There's been a lot of focus lately on making sales forces more efficient, with the assumption that if a sales rep can spend more time with customers, additional face time will equal increased sales. But it goes beyond just attentive customer service.

Sales force effectiveness (SFE) is really about managing the entire customer process to maintain loyalty and to focus on selling more profitably. Less than a decade ago, the sales force was predominantly working with paper reports and information. The advent of email and electronic tools for real-time reporting has helped sales reps cut down on time spent sifting through paper, while at the same time providing access to more information.

Conversely, it has changed the basic selling processes, yet also challenged the technological skills of some. The point is to get salespeople fully prepped to maximize interactions with customers -- not to become researchers, librarians and data-entry specialists. Understanding how technology should enable the sales force is broader than simply converting paper to data. There are several types of tools available, the simplest of which are Web-based self-service, contact-management and sales force automation (SFA) solutions. Data analytics and e-learning tools also offer much insight to the sales force.

However, tools currently on the cutting edge of sales management fall into two other categories: sales portals and sales force effectiveness. Sales portals are fast becoming the "holy grail" of sales tools. These aggregators pull many sources of information into one location, such as industry and company news, competitor intelligence and SFA account data. They tout ease-of-use and the ability to compile content from many disparate sources in which the sum total of the information is greater than the parts taken individually. Often, with a single sign-on, this tool can put much needed information in a salesperson's hands -- customer information, sales reports, external data such as news releases and competitive intelligence, as well as sales materials such as collateral and a knowledgebase.

Where the future lies

SFE tools are a new and separate category that combines several of the capabilities of other tools. This new wave of technology is evolving to help pull all these pieces together and address the effectiveness issue. They provide the means for salespeople to access customer data, report sales progress and plan future actions from the road.

With SFE tools, companies can develop treatment strategies -- interactions or initiatives designed around customer needs and value -- that maximize the value from each customer interaction. Once the treatment strategies are defined, business rules are put in place to embed logic in the marketing, contact-center and sales processes. With the advancement of mass-customization techniques and tools, this same logic and specificity is now reaching the sales force.

There is a clear advantage to SFE tools over the portal methodology. In the sales portal, information is presented with some filtering and personalization. These tools, on the other hand, will proactively suggest next steps. They embed customer intelligence that guides the salesperson through the process, presenting information and suggesting real-time knowledge and questions at key points.

It begins to blend training into the mix to help bring more novice salespeople through the process. It is anticipated that these will be the next generation of sales tools that truly help the sales force cut a path through to effectiveness, rather than waiting for the requisite knowledge and experience to develop over time.

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