Moving Up From SFA

sales, marketing and customer service integration

It’s time — past time, really — to reevaluate sales force automation and maybe consider a new path. That’s not as dire as it sounds though.

We did a study recently in which we asked over 500 experienced sellers about everything from lead quality to support in the form of resources and even their managements. We were interested in understanding the impact of the pandemic on sellers and were pleasantly surprised.

I’ll have more to say about most of the survey in the weeks ahead, but one thing that’s worth diving into now is sellers’ uneasy relationship with SFA.

After decades of trying, many people might agree with the statement that SFA doesn’t work, but that’s not exactly what our sellers said. They were more nuanced; it’s not that it doesn’t work, but it takes too much time and energy, so they use it as little as possible.

80/20 Rule

Over the nearly 25 years that I have been watching the SFA market, I saw SFA acceptance increase at first, but then plateau; and it has been a long plateau. Less than half of sellers we surveyed use SFA in concert with an established sales methodology. The rest don’t use SFA with, or they don’t use, a methodology. With so few people using both together it makes reaching quota seem close to dumb luck.

Oh sure, some people have great sales talent, and others can be very lucky, but think of what this means to organizational attainment. It explains the 80/20 rule — 80 percent of sales comes from 20 percent of the sellers.

Now, you might think that organizations and sales managers would get tired of this lopsided performance, and I am sure you’d be right. But I’d have to balance that against my aforementioned 25-ish years of experience — and at that point I’d have to say, not so much.

Sellers’ View of Automation

So, after all this time, if sellers aren’t willing to work with SFA, then I think a healthy respect for their opinions should drive what happens next. Time to run up the white flag, but don’t discard your SFA as you do that.

The big complaint I saw in the data — and you don’t need a survey to see this — is that sellers see little value in SFA. It takes a fair amount of their time to use it properly and they’d rather be interacting with customers than entering data. I get that, even if I also know that interacting with customers without the foundational knowledge that SFA can provide is a ready, fire, aim approach that doesn’t work well for most sellers (see the 80/20 rule, talent, and luck referenced above).

If you boil it down, sellers aren’t averse to using automation. Heck, they invest their time in email, social media, and other apps mostly because they figure those apps give them some kind of value. That’s not so with SFA, working with SFA is a long-term investment and there have been too many studies that show our long-term outlook has shrunk to that of a goldfish.

So, What Do We Do Now?

Simply put, we’ve been layering on technologies aimed at reducing the amount of effort sellers must invest in the sales process because that would answer the complaints about SFA. But what was needed all along was offloading some efforts entirely. That’s hard to do because it requires artificial intelligence to do the offloading and AI wasn’t available 25 years ago the way it is now.

We asked our 500+ sellers a lot of questions about what they’d trust AI to do, and, in all cases, significant majorities said if AI could automate a dreary task, it was fine with them. So, they weren’t averse to the presence of automation in their practices, they just wanted its use to be cookbook easy.

Something equally important fell out of this discovery. Sellers didn’t seem to mind if the automation volunteered to do things and possibly recommend next steps. This comes dangerously close to supporting a sales methodology, just don’t call it that.

Unsurprisingly, sellers became somewhat defensive if we suggested that automation could also do higher-level “thinking” too, like suggesting the best deals to work at the end of the quarter. Even though the automation could do a better job of identifying the deals closest in for closing, sellers still believed they could do better.

In a hopeful sign, sellers didn’t go negative about suggesting deals to close, they were just less eager for it than say, having automation suggest literature to send, next steps in the process, and other procedural stuff.

SFA Needs AI

For now, the good news/bad news goes like this: SFA is old and tired, it isn’t a complete loss, but it doesn’t do enough. The solution is not to throw out SFA but to make sure that AI is a part of it.

This might entail getting a new vendor or it may simply mean turning on some functionality through your CRM platform. Either way, we have an important insight into sales performance and possibly a solution to an old problem.

Next up, better lead generation.

Denis Pombriant

Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry analyst, strategist, writer and speaker. His new book, You Can't Buy Customer Loyalty, But You Can Earn It, is now available on Amazon. His 2015 book, Solve for the Customer, is also available there. Email Denis.

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