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What’s Your Sales Automation Strategy?

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Faced with profitability challenges, a global consumer electronics firm decided to restructure its business with a focus on optimizing costs, sales productivity, and customer satisfaction. To achieve these goals, the company automated customer and product master data, disputes and claims resolution, stock replenishment, and discount management. The firm also deployed automated web-crawler tools to improve competitive intelligence-gathering. With buy-in from leadership, the company was able to reduce the cost of select processes by 15% in only three years.

The challenges faced by the consumer electronics firm are common among today’s sales organizations. A recent McKinsey study shows that more than 30% of sales activities can be automated to improve efficiency and effectiveness. However, lack of awareness of automation’s potential, inadequate tracking, return on investment (ROI) concerns, and delayed delivery challenges are hindrances to adoption. Many organizations that have overcome these challenges have still struggled to meet automation project targets, with only 50% reporting project success.

At the other end of the spectrum, companies are pioneering sales automation with inspiring results. Using five prominent technologies — machine learning (ML), robotic process automation (RPA), natural language processing/generation (NLG), smart workflows, and cognitive agents — companies are reducing costs, improving customer service and scaling operations.

In this article, we’ll examine sales automation’s overarching benefits, how it can be applied to standard sales processes, and how to successfully adopt new processes to improve your team’s ability to sell. We will also detail five key principles to consider while building and executing on your sales automation strategy.

The Benefits of Sales Automation

A European telecommunications firm turned to an IBM Watson-based chatbot to improve its customer service operation. The firm leveraged user-behavior analyses and usage-pattern predictions to improve processes based off data from customer interactions with the chatbot. The telco used its findings to improve its outreach and enhance its Customer Value Management (CVM) function. The program has contributed approximately 10% of total activations, with 6% margin improvement. Approximately 26% of calls are now fully managed by the chatbot with no human intervention. The initiative has reduced costs while improving efficiency and customer satisfaction.

In addition to improved service, sales automation can improve accuracy and consistency by eliminating human errors and streamlining processes. It can boost scalability by allowing flexibility to grow key activities while sustaining execution quality. Customer coverage availability increases via the use of RPA and virtual agents and traceability expands, which improves audits and root-cause analyses.

Here are a few examples of how automation functions within each stage of the sales process:

Pre-Sales Improvements:

Automated web crawlers collect market and competitor data to analyze and predict, for example, an industry’s total addressable market (TAM) and a customer’s present and future potential. AI allows organizations to better project market trends by region, which can be used to automatically update sales frontline quotas. Organizations can use advanced analytics to automate and systemize sales-call plans. RPA and ML tools can automatically detect bottlenecks and their root causes in the sales process and help sales-funnel management. ML tools can automatically generate call-lists and guide salespeople to call the right customers with the appropriate topic at the right time.

Sales Improvements:

NLP-based tools can decrease request-for-proposal (RFP) response time. RPA and ML tools automatically analyze and export pricing schemes. Automated workflows can optimally accelerate discount/rebate setting and management. ML tools can generate insights on actions and behavior associated with high closing rates. Billing workflows in turn are automated via RPA-based account receivables and payable management (e.g., invoice generation and processing).

Post-Sales and Sales Operations Support:

RPA- and NLP-based tools allow the automation of customer feedback and behavior analysis, enabling call centers to improve customer satisfaction and first-call resolution (FCR) while freeing up full-time equivalent (FTE) capacity. RPA and ML tools can identify customers with a high probability of churn and auto-generate promotional offers to retain them.

Planning Your Sales Automation Strategy

To successfully deploy enterprise sales automation, companies need to plan the process in advance. Depending on the organizational maturity level, process mapping, and IT landscape, as well as the company’s capabilities, we’ve mapped three routes that can yield an optimal result for each use case:

  1. Organizations can fix and automate processes by first lifting the procedure to best-in-class before starting to automate.
  2. They can automate first and fix later by finding quick solutions with existing capabilities to overcome key pain points followed by process optimization.
  3. Or they can fix and outsource, which involves improving the process and then shifting to external service providers.

The consumer electronics firm and the telecommunications firm applied the fix and automate approach. It is comprised of the following three steps:

Step 1: Redesign and simplify the customer journey.

Eliminate unnecessary processes and outputs by removing unneeded approvals, data inputs, and reports. Then simplify forms and policies through the mapping of current and ideal-state processes and triage them based on complexity.

Step 2: Standardize policies and processing logics for triaged processes.

Organizations should capture existing best practices and ideal-state processes to codify in standard operating procedures. They should reduce the number of reports by consolidating customers’ requirements and standardizing the format.

Step 3: Shift individual activities to customers or service providers.

Organizations should transfer some activities to customers by providing self-service digital portals. They should also identify service providers who can take over simplified and standardized processes.

