Failing to Construct the Seller

More than half of all sales force automation initiatives bomb. The fault lies not with the tools but with management's inability to tailor them for this unique set of users

Are you interested in turning your company's sales force into a dynamic but unified selling machine that's as coordinated and assertive as a colony of amped-up army ants? Consider these facts:


Stick With It or Get Stuck With It

Surprisingly, even after process, technology, and executive and sales staff buy-in problems are resolved, sales force automation initiatives still have a significant chance of failure.

Why? Experts and practitioners believe companies either give up on automation too early if they don't see immediate results or simply allow these projects to fade into the background once they're in place.

"We frequently see companies give up on a new [sales force automation] implementation if they don't meet their sales objectives by the close of the next quarter," says Scott Sims, a partner at Arthur Andersen's channel and customer solutions business. "They don't realize that [this technology] isn't a short-term shot; it may take two years to see the real bottom-line value of a new system."

If companies don't give up entirely on a new system, they often make the mistake of giving up on its maintenance and assume that the money's spent and what's done is done. ITG's Jim Dickie, whose research confirms that companies far too often back off at the first sign of trouble, says sales force automation initiatives get ugly early because of variables such as a lack of formal training for new employees, inadequate system administration and support, and a lack of continual system upgrades and enhancements.

"Sales re-engineering is not an event; it's an ongoing process," says Dickie. "Failing to plan and budget for additional functionality to [sales force automation] programs or upgrading hardware or communications capabilities will result in [these] systems becoming obsolete in just a few years." - Sean T. Kelly and John A. Barry


1. There's no shortage of companies that want to help you. Analysts estimate that sales force automation now represents a $3 billion to $6 billion industry with products from more than 500 companies, many of which have long histories designing sales processes, customer relationship management, Web contact management and other sales-oriented tools and services. These companies include Front Range Solutions Inc., Oracle Corp., Saratoga Systems, Siebel Systems Inc. and Vantive Corp.

2. The results can make you a hero. Successful integration of sales force automation technologies has reportedly helped companies outsell their (non-sales-force-automation) rivals by as much as 50%, cut sales cycles in half and work more effectively across traditional enterprise boundaries, all while reducing sales costs.

3. You're likely to (a) fail, (b) lose millions of your company's dollars in the process and (c) need a new job.

4. Read No. 3 again.

5. There is good news: Failure is avoidable.

But failure is avoidable only if you understand why it's so common.

Looking Under a Rock for an Elephant

Conservative estimates suggest that at least half of all sales force automation implementations have either failed or inhibited the sales force's performance in some way. Some estimates indicate, however, that as many as 70% to 75% of companies that undertake a sales force automation implementation won't see the results they hope to realize.

Despite the availability of high-quality software, companies all too frequently lack the commitment, organization and follow-through to see a sales force automation effort through to measurable success. Instead, millions of dollars' worth of new hardware and software tools often go unused.

Erin Kinikin, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group Inc., claims that most of the companies she works with are "on their second or third [sales force automation] vendor - and looking for another one. [This] spending in Fortune 5,000 companies [and in opportunity-driven industries] runs in the millions of dollars per company, without showing clear benefits."

So what's wrong with sales force automation technology? Well, nothing, really. And there's the rub: Companies all too often blame such tools for sales performance inadequacy, when they should be looking elsewhere for the problem. "The tools, as good as they currently are, are often retrofitted into a poor sales process," says Scott Sims, a partner at the Chicago office of Arthur Andersen LLP's channel and customer solutions business.

Kinikin agrees. "It's increasingly difficult to blame technology for project failure," she says. "Companies have to start looking in the mirror and addressing the fundamental organizational and people issues that make sales force automation [or optimization] valuable."

Botching the Deal

In a technology industry ruled by standards, sales force automation defies certain laws of operation. While many companies can slap accounting and manufacturing software into existing environments, that's not so easy to do with sales force automation. Each company operates its sales efforts differently, so prepackaged software can't solve specific problems. That forces companies to evaluate individual sales processes, admit to breakdowns and then - and only then - customize sales force automation tools to meet their unique process and people needs.

Jim Dickie's Boulder, Colo.-based company, Insight Technology Group (ITG), spent two years reviewing hundreds of sales force automation initiatives for its 1999 research report "Towards Sales 2000 - Reengineering the Way We Sell." It identified the pitfalls that commonly prevent companies from yielding significant sales process improvements. All of them centered on process, commitment levels and communication problems. For example, ITG found that companies frequently do the following:

Concurrently develop sales force automation components in separate departments, without parameters. The result: incompatible systems.

Dickie points to an East Coast-based Fortune 500 manufacturer that compiled a complex set of tools that included Mehta Corp.'s Marketrieve for sales force automation and marketing, telemarketing software from Brock Control Systems Inc., Symantec Corp.'s ACT for field sales, Corel Corp.'s Paradox for customer relationship management, Oracle Financials for finance and accounting and an internally developed system for product support. Each product addresses a specific need well, he says, but when combined, they may create more confusion than efficiency for a sales force.

Cut corners by applying old hardware and software to new problems, which leads to poor performance, sales force frustration and rejection of new systems.

Get spooked by per-user costs, which often reach $15,000 to $17,000 for the entire life cycle, even if those costs are recovered in a matter of months in addition to exponential gains.

Undercommit to sales force automation projects by using Band-Aid fixes that only further complicate existing processes, rather than generating new, improved methods.

Pursue sales force automation with a "part-time" attitude. When IT is encouraged to do some user-interface work in its spare time, when the marketing department is solicited only for occasional feedback and when salespeople are rarely invited to input meetings, unfinished projects are usually the result.

Never get complete buy-in from senior executives, which results in difficulty communicating sales force automation goals across functional areas, managing internal problems (like politics), resolving problems with conflicting business goals and so on.

Although each company and its structure differs, the point is that companies should, but frequently don't, do the necessary internal evaluation work required to successfully match their individual sales process rules with sales force automation tools.

Power to the (Sales) People

Just as companies can focus too heavily on technology and too little on processes, they can also focus too heavily on both of those aspects and yet leave their salespeople out of the equation. This may sound silly, since improving a sales force represents the overall goal of sales force automation tools. But, according to Arthur Andersen's Sims, companies that get overly infatuated with designing sales process and automation systems forget to ask one of the most obvious questions: "Will our salespeople use it?"

"If you're a salesperson, your intent is to make your wallet fatter," says Sims. "No matter how simple or fancy a new system may be, salespeople will still ask, 'Will it help me sell more?' "

According to Dickie, every salesperson needs to answer that question with a resounding yes.

"As soon as [a company] lets a single person get away with not using the system because it's too hard, they haven't had time to get used to using it or they are personally more productive doing something else, the foundation for the project will start to crumble," he says.

When company executives include sales staff in sales force automation interaction design processes (so the system is easy to use for both IT and sales staff), thoroughly explain the benefits and remove the common fear that the system is really just a "Big Brother" way to monitor a sales force's every move, salespeople will be more likely to confront change and adopt new routines.

But Kinikin points out that sales force automation frequently requires "too much input for too few benefits." Clearly, a firm must balance how much time its sales force spends on the design and planning process with the amount of time it spends performing its main tasks: selling products and interacting with customers.

Surprisingly, according to Sims, some organizations even neglect to do this while implementing, and even upon completion of, a new sales force automation system.

"We've seen companies assume - based on a good vendor demo - that new [sales force automation] technology will automate the entire process, including customer communications. But some things just cannot, nor will ever be, automated," says Sims. "In the end, no matter how sophisticated the [sales] technology a company uses, it's still the handshake that defines the customer relationship." roi


Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon