Know the territory

Why do sales guys act that way? You know what I mean: the back-slapping, glad-handing, how's-the-wife-and-kids approach that's been a staple of outside sales forever. Why? Because that's a great way to connect with customers. Sure, it's a little off-putting when that plaid-sport-coat personality revs up. But it gets the customer's attention - and that's the first step to engaging the customer, which has to happen before the sales guy can make the pitch and finally close the sale.

That's managing a customer relationship.

Sales guys know this. They know you've got to know the customer, got to know the prospect, got to know where the lead came from. You've gotta know the territory. And all that knowledge is really focused on doing the deal, closing the sale, booking the business. (And, not incidentally, pocketing the commission.)If you want to understand why so many customer relationship management (CRM) and sales force automation applications fail (Gartner Group says the death rate is at least 60 percent), start by understanding this: Sales guys want to sell. The rest is either getting them to the sale or wasting their time.

So while we're hot on back-office-connected wireless CRM applications, sales guys like their Day-Timers. Day-Timers never make them wade through 10 screens to find the customer, never force-feed them somebody else's idea of the right information and never crap out in a tunnel or steel-framed building.

Day-Timers also let them keep track of information that's critical to selling - the names of the prospect's kids, where the prospect went on vacation, which jokes the sales guy has already used on the prospect.

Sales guys know any clown can walk in with a database of what the customer has bought in the past year. The successful clown - er, sales guy - is the one who makes a connection and builds a real customer relationship.

Outside sales guys, like salesclerks and call center headset jockeys and everyone else who deals with actual customers, also know that standardized procedures are fine - as long as you're dealing with standardized customers.

Out in the real world, customers will do what they will, no matter how some big-money consultant or CRM software designer thinks they should act. If a standardized procedure is a straitjacket, the sales guy can't do the deal.

One more key bit of sales guy knowledge: To sales guys, sharing prospects just means giving up commissions. They know that one really, really well.

Sales guys aren't stupid. If they were, they'd never get past the receptionist, much less ever make a sale. They're not lazy, or they'd never make a cold call. They're not set in their ways, or they'd still be in starched collars hawking buggy whips.

None of those are the reasons why CRM and sales force automation projects crash and burn. CRM projects fail because nobody convinces the sales guys that CRM is going to help them sell more, better and faster. Or if somebody does sell the sales guys, CRM fails because the system doesn't help the sales guys better than their Day-Timers or notebooks or memories.

So now you know the territory - alien as it may seem to standards-oriented, systems-focused, heads-down IT people. If we want our CRM systems to fly, we've got to deliver what sales guys need. We've got to understand what those needs are. But first, we've got to connect with the sales guys, so we can sell them on the idea.

Maybe it's time for us to do a little glad-handing and back-slapping, too.

Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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