Selling the Sellers

Instead of force-feeding SFA to your salespeople, try approaching them like you would with any other sale: Determine what's in it for them. Offer them a solution to their problems, at a price they can afford.

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Getting salespeople to buy into your sales automation Initiative requires some finesse.  Forget whacking them over the head with a stick and try luring them with a carrot.

We need to improve productivity. We need to do more and better with less. We need to shorten the sales cycle, increase close rates, improve margins. We need to do something different here or get trampled by our competitors. From management’s point of view, these are all perfectly good reasons for embarking on the SFA journey. But they don’t mean a hell of a lot to the people who have to use the systems once they’re put in place, for the sales force out in the field.

Too often when companies try to implement SFA, they bring in a bunch of bright, energetic members of a consulting team who not only have unwarranted faith in technology, but also hold some level of disdain for sales types. These unguided missiles walk around conducting their “needs survey,” saying things like, “Look, you’re lucky you have a job. The train’s pulling out of the station and if you want to keep your job, you better get on board.” There’s one critical point they seem to forget: If the salespeople don’t adopt and use the system, the train ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Instead of force-feeding SFA to your salespeople, try approaching them like you would with any other sale: Determine what’s in it for them. Offer them a solution to their problems, at a price they can afford.

What’s In It for Me?

Here are some of the reasons management typically cites for adopting SFA and how the typical sales rep is likely to respond to them.

We need to improve productivity. From a sales rep’s point of view, increased productivity is not necessarily a good thing. For example, increasing productivity may mean (and usually does) increasing quota to make the same amount of income (100 percent of plan equals $1.4 million in sales and $100,000 in personal income; with increased productivity, 100 percent of plan equals $2.1 million in sales and $100,000 in personal income). The emergence of alternative sales channels translates into reduced territory size (low-end sales will be handled through distribution) and/or reduced product offerings (low-priced products will be sold through inside telesales).

We need to do more and better with less. Sales rep’s point of view: Great you’re taking away administrative support staff, closing sales offices, and attaching them to the end of my arm, so I’m never out of reach. In addition, you’re loading proposals and presentations into my laptop for me to put together on my own.

We need to shorten the sales cycle, increase close rates, improve margins. Sales rep’s point of view: You’re going to be showing more/better deals through the same pipeline. Yeah, this means more money for me this year, if I really kill quota. Next year you’ll just raise my quota. (By the way, any reasonably intelligent rep will figure out that shorter sales cycles translate into higher sales only if you have plenty of opportunities to continue to stuff the pipeline. And reps know how hard good opportunities are to come by.)

Shorter cycles only mean a one-time productivity gain without other system improvements. Said another way, if my individual production is $100,000 a month, who cares whether the deals being booked have been in the pipeline six months or twelve? There are other important benefits of reducing cycle times (e.g., reduced vulnerability, lower cost of sales, learning potential, etc.), but monthly output is unaffected.

We need to do something different here or get trampled by our competitors. Yes, and as a sales rep I have a lot of suggestions: lower prices; increase features; deliver new products promised since last year; ship complete products right the first time … Need I go on?

Let’s get real. If you’re selling widgets to a customer, you don’t tell them how good the deal is going to be for you. You present benefits that are meaningful to that customer. If salespeople are like everyone else, then literature suggests their buy-in has both a logical and an emotional component. The reasons management usually offers are logical, but don’t necessarily speak to a sales rep’s emotions and may even speak against them.

What’s In It for Them?

The trick, then, is to convince your reps there’s a benefit in SFA compelling enough to be worth the cost to them in time, brainpower, and dragging that damned computer around.

Let’s look at some issues sales reps care about and how automation can address them.

How am I doing? When asked, “How are you doing,” most reps can answer in a heartbeat: “Great, I’m 150 percent of plan!” or “Lousy, I’m 60 percent of plan.”

Good information, but not the answer to the question. Performance vs. plan is past performance relative to plan. So, 150 percent or 60 percent is not how they are doing, it’s how they’ve done so far. And whether it’s milk and honey (150 percent) or spilt milk (60 percent), the fact remains, it’s history.

A more useful question is, “How will you do?” This question, under the guise of sales forecasting, is a chronic concern of management. It ought to be a concern for reps as well. Without good forecasting, improving sales performance will always be a game of catch-up for salespeople and management alike.

Good forecasting requires feedback on past and current performance that is: 1) timely, 2) accurate, 3) consistent, 4) relevant, and 5) individualized. Unless the system provides real measures meeting all five of these tests, coaching and/or process improvement will still be based on guesses, hunches, and assumptions.

This is where an advanced SFA system can help both the company and the rep. If you know salespeople’s quotas, their sales cycle length, and individual close rates (with benchmarked data, not rough rules of thumb), then you can project whether prospects currently in the pipeline will result in enough business to let them make quota. Some of the more advanced opportunity-management systems can now analyze data over time to make such projections.

If you continue to use arbitrary “guesstimates” of cycle time, close rates, and other key measures, then your salespeople will continue to discount or dismiss the resulting “metrics.”

Convince your reps your automation initiative will provide real, reliable numbers that benefit not just you, but them, and you’ll go a long way to winning their support.

Do I have enough good opportunities to pursue? Experienced salespeople know that good leads are gold. But how do you tell good from bad, and how do you know how many is enough?

