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Razi Imam

More and more sales-force products support the mobile lifestyle. Salespeople are inherently mobile. These fast-moving road warriors race halfway around the globe in hot pursuit of that elusive sale, gulping cappuccinos along the way. They realize the importance of an in-person meeting and the value of high-touch selling. Today, a burgeoning new breed of selling solutions is beginning to accommodate their transient work styles. But the road was not always so pleasant for the caffeinated road warrior.

From Briefcase to Blackberry

Despite advances in technology and the evolution of selling methodologies, the needs of salespeople have remained constant. From briefcases to Blackberrys, salespeople have always desired mobility, face-to-face contact with prospects and access to winning sales strategies. It would seem intuitive that the first Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Sales Force Automation (SFA) solutions would cater to these needs, but historically, this has not been the case.

Even as little as five years ago, the outlook was bleak for the average salesperson. CRM and SFA solutions, although numerous, tended to target high-ranking executives seeking to measure ROI. Many salespeople watched in frustration as rigid processes were imposed on them and number crunching became the norm.

The theory was that if salespeople track data, businesses can gain insight into customer trends and behaviors, and measure profit. But salespeople are human. How many of us delight in spreadsheets and hours of data entry? It is this human factor that ultimately drove early CRM solutions off course. Regrettably, these solutions were data driven, not people driven.

Lacking best-selling guidance, mired in data entry and often chained to their desks, sales teams suffered–ironically, forced to spend less time engaging prospects. It is no surprise traditional selling solutions, in turn, have suffered, and continue to suffer, from low user adoption rates among salespeople.

The end result: If salespeople do not take stock in a given CRM or SFA solution, data entry and selling effectiveness suffer. When these suffer, businesses suffer to the detriment of salespeople and high-ranking executives alike.

Fortunately, CRM and SFA have not remained mired in their roots.

The Road Warrior’s Time to Shine

Today, there is an explosion of new devices, software and services–including PDAs, cell phones, cafŽs with wireless internet access, frequent flyer miles and hotels–that cater to the plane-hopping, car-renting, road warrior in hot pursuit of the next tantalizing sale.

Starbucks, Kinko’s, and Holiday Inn Express are just a few of the vendors catering to the work style needs of salespeople. Enter a Starbucks and you are guaranteed to see a road warrior sipping coffee and responding to e-mail, thanks to free wireless access. Drop by a Kinko’s and you will discover an aisle of Blackberrys, essential for any salesperson. Stay at a Holiday Inn Express and they promise quick, friendly service that gets you checked in, connected with your office via high speed internet, rested and checked out in time to make your first meeting. Each has geared its services to the mobile professional, signaling a favorable shift in the way we do business.

In October 2005, Bill Gates sent an e-mail affirming the dawn of a new era he called a “services wave.” In this memo, Gates admonishes his employees, “The next sea change is upon us.”

Indeed this sea change has arrived. Gates’ assessment is based in large part on the coming of age of Software as a Service (SaaS), accommodating hosted applications, providing real-time information and inspiring an evolution in mobile best practices. In turn, CRM and SFA are experiencing a rebirth as people-driven solutions and small businesses stand to gain a great deal from this paradigm shift.

It’s the road warrior’s time to shine, but while the world is becoming a friendlier place for the individual salesperson, a great deal of work remains: Adoption of selling solutions–even SaaS solutions–remains low among salespeople, data entry still consumes far too much time and salespeople often lack access to a time-tested and successful company selling methodology.

The New Breed of SaaS: What Will Stick?

Fortunately, a new breed of selling solutions is on the way that realizes the importance of addressing the work style needs of individual salespeople, in addition to their propensity for accessing CRM systems while away from their desks. They are beginning to provide solutions that minimize data entry, deliver time-tested selling strategies and support a mobile work style. The next generation of selling solutions, including CRM and SFA, is a marked improvement from their humble beginnings. But if CRM and SFA are going to stick, they must perform the following functions:

* Offload data entry: Traditional CRM has taught us that Salespeople are most effective when they are free to engage prospects. Data entry is a reality, no matter what the solution, but it must never impede selling. Selling solutions should minimize data entry, but maximize return on information.

* Increase high-touch selling: CRM and SFA solutions must deliver highly interactive tools that help foster a personal relationship with the buyer, without overloading the prospect with constant phone and e-mail follow-up. For example, enabling the salesperson to track buyer interests and deliver the right marketing content without the constant hassle of phone calls and follow-up e-mails that might turn a prospect off.

* Integrate with other solutions: SaaS CRM solutions work best when they can draw data from customer support databases, call centers, sales records, etc. The failure to integrate well only exacerbates the problem of populating CRM systems with useful data that can lead to more accurate reporting and analysis.

* Grow with the enterprise: One of the biggest complaints about traditional CRM is that its bulky, expensive and difficult to implement in large enterprises. If CRM and SFA in the SaaS model are here to stay, they must be streamlined, cost effective and most importantly, they must grow and adapt with a business.

* Provide step-by-step guidance during the selling process: As long as there have been salespeople, there has been demand for a proven sales process that can be codified for the entire salesforce and help everyone close more deals. Every salesperson wants to know what works–what seals the deal. They should not have to pry open the brains of other salespeople, who may or may not offer the best strategies, to find out. Best practices should be built into CRM and SFA solutions so that the guidance they seek is only a click away. This is especially vital for small businesses. Imagine the potential of these solutions to package the expertise of the president or CEO of a company and proliferate that knowledge to all salespeople.

* Maximize productivity and profit: An old sales axiom reads that “20 percent of the sales force generates 80 percent of the leads.” Imagine the difference if a company could maximize those salespeople who are inexperienced or ineffective. Selling solutions must engage and inspire these salespeople to increase customer satisfaction and profits.

* Facilitate a mobile work style: In terms of user adoption, the single most important facet of CRM and SFA is the extent to which these solutions adapt to the work style needs of individual salespeople. Mobility is an essential quality of every salesperson. SaaS solutions will stick if they break the chains that bind road warriors to their keyboards, entering contact after contact, and update after update.

For those seeking to maximize productivity across an entire sales team, the key is to select a solution designed not for management, but for the individual salesperson. This tool must adapt to existing work styles, and avoid imposing a rigid process. The fact that solutions are moving in this direction means it is a good time to be a road warrior.

Razi Imam is CEO of Pittsburgh-based SalesGene Corp.

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