you describing a need for that product or service. Process applies knowledge consistently.

The Knowledge-Driven Process

In the front office, I’d say we’re about 20 percent of the way toward improving or building new front-office processes, and — as is typical at this point — our progress is uneven. The marketing automation trend of the last few years is all about deploying better, knowledge-based marketing processes.

Much the same can be said for service systems. Vendors have a vested interest in reducing costs, and customer service is a big one. So it’s no surprise that capturing and analyzing customer data for use in automated service processes is very important for most vendors intent on not just lowering costs, but also preserving a good relationship with a future buyer and recommender.

The Sales Process

Things have not changed as much in sales, though, as borne out by a recent conversation I had with Jim Dickie, managing partner of CSO Insights. Jim and his partner Barry Trailer have been researching the sales profession for 20 years, and one of their annual reports recently came out. One of the things that surprised me in our wide-ranging conversation was that sales people were still questioning why they needed to collect sales data in SFA.

The argument goes like this: Capturing sales data doesn’t do anything to directly improve my selling, but it may help my managers and executives to manage sales forecasting. So why does the sales rep have to be burdened with this extra task when the rep could spend more time selling? It’s a reasonable argument — but it’s also shortsighted.

Nevertheless, Dickie is a pragmatist. Organizations should “bribe” their reps to do the right thing, in his view.

Although sales people are famously coin-operated, he’s not advocating direct cash payments in this case, but more of a sit-down to explain the bigger process picture and the benefits of compliance. That’s where things bog down, because half the sales organizations studied had less than well-defined sales processes.

A dynamic sales process with milestones and analytics to identify deals that are on track and those that are not is needed, according to Dickie. This approach enables managers to better allocate time and resources to outliers — the sales processes where the milestones are not being met. Dealing with the exceptions rather than reviewing every deal improves the quality of coaching and resource use, while reducing the failure rate — but it starts with collecting data.

A sales process is not simply about collecting data for its own sake. The data drives knowledge, which drives better, faster and more-effective selling. Unfortunately, we’re not at a point where we can take a more universal process approach to selling, because SFA — for all of its capabilities — often is still used as a data storage and retrieval system.

Phase Out Manual Chores

Despite CRM vendors embedding things like workflow, collaboration, integrated social media and content management tools, too often we’re ignoring all that and using SFA in minimalist mode — capturing and storing demographics and pipeline data, and not much more. Too often, a sales process is a manual overlay that lasts a few minutes.

If we’re going to improve the sales process, we’ll need to collect more and better data, for sure. However, the real bribery, and its benefits, will come later. Organizations will have to do a better job of hooking up and using workflow, collaboration and all the rest to support more advanced selling, while offloading some of the rote tasks that come with managing manual selling processes.

At that point, two interesting things will happen. First, the changes will begin showing a payback as reps discover the benefits of using a dynamic process backed up by technology. Second, data entry will become second nature as workflow rules, for instance, automatically send out the follow-up letter with the technical specs or set a reminder. The automated system will note everything in the database so that a rep doesn’t have to.

Collecting more sales data has the potential for significantly improving how we sell if we can analyze it and apply the resulting information to more effective processes. This might not change many sales people’s attitudes, at least initially, but there is serious upside potential. Significantly, only 57 percent of sales representatives made quota last year, according to Dickie’s research. That’s a good incentive to try a better process.

Denis Pombriant

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 website. He is the author of Hello, Ladies! Dispatches from the Social CRM Frontier and can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Google+.

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