Sales Force Automation Takes Wing

In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge uses the DC-3 as a metaphor for the five core disciplines essential to personal and business success. Just as the aircraft designers had to integrate five critical components to produce a viable plane, organizations must adopt all five disciplines to thrive.

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Like early commercial aviation, the SFA industry needs to integrate the right elements before it can successfully take flight.

In 1935, the Douglas DC-3 became the first successful commercial airliner, revolutionizing transportation and making air travel viable. To achieve this, its designers devised and correctly implemented five components: 1) radial air-cooled engines; 2) variable pitch props; 3) retractable landing gear; 4) monocoque construction; and 5) wing flaps. Just one year earlier, Boeing had introduced the 247, with the first four of these five components. However, lacking wing flaps, the aircraft proved unstable on take-off and landing and was a commercial failure.

In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge uses the DC-3 as a metaphor for the five core disciplines essential to personal and business success. Just as the aircraft designers had to integrate five critical components to produce a viable plane, organizations must adopt all five disciplines to thrive. The five keys are: 1) systems thinking; 2) personal mastery; 3) mental models; 4) building shared vision; and 5) team learning.

I’d propose that you can draw similar parallels to the forces at play in the sales force automation marketplace. As we know it today, sales automation, as a market and a discipline, remain unstable; to really take off will require the proper interaction of the following five key components.

Systems Thinking — SFA Software Vendors

Software vendors view sales in terms of its component tasks — scheduling, tracking contacts, communicating, and so forth. In this paradigm, automation provides the path to improved results. Just as air-cooling engines made them lighter and more efficient, automating tasks has made them faster and more efficient. Neither, by itself, overwhelmingly changed the face of its impacted industry, but both made immediate contributions. In the case of sales, reps can do more of the same in less time (once they get past the learning curve) but whether the things they are doing are effective to begin with is another question.

That question took on greater urgency as automation projects began to get a bad name after millions of dollars were spent with little or no long-term productivity improvement. When clients woke up to the need to better implement their new systems, SFA vendors began to take on alliance partners, most often reengineering consultants, to help clients look at the efficacy of sales reps’ actions. These consulting firms bring certain necessary and important strengths to the table, but sales acumen is not one of them.

Just as air-cooled engines alone weren’t sufficient to transform aviation, software vendors can’t single-handedly create the market for sales automation. Several other crucial elements are needed.

Personal Mastery — Sales Management

In the world of sales, the emphasis has traditionally been on: a) “What have you sold today?” and b) “You are only as good as your numbers.” Given this reality, it’s not unreasonable for any sales rep to ask, “If I’m making my numbers, why should I change?”

Few managers have a solid answer to this question, and even fewer have clear models and tools to support their answer. Too often the truth is, “As long as you’re making your numbers, you don’t have to fool around with this stuff.” The stuff in question being sales programs and sales automation. If you need evidence of this, consider the fact that in companies with a sales force automation initiative underway, most often the top-producing salespeople do not use the system.

Considering all this, it may be helpful to remember that line from The Little Prince: “All that is important is invisible to the eye.” This is not to say tangible results are not important, they absolutely are. But results are not what sales reps do. They are the outcome of what reps do and how well they do it.

Every company wants to achieve sustainable, predictable, measurable, and continuously improving results. To do this; however, requires a process orientation currently lacking in most sales organizations. It’s important to provide salespeople with appropriate tools, but tools aren’t enough. It’s equally important to create cultures that encourage the adoption and use of those tools.

Mental Models Sales Methodology Trainers

Just as the three blind men stated their individual versions of the truth when describing the proverbial elephant, sales methodology training firms also have their own truths. Whether it’s Strategic Selling, Target Account Selling, or Fill-in-the-Blank Selling, each has a framework for clients to work through in order to improve sales performance.

Yet, no training company today can offer more than anecdotal evidence their methodology will improve performance. Not one can say, “You conduct our training and within 90 days we will guarantee a 30 percent return on your investment.” A key reason for this is the inability to track and reinforce the use of their concepts in daily selling activities.

