Sales Force Transformation: ‘Sometimes IT Is Asked to Automate Chaos’

Don Tennant
Slide Show

How to Effectively Deliver IT Projects in the Digital Age

If you’re an IT professional who has ever been involved in a sales force transformation project, you might have read the words “sales force transformation” and shuddered. There are so many constituencies to satisfy, facets to consider, and things that can go wrong, that sometimes the project seems to be doomed to failure. So what’s the secret of those organizations that have gotten it right?

I recently had the opportunity to discuss that question with Warren Shiver, managing partner and founder of Symmetrics Group, a sales and marketing management consultancy in Atlanta, and co-author of the book, “7 Steps to Sales Force Transformation: Driving Sustainable Change in Your Organization.” Shiver and his co-author, Michael Perla, formerly worked at Siebel Systems, so it was no surprise to find that Shiver was able to discuss the topic knowledgeably from an IT perspective.

I opened the conversation by asking Shiver to clarify what the term sales force transformation means to him. He said it’s a transformation that fundamentally changes the way a sales force sells.


It’s a big deal—it’s a change that’s not going to happen overnight. In our research and experience, we’ve seen these transformations typically take longer than a year, and typically involve functional areas other than sales. So when you think about transforming a sales organization, sales can’t succeed as an island, and go it alone. You’re involving other areas, like marketing, IT, and HR, if you’re really looking to make a transformative change in the way that you sell.

Shiver has a degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech, so I asked him if he has found that having a STEM degree helped him prepare to become a sales effectiveness consultant. He said he thinks it has:

I would have to say that if I had it to do all over again, I’d still get a major in engineering, but I’d get a minor in psychology. When you think about sales—it’s cliché, but we’ve found that it’s true—it really combines the best of a scientific approach, with a little bit of art and an understanding of human behavior.

In most, if not all, business-to-business sales processes, there is a defined process that you can map out; you align that process with how your customers are purchasing your products or services; and you automate that, so you can do things like have a robust pipeline and sales forecast, and have some discipline around managing the science of sales. Especially when you think about the traditional ‘trusted advisor’ type of sales representative, where the position requires a deep level of gravitas, experience and knowledge in order to be successful, certainly analytical problem-solving skills are important for that. But empathy-type skills and behavior are just as important.

I asked Shiver what the key barriers to a successful sales force transformation are from an IT perspective. He came up with three:

One major barrier we see is that, through no fault of IT, IT is sometimes asked to automate chaos. The sales organization hasn’t defined a common way of selling; or the organization has grown historically through a series of acquisitions, and there are multiple sales processes, multiple CRM tools. All of that is thrown onto the lap of IT. What needs to happen first is the leadership of the sales organization needs to thoroughly define the type of selling, the type of customer conversations they want technology to enable, and then the technology can be successful. So to summarize that, one key barrier is relying on IT to enable a solution where the process has not been defined.

Secondly, we see companies that confuse a CRM implementation with a sales transformation. We certainly see technology as a critical enabler of a sales transformation but, in and of itself, it is typically not a transformation.

Finally, I think a barrier related to that is the order in which you start. Michael Perla, my co-author, and I are big fans of Jim Collins—we love his work, ‘Good to Great,’ and in that, he has a philosophy of, “first who, then what.” Picking a star leader, and building a business around her, is an example. We’ve found with sales force transformations, you actually flip that—it’s first what, then how, then who. Start with what the types of conversations are that you want your sales team to be having, that are going to add value for your customers; second, how you are going to enable that, through a process and an enabling technology; and then focus on who—what the skill sets are that you need in order to be successful in that new model. So a barrier for some companies is one of sequence.

Shiver went on to explain that the IT organization must speak the same language as sales:

Often you find that IT will have a tremendous depth of resident technical expertise, and even sometimes business process expertise, as well. Sales certainly has expertise in what they see, day in and day out, from a customer perspective. Sometimes those worlds don’t seem to quite meet. It’s almost like you need a translation layer, or a Rosetta Stone, to translate the business strategy and process into IT requirements. Much like marketing in consumer products companies, where a customer marketing division sits between the brand teams and the sales teams, we see a similar capability that’s needed to sit between IT and the sales and marketing functions, that basically serves as that translation layer. Some IT organizations have capitalized on truly having that.

To wrap up the conversation, Shiver said what he and Perla tried to make clear in the book is that “sales transformation” is an overused phrase:

We were intentional around writing the book to say, for most organizations, the first question you should ask yourself is whether you really need to transform, or you just need to tweak what’s already working fairly well. If you need to do a tweak, that may involve skills training, or sourcing enabling technology, or some teambuilding, perhaps. There are point solutions short of a radical transformation. So I want people in IT to understand that we’re talking about a massive change to the sales organization. And technology, certainly CRM technology, is a key enabler of that change.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.



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