2014-30-June-Sales-Reps.jpgWith widespread adoption of CRM and marketing automation, what is the purpose of sales reps? Do we even need them anymore?

A rhetorical question, but the expectations we should have with automation are worth examining. According to Forrester Research, companies worldwide are spending 19 percent of their SG&A (selling, general and administrative) costs on average in sales support-related activities. With a nearly 14 percent growth in worldwide CRM sales in 2013 -- and over 30 percent growth for Salesforce.com itself in the past two years -- companies are connecting the dots between marketing and sales automation efforts, and the desire to streamline the process of securing and winning customers.

A Systems Problem or a Sales Problem?

Significant changes in the selling environment drive part of the rationale. Stats show that some 70 percent of information needed to close a purchasing decision is already in the hands of the buyer before a rep walks in the door. Reps today are given only minutes to demonstrate value on a sales call. Every moment truly counts.

The well intentioned idea behind automation is that if we only could adopt a systems view to sales, and squeeze greater efficiency out of the process -- efficiency in the form of automation -- we’d never miss an opportunity, driving higher close rates and revenue.

Here’s the problem: last I checked, CRM systems don’t close deals and make quotas -- sales reps do. Yet in our attempts to assist them with automation, we can be diverted from honoring the higher value, customer-specific conversations that are needed to let them win. Despite sizable and growing sales enablement investments, Forrester’s research recognizes that only 36 percent of B2B buyers today believe that their meetings with salespeople are valuable and live up to their expectations.

Our own independent data corroborates the same. An analysis of 240,000 responses to scenario-based sales challenges across a range of industries showed that more than one-third of enterprise sales reps today -- even those with extensive market and product training -- arrive at sales calls unprepared or unable to apply the critical information and context needed to successfully sell into their markets. The figure is actually worse (46 percent) in unregulated industries.

According to CSO Insights, on average only 57 percent of salespeople make quota, which of course means that 43 percent fail to deliver on target. And barely 2 percent of most sales teams are reaching the upper echelons of quota achievement.

What’s at issue here is not necessarily systems. It’s the human brain, and how it remembers and retains information, and learns on the job skills about applying that information in the context of an admittedly far more challenging sales call.

Conquering the Forgetting Curve

A long-established phenomenon called the “forgetting curve” promises that some 79 percent of new information will be forgotten within days and weeks. Forgetting is a natural, physiological occurrence and must be factored into any selling behavior process change. The forgetting curve specifically describes the dramatic drop-off in new product, market and competitive positioning knowledge or selling skills over time -- often before they can be put into practice. Add to this the normal chaos of any time-starved sales rep’s day, and you begin to see the problem at scale.