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.

Despite the specific training methods or sales methodology employed by an organization, sales reps sell, based on what they know.The challenge is for managers to get visibility to what their core sales rep group really knows and understands, and once gaps are identified, to transform your reps’ behavior to “move the needle.”

This transformation begins with the acknowledgement that sales reps are people, and people are complex. People possess ingrained behavior, and changing that behavior -- equipping sales reps to win -- doesn’t happen with contact management.  Harvard researchers have shown that using a combination of interval reinforcement and active recall in short bursts can durably change ingrained sales behaviors and boost retention.

Learning Opportunities

The key to success is two-fold:

  • Understanding, with data-driven insight, where individuals are today (what they know and don’t know and their strengths and weaknesses), and
  • Executing a program that embraces the three key elements to success at scale: simplicity, convenience and motivation.

Mobile technology and game-based technology approaches to sales specific knowledge retention and application may be a more appropriate adjunct to CRM to ensure reps stay sharp. There are lots of options on the market and they are being deployed in creative ways to pick up where sales training may leave off to drive durable and scalable sales behavior change.

For example, my organization Qstream’s platform pushes simple, scenario-based challenge questions to sales professionals every few days. Using their mobile device, reps submit answers at a time and place that’s most convenient for them, and can immediately see the correct answer and why. 

In other approaches, sales technology vendors such as SAVO, CallidusCloud and even Salesforce.com are applying gamification to drive the use and adoption of the CRM and automation tools by sales teams through incentives and shared goals. This is a different goal than equipping reps for the value-added conversations, but it takes the base CRM platform beyond tracking emails and prospect conversion status.

There’s a saying that if you have a hammer, the danger is thinking every problem is a nail. We need to remember that the selling process is less about automation or even about technology.It’s about people and always has been. Organizations need to be applying technology to help the beleaguered sales rep NOT by automating away the people function, but in helping them remember, assimilate and drive the relationship to sale.

Title image by Gareth Williams (Flickr) via a CC BY 2.0 license