Executing on Your Strategy

As organizations pursue sales automation, most start the journey with a highly fragmented IT landscape characterized by complex legacy applications and high maintenance costs. Typical IT development/implementation thus involves a trade-off between fast-business impact and consistent architecture. There are three potential approaches:

  • Start-up approach focuses on fast business impact and leads to excessive cost for maintenance; is typically not extendable.
  • All-in-one approach targets overall integration and leads to excessive development cost.
  • Stable island approach is a more recommended approach as well as a pragmatic midway, which balances impact and consistent architecture yielding viable end products. “Stable islands” is a stand-in term for viable end products.

Successful automation leaders typically leverage a “stable island approach” enabled by process redesign, agile practices, capability building, value-capture plans, and responsive IT support. The importance of the process design cannot be overstated, as automation is most effective when combined with an agile process redesign. Most organizations skip this step and fail to realize the full benefit of sales automation.

Five Principles for Sustained Sales Automation Success

We have identified five principles for a successful sales automation journey by dissecting the journeys of organizations that have failed and succeeded at this process.

1. Thorough Process Re-Design.

Carefully examine the sales process to insert value-adding activities and eliminate non-value-adding ones. Automating inefficient processes only transfers the inefficiency from humans to algorithms, often magnifying the inefficiency. The global consumer electronics firm invested up-front to understand the “as-is” sales process and worked with experts to create the “to-be” process.

2. Emphasis on Capabilities in Contrast to Deadlines.

Sales automation can offer consistent productivity improvements, but also can become unsustainable if implementation outpaces capability. Invest in tailoring your automation’s capabilities, building to the needs of each key role. The global consumer electronics firm tracked skill development at a person-by-person level rather than being overly fixated on development timelines while building its automation center.

3. Clear Value-Capture Plans.

Some organizations pursue “small value” quick wins and miss bigger automation opportunities, while others take a cost-myopic view and ignore value from improved quality, speed, and flexibility. It is critical to prioritize the right use-cases while using action plans with clear milestones and timelines to guide implementation. Both the European telecommunications player and the global consumer electronics firm ensured that their automation business cases were rooted in hard data and communicated guidelines around testing, acceptance, and release with specific action plans.

4. Responsive IT Support.

IT plays a critical role in educating and training frontline workers, supporting automation planning, and ensuring security clearances. The global consumer electronics firm formed a development team within its sales function to create automation solutions fully in-house. The operations teams across Europe worked with the automation team to create success. This reduced external vendor involvement and enhanced custom solution flexibility.

5. Agile Practices.

A dual operating model of agility combined with automation mitigates implementation challenges. Such an operating model could iteratively deliver end-products via multi-deployed teams with shared KPIs while embracing experimentation and development via coaching and feedback.

Each sales automation journey requires its own unique planning and optimization. Use the techniques and principles we’ve provided as a guide to help explore your team’s journey, while making sure to carefully adapt and modify as needed. No matter how you choose to employ sales automation within your organization, it would benefit you to begin researching and planning today.

The authors wish to thank Kay Chen, Bruno Lee and Mandy Woo for their contributions to this article.

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Growing a Business

How to Scale Your Sales Team Quickly

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Startups and other fast-growing organizations face a common challenge: In the early days of an organization, people join because they’re passionate about the mission. Yet too often, as the team grows in size, the tether to the original vision weakens, and new salespeople aren’t as successful as those who were there from the beginning. To ensure your new team is as passionate as your original team, leaders should follow these three tactics: 1) establish storytelling as a company norm, so every sales member carries your mission into customer conversations; 2) institutionalize deep discovery into your sales process, teaching new salespeople to ask strategic questions to understand customer goals; and 3) invest in human-to-human sales enablement, which provides the team with the assets to win business, including presentations, market data, tech tools, and a well-organized pool of case studies.

When Chief Revenue Officer Steve Johnson was ramping up the sales team at Hootsuite, he faced a big challenge: He needed to scale sales, and he needed to do it quickly.

As a veteran leader of previous startups, Johnson knew that growing sales fast would require new systems, processes, and infrastructure. He also recognized that he needed to scale the passion and belief that had propelled Hootsuite’s early wins. If they were going to be successful, it was crucial that new team members have the same fire in their belly as the original team.

It’s a common challenge. In the early days of an organization, people join because they’re passionate about the mission. Young sales teams typically have a strong emotional tie to the founder(s), the product, and the impact they can have on the market. Close proximity to the founders and a clear articulation of the market problem the firm is solving create a compelling story that unites the early team. Yet too often, as the team grows in size, the tether to the original vision weakens, and new salespeople aren’t as successful as the founding salespeople.

This is an avoidable problem. In my work with fast-growth firms, I’ve seen first-hand that when leaders are intentional about embedding their mission and a sense of higher purpose into their culture, sales can grow faster.