With an opportunity-management system, if quota, cycle length, and close probability are known, it’s also possible to calculate whether enough projects are being put into the pipeline to meet both the company’s and the individual rep’s goals. This means you can begin to proactively manage what will come out months from now.

Analyzing these statistics is not only useful to the individual rep, it provides a wealth of information to the marketing department. If they see one rep beating the competition in certain size sales of a given product, while fellow salespeople are losing, marketing can interview the successful rep to discover anything they may be doing that’s not included in the standard process. Also, query the system to find out who else is presently at the same stage in the process against the same competitor in deals of this size, and send a specific alert to do the new practice now to avoid losing later.

These projections can be especially useful if a rep’s territory is busy now, with high projected closings in the short run, but is likely to run dry months down the road and come up short at year’s end. The rep may truly be too busy doing high-value selling and closing today’s business to take the time to prospect in an ill-defined or poorly segmented universe. This is where marketing can step in and prepare a mailing or call campaign to locate suspects and nurture them to pipeline readiness.

Show your reps that automation can help keep the pipeline filled, and you’ll win their hearts.

How can I do better? “I’m using a contact manager now,” says the rep, or even, “I’ve got a good card file.” In either case, what do they need this new, more complicated, system for anyway?

Contact management, email, automation of routine forms and expense reports, all help the rep work more efficiently. That’s good, but it would be even better, if they could be more effective. That’s where accurate sales metrics can make a huge difference.

Companies have been collecting data forever, especially in sales. The problem is nobody’s been looking at it. SFA can and should provide a convenient and cost-effective data-collection vehicle, as well as the ability to analyze the data and convert it into real sales intelligence.

Looking at statistics that summarize large numbers of leads, distributed across the entire sales force for an extended period of time, will give management insight as to what sales actually does, and how effectively they are doing it. Further, as opposed to revenue figures, which only give a suggestion of effectiveness, fallout and cycle time statistics can show where management might look to truly help salespeople improve their performance by addressing specific system issues.

Without real measures and metrics, the sales manager is like a track coach who only has final results available. About all a coach can do in this case is implore the team members to, “Run faster. Try harder.” Hardly insightful stuff.

Today’s Olympic coaches have video tapes, several split times, and loads of comparative statistics to help identify specific improvements for each athlete. The same tools are now becoming available to sales managers choosing to focus on process (cause) vs. results (effect), and who are searching for clues to improve both efficiency and effectiveness.

It won’t be easy, but with the help of sales metrics, you and your sales force can begin to fine-tune your sales process to help them close more sales faster.

A Pop Quiz From Your Sales Force
Just as a salesperson needs to be prepared to respond to customer objections, you need to be ready to address your salespeople’s concerns about an impending automation project. Just as a good salesperson recognizes objections as opportunities to move the sale forward, you should recognize questions from your sales force are opportunities to point out the benefits to them of using technology.

Be prepared with compelling answers to these questions — compelling, that is, from the sales rep’s point of view — and you’ll go a long way toward achieving successful sales force automation implementation:

  • Why are we doing what we’re doing?
  • How much more work will I have to do, for how long, before I see any personal payoff?
  • What will that payoff be?
  • How exactly do you define increased productivity for me and my position?
  • If introducing technology means sharing information I’ve developed over the years, and teleselling or other indirect channels will be taking over the routine sales work, what will I be doing?
  • Do you see automation reducing the need for people like me?
  • What will be the criteria by which future reps are deemed successful?
  • Can the company win, and I lose? Can I win and the company lose? How do we all win?
  • What is your personal commitment to this project’s success? How do you lose if the project is unsuccessful?
  • Who will train, support, and coach me through this process? What is the plan for doing so?
Tips for getting there: Be honest and pragmatic (you can do that, can’t you?).

Finally, be specific. Don’t rely on dazzling them with footwork or baffling them with you know what. Sales reps want to believe, but they have B.S. detectors far more sensitive than your high school history teacher ever had.


Rewriting the Contract

The social contract has been rewritten. Womb-to-tomb employment never existed in sales and today doesn’t even exist in bastions of stability, like government, huge corporations, or major utilities. The new contract is less about employment and more about employability. The company’s role is to get as much out of you as they can, while providing options for you to improve your skillset. The employee’s role is to contribute as much as possible, while taking advantage of growth opportunities to increase their value, here or at another company.

In sales, it’s always been simple.  “You make your number, you keep your job. You don’t make your number and … well, just make sure you make your number.” The monthly commission check was all the carrot anyone had any business looking for. Just watch out for that stick.

Like so many other things, the way it’s always been in sales is changing. Make no mistake, “making the number” is still important, But having said that, there are some other things that, in today’s sales reality, are equally important: how you make the number, making your forecast, maintaining/increasing customer relationships. In the future, the most valuable salespeople will be those who can manage sales cycles, coordinate sales teams, and elevate relationships over time. This means a lot more than simply being at plan. It means knowing what’s going on in your territory and managing a healthy pipeline flow.

That takes measures and real metrics, like the one’s sales automation can provide.

When companies invest in SFA, in training, and in coaching, and when sales reps work to grow and continuously improve, both will be keeping their half of the contract, and both will see their opportunities expand. With a carrot like that, who needs a stick?

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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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