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Do we need customer management software?

Whatever you do, don’t ask your sales team if they want to enter more data into a computer. Customer relationship management (CRM) software has been around for decades but continues to gather more attention, especially since the advent of cloud-based services such as Salesforce.com. As you can read over at Sales Machine, not everyone, particularly not sales people, think that’s such good news. The claim is that tracking your sales process and forcing it into some automated system (he’s referring to a rigid pipeline of sales steps) really just amounts to busy work and data for managers to spy on sales people.

Sales people may have their own styles and they rarely include sitting at a computer instead of talking to potential customers, but, since when is flying by the seat of your pants always the best strategy? For that, a cell phone and voice mail is the alternative Geoffrey James is offering.

Some of the problems that can cause CRM to fail:

  • a weak database of contacts and titles
  • requiring data be collected that you don’t use, or worse use, but with no value-add
  • a pipeline that doesn’t meet the typical sales experience in your business
  • demanding that sales people follow every step in the pipeline with every customer

Let’s quickly address those points. A weak database is a chore to work with and drives sales people away from using the tool rather quickly. If you don’t already have one, consider purchasing a database of contacts for your market. They’re usually a few thousand dollars, which isn’t so much when you consider the investment in your sales team’s time of not having to enter names for everyone they meet. I’ve had teams rave about the CRM system: “wow! my customers are already in there!”

If you collect data, use it. Keeping track of information just to make reports is busy work. If management is using data and demanding sales people collect it (which, remember, doesn’t result in new sales for them!) then the team has got to see the benefit. If the reports you gather aren’t pointing you toward some action, don’t bother, that’s a waste of the sales team’s time and management’s too. Professionals will appreciate that there are tasks they’ve got to perform that don’t contribute to their own bottom line, but only if they can see a point and better, some results.

One of the biggest failures of the systems that Sales Machine seems to be objecting to, is forcing a series of steps, like an automated industrial process, onto sales.  Realistically, I can’t imagine denying there are some steps that nearly every deal goes through. Contacting the customer and identifying who has purchase authority sound like two that pretty much apply everywhere, don’t they? A well-tailored pipeline gives a sales person the chance to reflect during the process (which in some cases is long enough to ask: where are we here?) and ensure that they’ve done whatever they need to close the deal. Sure, good sales professionals keep all this in their head. They ‘just know’ what they have to do next and specialize for each opportunity. Frankly, we’ve seen both seasoned professionals and newbies alike claim they new exactly when, and how many of, their opportunities would close, yet still miss their forecast. Maybe ‘just knowing’ isn’t enough. Don’t force a one-size-fits-all approach to your business instead, work with those sales professionals and develop one that makes sense. We’ll try to focus on that in another article.

Finally, let’s face it, all the preparation and customization of your sales tool, and at the end of the day it’s just a tool The goal is sales, not activity. It’s surprising how often companies lose track of this. Management has invested in a sales tool, and they expect you to use it. Sales says they don’t need to do this, but they’ve got to do that, but where are the sales to prove it? Not every opportunity is going to play out the same and at the end of the quarter, the only thing that really matters, to everyone at the company, is that you’ve closed the deals. Using these tools can help a team to discover what went wrong if they didn’t meet their goals, and give them insight into what went right if they did. Using software is just another tool to reach those goals, nothing more.

The comments on Mr. James’ article point out that there are many ways to measure success. (Mr. James’ short sighted ‘are they spending less money on sales?’ is one way. Either he was hoping no one would notice the flaw in that, or he isn’t wise enough to see it, but if reducing costs were a good measure of performance, every out-of-business company would be a perfect success). Our experience with CRM has given us the chance avoid some common obstacles (and we’ve personally set up a few ourselves!). We can help your team avoid them and maybe make sure that investment doesn’t leave you wondering where the money went.

CRM software will require some extra effort from the sales team. The more data collected the better the systems perform. The only way to encourage sales people to do that extra work is to make sure they’re getting something out of it. Poor Mr. James has decided that since he’s seen the systems fail and he doesn’t like entering all that data that they don’t work. He thinks you can’t automate the sales process (he’s right) but he denies that there are any similarities from one opportunity to the next. Implementation isn’t easy. It’s going to take some time, and investment, to get it, and it might even have to change over time (hint: it will) but if you really think a carpenter can build a house with only a hammer, then go ahead, and limit your sales people’s tools to voice-mail alone. The rest of use are going to use whatever we can to makes our jobs easier.

  1. July 1st, 2011 at 10:35 | #1

    The subject of CRM, Salesforce “Automation” and the willingness or unwillingness of sales people to properly utilize it will continue to be a hot discussion for years to come.

    I’ve personally been responsible for the selection and implementation of three CRM systems for technical sales groups over the last ten years. The systems were SalesForce.com, SalesLogix, and Onyx. Each system had it’s Pro’s and Con’s, however there were several key learnings that came from the selection and implementation process that can be shared.

    First and foremost, please do not make your selection of such a system in a vacuum. This can only guarantee a painful design and implementation process. It will also guarantee that none of your sales people will actually use it unless their job is threatened to do so. That in turn will result in sporadic use at best, poor data entry, and useless metrics to judge the success of the system by.

    Second, spend the requisite time UP FRONT during the design phase to insure that the product and the process have “owners” who are invested in the success of the product, and can help deliver results from it. These CRM products are so encompassing it would be a major mistake (and many companies make it) to launch the product expecting the sales force to actually implement and manage any customizations, data entry, and the like. All systems need a certain level of customization. If every sales organization and member did exactly the same thing, companies could “automate” the process, use computers to do the job, and let all their sales people go. Not going to happen.

    Third, (and the most important lesson learned from several painful experiences) KEEP IT SIMPLE. The key to getting your sales team on board is to provide them with results that actually enhance, rather than detract, from their selling experience and process. The way to a sales person’s heart is through their wallet. Too many managers forget this.

    Best of luck with your next implementation, revision, or project.

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