September 2003

Sales Force Automation:  Keeping the Focus on Sales

“I always wanted to be somebody.  Now I realize I should have been more specific”-- Lily Tomlin


6 Steps to
Keeping the Focus

1) Audit the sales force

2) Train fundamental selling skills and processes first

3) Identify the FEW productive activity gaps that require better information

4) Draft the reports that enable productive activity

5) Define specific productive activity goals

6) Train, track, report and manage productive activity

Lily Tomlin may not know much about sales force automation (SFA), but her quote above illustrates one of the big problems many firms face in trying to implement these systems: They haven’t clearly defined what they want their SFA system to do.


Today, good SFA systems can do just about anything a manager wants them to do.  That’s a problem.  Firms are implementing systems that do many things poorly instead of doing a great job on what really matters. Reps and managers end up with too much information at their disposal when what they really need is to manage their existing information more effectively.


Good SFA systems can help firms do exactly that.  But these systems will only increase sales and profits if reps understand and regularly use them to increase their productive activity.  Building good technology on top of solid sales strategy and execution will improve sales results.  Building great technology on a foundation of poor strategy or execution won’t improve sales… and might actually reduce them.


We believe the following six steps will help managers retain productive focus throughout an SFA implementation or upgrade:


Audit the Sales Force

Whether your firm has SFA in place or is thinking about investing in or upgrading a system, any changes or additions in IT capability should start with an audit of the sales force.  Ask yourself:

  • What are they doing well?

  • What do they need to improve?
  • Where are the gaps in productive activity?
  • Are the key improvement opportunities related to information use or availability?


Our experience suggests that most opportunities to increase productive activity involve fundamental selling skills, processes and behaviors, not information systems.  Implementing SFA without performing a sales force audit may only compound these problems and won’t do much--if anything--to improve them. 


Train fundamental selling skills and processes first

Based on the sales force audit, identify fundamental selling problems and fix these first.  We can’t emphasize enough the importance of building a fundamentally sound selling process before implementing or modifying SFA.  New systems require reps to learn new skills and new behaviors.  These added burdens may compound existing problems and reduce the time available to learn and implement fundamental skills. 

Does a brand new Palm Pilot make an unorganized person suddenly become organized?  Not likely. While the Palm creates the potential for users to be effective, it doesn't practice efficient time management for them.  For the unorganized person, a Palm is an expensive paperweight.  For a pharma firm that fails an SFA implementation, the cost is more painful.


Identify the FEW productive activity gaps that require better information

Information is valuable to enabling productive activity.  We’ve identified four primary activities that drive profitable sales:

  • Targeting the most profitable customers

  • Delivering effective messages
  • Calling on top customers with sufficient frequency
  • Executing effective marketing programs


Many of the commonly advertised benefits of SFA systems sound seductive in theory but don't work in practice.  For instance, one SFA provider claims that its software "reduces administrative burdens, freeing up time for more sales calls.”  Sounds great in theory, but in practice, new “free time” is often spent on family or leisure.  Certainly, some reps may make additional calls.  But unless they are increasing frequency on high value customers rather than extending reach to unprofitable ones, they won’t improve the top line much and may damage the bottom line.


So how do you define the critical information that reps and district managers (DMs) need?  Begin by identifying the specific productive sales activities the information will facilitate.  These might include activities like increasing frequency on key customers, delivering the right product messages to key customer segments or improving program targeting. 


Providing timely information to reps and DMs is the first step.  Senior management needs to ensure that reps and DMs know how to use information to support their activity.  Our field experience consistently demonstrates that most reps and DMs already have critical information—they either don’t know how to, or just don’t, use it effectively.  In both instances, ensure increased sales by determining which new activities reps and DMs will need to be trained in. 


Draft the reports that enable productive activity

Reps and DMs will more effectively implement new skills when they are closely managed.  What information will DMs regularly use to monitor, coach and manage productive activities among their reps?  What information will senior sales management use to ensure that DMs are effectively motivating productive activity?  What is the common approach to “running the business” that employees at every level will use to understand and track performance?


A critical element of any SFA implementation is the standard reports that reps, DMs and senior sales management will use to align their activities and track performance.  The reports are the key tools in determining how effective the SFA system will be in boosting sales.  Management should draft these reports and review their proper use at all levels of the organization before beginning any IT implementation.  The reports define the SFA “must haves” and help reduce the temptation to do 'everything'--at the expense of doing what matters.  They should be the focus of all SFA design and implementation discussions.


Define specific productive activity goals

Once management has decided what information to collect and how it will be used to track productivity, it should set very specific goals, outlining the results that should be attained by implementing the SFA system.  Common, but not necessarily effective goals include:

  • increasing calls per day

  • increasing delivery of specific product messages
  • improving marketing program participation 


None of these “improvements” will necessarily increase sales. 


Effective goals spell out productive behavior.  Examples of effective goals include:

  • increasing calls on “A” targets

  • delivering the right product message to a defined customer sub-segment
  • increasing marketing program participation of high-value, hard-to-see physicians


Train, track, report and manage productive activity

SFA implementations fail for many reasons—lack of adequate training being one of the most common, according to the Gartner Group.  Better information will increase sales only when it facilitates more productive activity.  That means reps must learn and practice new skills regularly until they become habit.  These new skills often include operating the SFA system.


In our experience, few firms have adequately estimated the cost (in either dollars or lost field time) necessary to adequately prepare a sales force for an SFA implementation.  Often, sales forces need to be trained twice.  The most successful implementation we’ve seen combined both classroom and field training, ensuring that reps knew how to use the new system. 


In addition to tracking new productive activities, firms should also track how well and how often the field force uses the SFA system.  Do reps review customer information before each call?  Do they report all calls the day they occur?  Do reps regularly “synch” their laptops or handhelds to exchange timely data?  Do the DMs regularly review this information with reps?  Is the rep's compensation or review linked to proper use of the system?  Only by tracking regular compliance with the SFA system and monitoring productive field activity can managers hope to improve sales.



In the U.S., Europe and many other markets, SFA is now regarded as an essential competitive sales tool.  Those without it will be left behind.  While we agree that the best sales forces will make productive use of SFA, we believe their success is built on strong fundamental sales activity: targeting, frequency, message, programs.  SFA is simply a facilitator, not a critical process or competency. 

Implementing SFA is a complex undertaking.  Neither this article nor any other publication can completely prepare a management team for the many challenges and considerations it will face.  But we believe these few simple steps will help firms avoid Lily Tomlin’s fate and keep the focus where it belongs – on sales force effectiveness and the reps who must use the system to improve their sales performance. 

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