Each of these firms also has experienced the same frustrating phenomenon. Even when clients take the course, apply the concepts, and get successful results, the impact of the program will decline over time without the ceaseless efforts of management to reinforce it. Without a manager willing to embrace a methodology and drive its use through sheer force of will, even excellent programs that everyone agrees are terrific will fizzle out. Invariably, it is just these managers who get promoted, quit, or otherwise go away.

It isn’t that the programs are bad, it’s that they are only one of the necessary components. Management and the culture either support the program’s approach or they erode it. And even with support, the program and the company need the right tools to operate at higher levels of efficiency and effectiveness.

Traditional mental models and newer holistic models provide insights and approaches to tackling problems, but they also require a framework within which to be applied. Without these other vital supports, you have flaps but no airplane on which to install them.

Building Shared Vision Information Channels

There is hardly a single definition or vision for sales force automation. The spectrum ranges from equipping sales reps with laptops and MS Office, to Total Customer Management. Currently the marketplace is noisy and confused about what is available, what is possible, and what is desirable.

Of 250 companies surveyed, by my partner, Jim Dickie, only 14 percent felt their SFA system met or exceeded their expectations. This number went up to 28.5 percent in Dickie’s survey the following year, but this does little to build momentum in an industry where projects are notoriously late, over budget, and generally disappointing.

For sales automation, or at least the initial phase of it, to fully realize its promise requires some unanimity about what that promise is. For momentum to build, some critical mass needs to be achieved. Synchronizing the other components, like tools and methodologies, into a coherent message consistent with the market desire for sustainable, predictable, measurable, and continuously improving results, can help.

Tradeshows and publications provide a forum for this discussion to take place. Just as monocoque construction provided an integrated blend of materials and technologies, marketing consultants, events, and other vehicles can help organize how SFA presents itself to the marketplace, clarifying benefits and reducing confusion.

Team Learning Organizational — Consultants, System Integrators

Beyond the current boundaries of sales, lies the notion selling is not the sole purview of the sales department. It is, rather, the responsibility of everyone in the company who encounters the customer. Connecting the sales pipeline to service at the backend and marketing at the front is easily imagined, though not so easily achieved. Even more complex, is connecting these systems with the back office and even manufacturing and shipping.

There are enormous challenges in achieving that kind of integration, both structural and cultural. Answers to those challenges will emerge from the incremental experimenting and learning that is taking place today. Ultimately, providers of the many individual components that make up these systems must learn to play together before they can apply and eventually transfer that knowledge to their customers. Systems integrators and organizational change consultants will act as both chemists and catalysts in this process, proving the final key component for SFA to succeed.

The Wright brothers proved manned vehicles could fly. The DC-3 made commercial aviation possible. Neither Wilbur or Orville nor the engineers at Douglas Aircraft could have envisioned then what commercial aviation would be today. Yet, through luck or brilliant engineering, the right components came together in the right way. Our ideas about transportation were changed forever.

SFA today is largely the result of lots of experimenters and inventors acting independently. It’s been proven that projects can get off the ground. However, more are crashing than flying, and even those that stay aloft seem unstable much of the time.

That can change. Identifying the key components, working to coordinate them, changing the confusing noise to the music of flight, holds greater promise than any we have seen, or maybe even imagined.

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Barry Trailer

Barry Trailer

Barry is co-founder of Sales Mastery, a sales research and advisory firm focused on AI-for-Sales solutions and Sales as a Profession. His 40 years of sales and sales management expertise including co-founder of CSO Insights, (acquired by Miller Heiman/Korn+Ferry), president of Miller Heiman, and president of Goldmine software. Barry has researched thousands of companies, and coached advisory clients to successfully transform their sales organizations. He has a rich background and proficiency in all things B2B sales and brings this expertise to advisory services clients, sellers, and sales leaders through speaking engagements (pre-COVID), articles, videos, social posts, and more. He is currently an author/adviser to He has written for numerous publications and has been twice published in the Harvard Business Review and was twice a keynote for HBR’s Warsaw Sales Summit.

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