Johnson was proactive about three things: 1) building widespread belief in Hootsuite’s purpose, 2) institutionalizing processes to help new team members understand the positive impact their solutions could have on customers, and 3) providing a heavy dose of sales coaching. This work paid off: Over a two-year period, his team grew from 27 people in Canada to more than 1,000 people around the world who delivered a cumulative revenue increase of more than 56,000%. After 24 months of rapid growth, they announced one of the largest software raises in Canadian history ($165 million) followed by another $60 million 11 months later. Johnson went on to scale teams at Vidyard and Intelex, and is now COO of Berkshire Grey, the world’s largest robotics company.

“When you’re small and growing fast, you’re under a lot of pressure,” Johnson says. “You think you don’t have time to worry about seemingly soft concepts like culture, and belief, but building a strong emotional infrastructure enables you to scale faster.”

Whether you’re trying to scale sales to take your firm public, recover lost revenue due to the pandemic, or step into new opportunities, being intentional about helping your sales team understand your organization’s larger purpose and the role they play in delivering on that for customers provides the bedrock for revenue expansion. Here are three ideas you can embed into your foundation to ensure your new team is as passionate as your original team:

1. Establish storytelling as a company norm.

“Great companies are built on great stories,” as LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman recently said on his Masters of Scale podcast. Early sales teams have a clear sight line to customer impact. They understand why the product and the company exist, and they carry that passion into customer conversations.

As the sales team expands, you can ensure that you keep this emotional tether strong by consistently weaving stories about how your offering makes life better for customers into your onboarding and making it part of regular meetings. For example, when we worked with Steve Johnson scaling the Hootsuite sales team, we trained sales managers to start each weekly meeting with a story about how their solution made a difference to customers. This enables new hires to deepen their understanding of the product impact, and it strengthens their connection to the founding vision. This makes them more effective in customer conversations.

2. Institutionalize deep discovery questions in your sales process.

A fast-growth sales team who is excited about their offering is at risk for employing what we refer to as the “spray and pray” model of selling. Excited sellers spray the pitch out there as fast as they can and then pray that some of it sticks with the prospective client.

While well intended, enthusiastically pitching solutions with little or no customer intelligence is unlikely to win large deals, and long term, it puts the organization’s reputation at risk.

You can avoid this trap by building deep client discovery into your sales process. Teach new salespeople (and managers) how to ask strategic questions to better understand your client’s goals. For example, you want your sales team to understand your customers’ market environment, what their most pressing challenges are, and how they have defined success for themselves. Asking the customer questions like “How does this area of the organization (the space where your solution could help) impact your larger strategy? Or “What effect would these improvements have on your long-range goals?” helps your sales team understand the potential ripple effect of their offering. Asking insightful questions about the customers overall goals (versus just your solution) is rocket fuel for a young sales team.

When salespeople ask prospective clients good questions, the sellers improve their business acumen quickly because they’re learning about the market from the customer’s perspective. It also helps them build better customer relationships before there’s a major deal on the table.

Institutionalizing deep discovery questions (before pitching) sends a collective message to the sales team and the market: We want to know what’s on our customers’ minds.

3. Invest in human-to-human sales enablement.

When a company is growing quickly, sales managers are under pressure to hit big numbers. This can (unintentionally) hinder skills-based sales coaching. A sales manager with a stake in the deal is often tempted to take over a seller’s sales call instead of providing backstage skills coaching. While this may win the deal in the moment, it doesn’t scale. It also put the organization at risk for becoming transactional, because sellers don’t learn how to make a compelling case for the solution on their own.

Instead of relying exclusively on sales managers (who may be inexperienced or overwhelmed) you can scale faster by building a human-focused sales enablement function. Sales enablement — a concept forged in the startup world — traditionally focuses on providing the sales team with the assets to win business, including resources like presentations, market data, tech tools, and a well-organized pool of case studies. Fast-growth firms take the enablement concept to the next level by adding a strong sales coaching function.

This takes (some of) the pressure off the sales managers by providing reps with support from someone isn’t under the same deal-to-deal pressure. When a supportive third party (the coach) works with the individual sellers on skills like: opening sales calls based on client issues, deepening discovery conversations, and sharing the company story in a compelling way, it shows the sales team, it’s not just closing the deal, it’s how you close the deal.

A human-to-human coaching program can accelerate the team’s passion for customers and give them the skills to authentically demonstrate that passion throughout the sales process.

When the pressure is on to grow revenue, it’s tempting to focus on concrete tasks like systems and processes. However, the firms who build sustainable revenue are also intentional about the more emotional elements. Use these three techniques to make sure that your growth doesn’t dilute the secret sauce that got you started in the first place.

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