The Success of Sales Enablement is (still) about Usability and Adoption

How well are the sales technologies you’ve deployed actually performing?  My guess is that you really don’t know, and you probably, rightfully are scared to find out.

Without question, sales technologies offer tremendous potential to improve the productivity, engagement, speed, and visibility of sales teams.

After implementing several sales enablement and CRM programs I strongly believe these technologies offer tremendous potential to accelerate sales growth, multiply the return on selling assets, and create firm value.

Unfortunately, most organizations have not yet realized the immense promise of sales technology.

Three decades after CRM’s advent, our research finds most firms’ CRM implementations are characterized by lower than acceptable return on investment, less than satisfactory user adoption, and lots of unrealized potential,” according to Bob Kelly, the Chairman of the Sales Management Association (SMA).

A big reason has been the lack of focus on the seller experience and the usability, utility, and adoption of the selling tools they deploy. This is particularly evident with CRM deployments, but extends to every other class of tool designed to help revenue teams become smarter, faster, and more effective.

The question is how long will the leaders of these organizations continue to tolerate these low levels of return? Particularly given the current management focus on rationalizing the sales technology portfolio to improve ROI, reduce overlapping capabilities, and increase accountability for measurable sales outcomes.

The solution to the problem is no secret. Make these tools simpler, easier to use, and more useful to the sales and service reps who are supposed to use them every day.  As evidence of this simple truth, the top five factors that are critical to the successful implementation of CRM and sales technology overall are: ease of use (95%), ease of data input (93%), Having a “single source” of sales force information (93%), and usefulness in managing the sales pipeline (93%) – according to a survey of sales managers by the SMA.

The root cause of these problems has less to do with the features and functions of the tools you buy, and more to do with how easy they are to use and how well management supports them. “CRM’s dirty secret is that two of three firms see less-than-satisfactory user adoption,” reports Bob Kelly. “Sales ops leaders aren’t blind to this of course. Most respond by tormenting salespeople to drive compliance and user adoption, the de facto bellwether metric for CRM success. This entirely misses the point, which is that salespeople don’t want to use these tools because they aren’t useful to them. Our research found the firms who are really making hay with CRM implementations are designing them to be valuable to salespeople and helping them work faster.”

The key to accelerating sales with technology is (and has always been) giving salespeople simple tools that make it easier to do their jobs and manage the sales pipeline. This makes common sense to any sales rep. But it also makes financial sense. Even an inexpensive sales tool will not pay off if salespeople don’t use it. Apply that formula to a dozen or more sales and service solutions, it creates a multiplier effect when you apply this math to the 20 such tools currently in place at the average enterprise.  

As a consequence, the financial returns on most investments in sales people, data, technology, and content will fall well short of their potential by any financially valid measure – Return on Assets, Return on Investment, sales productivity, and quota attainment.

Having conducted exhaustive evaluations and selection processes at IBM, Red Hat and Lenovo, I’ve learned the key differentiator – and driver of value – always comes down to simplicity, intuitiveness, and user adoption in the eyes of the sales user of process or tool. When it comes to sales technology, you don’t want “BMW Price and Performance” but rather “Apple Elegance and Simplicity”.   Simplicity contributes to easy and natural user adoption that does not overwhelm sales reps and is sustained over time.

Employees struggle with software complexity just like customers. So, any investment that can improve user satisfaction and engagement will allow firms to realize the full value of their sales technology investments,” reports Jeff McKittrick, a Managing Director of Digital Selling Platforms at the Revenue Enablement Institute. “When we conducted a Total Economic Impact analysis of Digital Adoption efforts, we found that a small improvement in user adoption and satisfaction will dramatically increase your return on investment in selling technology because it reduces the time and clicks involved in executing selling tasks as well as onboarding, training, help desk and support costs.”

There are larger forces at play here that also need to be addressed. These problems largely stem from managers who persist in trying to apply 20th century management practices to a 21st Century Commercial model.  They reveal six fundamental disconnects between conventional thinking about how to generate revenues, and the reality of growing revenues, profits, and sustained value in a modern selling model.

  1. Organizing around the customer – Customer centricity is a 30-year-old buzz word, but one that has clearly not been embraced at any operational level in most selling organizations. Customer lifetime value is the primary driver of firm value – yet businesses still align and organize their data, incentives, and teams around products and new business development.
  2. Customer success and retention – are fundamental to growth in SaaS and Recurring revenue models, yet these organizations remain disconnected and second in line when it comes from leadership talent.  Despite Renewals majority contribution to revenue, New Logos get more rep attention and leadership focus.
  3. Growth resource allocation – is disproportionally biased towards “front of the funnel” promotion and new business development when the lion’s share of customer conversations, cross sell, upsell, and penetration opportunities happen in service and support organizations.
  4. Technology procurement practices and criteria – the teams that source, select, and fund new selling technologies are still guided by “Magic Quadrants” that focus on the parochial needs of functional buyers and prioritize advanced feature sets and technical capabilities that won’t ever be used instead of the core utility, simplicity, and usability to sales.
  5. Technology priorities and objectives – The focus of sales enablement systems and CRM has been on backwards looking reporting and administration of sales activity.  Instead, the focus needs to shift to real time, forward looking, and data-driven systems that proscriptively arm and equip reps with the buying signals, churn alerts, advice, plays and content they need to successfully and quickly engage clients at the edge.
  6. Measurement and incentives – the scorecard for success remains “growth at all costs” and new client acquisition metrics when the leverage, profit, and value come from retention, loyalty and adoption that expand customer lifetime value. Firms overly reward new sales with commissions instead of team activities that grow account health and customer lifetime value.

After over a decade of leading sales enablement programs, I‘ve learned some practical truths about simplicity and selling, that despite common sense many companies still ignore as they chase a “silver bullet” solution that will improve sales effectiveness all by itself.

  1. A two-week pilot with real sales participants is the best and fastest way to prove a business case to a CFO.
  2. If a rep loves it and uses it – ROI goes up, training and set up costs go down.
  3. The more “sales driven” the program criteria are, the more successful a valid pilot and successful deployment. This means not allowing sales operations, management, or finance members of the purchasing team to over-bias your selection criteria towards cutting edge features and hard cost per user at the expense of the user experience and utility to salespeople.  This can be an uphill battle. Most applications – and the recommendations of research analysts – are focused on the needs of these economic buyers instead of the customer facing employees who use them.

What is our recommendation? 

1. Turn the equation on its head, focus on customer success (renewal, up-sell, etc.).  Make the “Farmers” (Account Managers) the most cherished sales job in the company.

2. Start with the end in mind.  Adoption begins from day 1, not an afterthought after you have already deployed the solution. Invest in change management.

3. Demonstrate a firm commitment from Leadership on the expectations of the program.  A job requirement is to use the tools. Even if easy, adoption will be challenged by inertia, rep behavior is unlikely to change without management encouragement, which includes repercussions for not ‘getting on board’.

4. Lastly, be selective in your choices and involve salespeople in the evaluations.  If reps love it (because it’s simple to use and brings value to their process) the smart reps will adopt and use to help them be more successful.

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