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Leveraging Technology for Improved Sales Performance

 -  12/28/05

  Return to: http://clomedia.com/articles/view/leveraging_technology_for_improved_sales_performance/

How can you measure the impact of technology and training on business, and more particularly, the sales function? The past 10 years have introduced e-mail, Web meetings and customer relationship management (CRM) software to businesses at a blistering pace, and while millions of dollars are being invested in various IT systems and initiatives, quantifying it all is an elusive challenge for decision-makers. What kind of ROI can be attributed to the implementation of a CRM system throughout an enterprise? How does a sales manager gauge the value of a sales seminar to his staff's performance?

CLOs can take a creative approach to sales training and performance. A blended learning approach, if implemented skillfully, can have a direct and measurable impact on the bottom line.

The case for blended learning has not been difficult to prove. Defined as a "range of training methods and media to enhance and maximize learning opportunities," blended learning typically utilizes online training materials to teach basic concepts and traditional seminar or classroom settings to reinforce lessons. Unfortunately, blended learning solutions do not typically come out of a box, and therefore, the onus is on managers to evaluate and integrate different components according to their company's or division's needs. This can be time-consuming and expensive. Further, the challenge for mid-sized and larger companies is in measuring the ROI of these initiatives, in addition to the software and infrastructure costs, such as CRM software and the learning management systems that accompany them.

Blended learning systems should generate measurable results. One of the keys to a winning sales training system is identifying and training to key sales competencies. A metrics-based system helps establish training benchmarks, improve performance competencies and measure results over time. That is the only sure-fire way to judge the effects of sales training initiatives and investments.

A large percentage of sales training is event-based and focuses on intensive tactical crash courses with little to no follow-up after the seminars are over. The result is a low ROI, where sales professionals get motivated for a period of time before reverting back to bad habits and their normal routines. Instead of focusing on the daily disciplines or core competencies required to improve performance, such as setting more C-level appointments or increasing revenue-per-sale, managers and sales staff focus on monthly and quarterly quotas, which do little to improve the process. The traditional sales training model, where staff gets bombarded with manuals, workbooks and other materials, does not drive competence as effectively as a combination of learning platforms such as Web-based, CD-ROM, simulation software and virtual on-demand support.

How companies leverage various technologies to lower initial training costs, reinforce lessons via multi-pronged training and record the effectiveness of training initiatives over time is the million-dollar question. How do you lower costs and get better results?

Industry Overview and Overlap: LMS, CRM and ERP
In the '90s e-learning was the craze, with companies investing heavily in LMSs. Over the past several years, CRM and enterprise resource planning (ERP) have come to the forefront as "must-have" enterprise software applications.

How have all of these investments impacted sales performance? While CRM clearly helps sales professionals to manage their contact databases and report on deal status to sales managers, it is not meant to improve competency in and of itself. It is a piece of the puzzle, but not the all-encompassing solution that advocates make it out to be. Sales automation is not going to help you close deals, but will help you manage information around each prospect and client.

Similarly, the LMS is one of the important tools that can be utilized to educate sales staffs on new products, pricing and other critical information. The growing accessibility and lowering cost of implementing an LMS is favorable to companies of all sizes. However, there is still a gap when it comes to providing sales professionals with the proper performance enhancement tools corresponding to critical sales competencies that are essential to drive habitual sales success.

Executives should be cautious of technology overlaps and understand the difference between measurement tools and performance tools in order to avoid misallocating budgets. Measurement tools save time, while performance tools get results. Companies need to have both in place once they have identified and optimized their sales process. At times, the sales process tends to get clouded by technology because we think that it is going to magically solve our problems. By building the sales process manually and then attaching appropriate technology, companies learn to be more efficient and timely.

An ROI-Focused Blended Solution for Sales Training
By utilizing a blended approach rather than an all-out e-learning system or singular event-based training, companies can keep costs down and select the lowest-cost media to solve particular problems. Making decisions on the right blend requires quality assessments that answer questions about the audience, resources, timing, scale, content and particular business applications. Several ingredients are typical of a blended learning solution:

  • CD-ROM software training (CBT)
  • Live seminar instruction
  • Web-based courseware (WBT)
  • Live or on-demand webinars
  • Conference calls
  • Simulations
  • Portals, message boards and Web communities
  • Mentoring
  • EPSS (electronic performance support systems)

The sales training marketplace is seeking a measurable blended learning solution that corresponds to a sales team's ability to secure targeted C-level business appointments. Throughout the country, sales professionals face a degree of difficulty setting new appointments with business titles that have the fiscal authority to make a decision in line with their product or service. Sales leadership agrees that if you understand how many new appointments are required based on your personal performance numbers and you have a best-practice learning system to teach people how to execute that critical competency effectively, you will save valuable time and get more results consistently. That being said, most companies do not have an effective system in place that can be implemented universally and adapted over time to maintain a measurable training result and ROI.

Sales professionals may need to focus less on what results they need to have by the end of the month, and more on what activities are necessary to get them there on a consistent basis. Applying best-practice learning systems to those identified activities will measurably improve performance.

Results for blended learning training vary depending on the company's culture and commitment to the total process. Some companies are investing heavily in LMS, CRM and training events without an effective implementation strategy or organizational commitment. If the sales staff is not encouraged by managers to take the time required to follow the training process, they often lose motivation and regress back to old habits. Consensus on a single training objective must be achieved first if any performance improvement process is to work. There are three questions you should ask:

  • What single competency improvement will support us the most in meeting our stated revenue objective?
  • What systematic process do we need to develop or invest in to achieve it?
  • Are we willing to follow it once we have it?

No software, technology or single training event on its own can make it happen without the enthusiastic support of management. Once they understand what is at stake and how much there is to be gained by adhering to a performance-based training system, participants will gladly make whatever adjustments necessary to follow the process.

Outsourced Versus Home-Grown
Companies should evaluate the pros and cons of developing in-house systems versus outsourcing commercial solutions. Sometimes it's a mixture of both that will provide the best results. The decision formula is time versus measurable results and flexibility for the future.

Depending on the training objective, sometimes there's no need to reinvent the wheel. However, there are a number of key questions that corporate trainers must keep in mind when evaluating vendors:

  • Are the solutions vendor-centric, or can they be learned, adopted and adapted over time with vendor support?
  • Is the software or system customizable or off-the-shelf?
  • Is the ROI from the training or system easily measurable?
  • How well does the software or system integrate into the existing LMS and other IT systems within the company?
  • Is there train-the-trainer certification?
  • Will there be trainee appreciation?

What to Expect
The Web has surely changed the game, enabling seamless collaboration and communication across borders. The ability for companies to offer blended learning solutions and managers to analyze sales and customer data is unprecedented. Going forward, leaders should continue to explore ways to take advantage of this X-ray ability for tactical purposes, such as customer behavior analysis, sales training and performance measurement.

The overarching message is that once companies get their technology solutions and systems in place, ongoing, multi-faceted, metrics-based training is essential to drive the type of sales growth that shareholders desire. Blended learning solutions are only starting to achieve recognition as low-cost delivery models for various types of corporate training. As the cost of relevant technologies continues to fall and companies commit and learn to use blended learning more effectively, sales performance will continue to improve dramatically.

Jeff Hardesty is president of JDH Group Inc. and developer of the X2 Sales System, a blended training process that teaches sales individuals how to set "top down" business appointments. He can be reached at jhardesty@clomedia.com.