Sales force automation: How to drive staff adoption of SFA

2nd Aug 2013

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. Many business leaders must have wryly reflected on that proverb over the last 15 years while their latest batch of reps neglected their sales force automation (SFA) tools.

Gartner estimates that circa 2000 some 80% of SFA deployments failed to show any measurable return on investment, as salespeople shunned the technology, either because they didn’t think it would help them sell, because of technical difficulties, or because they viewed it as a tool for management.

Jim Dickie, managing partner at CSO Insights, explains: “When SFA first came out, salespeople said ‘OK I get what the system does for the company – it puts all of my records in a single repository, so that if I get fired or I quit, the knowledge doesn’t walk out the door with me. But what’s in it for me?!”

Best-selling and sales authority Sean McPheat adds: “Especially in the early days there was a lot of resistance because it was viewed as a place to keep score – it was Big Brother checking up on you. But the real reason they were created was to help you make better informed decisions and to keep on top of things all of the time.

“Sales professionals should have been told that the advantages of SFA are that they’re going to allow you to be able to speak to more clients, and understand your own sales processes. But, instead, a lot of salespeople just viewed it as another form to fill out – and if you’re updating a system, you’re not out there selling. Bearing in mind the systems from 10 years ago were complex beasts, salespeople made the choice between making 10 calls or filling out five forms on a complex system, and they always chose to make the calls.”

From a technology perspective, things have certainly improved markedly over the past 15 years, with Patrick Stakenas of Gartner suggesting that comparing the SFA of today with that of 2000 is “like comparing the radio to a high definition television”. Modern systems help reps sell and allow them to better collaborate with partners, team members and customers. And with new SFA tools capitalising on the nexus of mobile, Big Data, social and Cloud trends, salespeople have never had so much power at their fingertips – all of which has given SFA adoption a welcome but not unexpected boost.

“Mobility has greatly improved adoption because salespeople want to be able to have the information,” says Bill Band, VP and principal analyst for Forrester Research. “Cloud has improved user adoption because you can get the tools out, deploy them quicker and get feedback from users so they can improve the SFA tool more quickly and that improves user adoption. In the old days, if you created something from Siebel for the salespeople and they didn’t like it then it would take you a year to fix it. Now, with, Microsoft of SugarCRM you can create a prototype, get users involved, get the feedback and do agile development. It improves adoption because you can iterate the solution to improve their needs faster.

“Salespeople also very much like the social aspect. They would previously always be struggling to get insights about the companies and the people they're trying to call on and now with all these new data inputs there is a very valuable information flow to the salesperson. And if that is available to them then they want to use it and adopt the tool.”

And with a new generation of young sales reps joining the workforce who have grown up surrounded by consumer technology, there is a particular onus on sales leaders to ensure that the SFA technology they deploy reflects the consumerisation of IT that has taken place in the business world.

Band notes: “As a salesperson, you're also a consumer and you have young people coming into the sales field and they expect to have the same kind of tools or abilities that they can have in their private life.”

Staff education

Ensuring that the systems are up to scratch is vitally important. But equally important is the training that reps receive. With the latest generation of SFA tools potentially delivering so much value to salespeople, they need to be educated about how the technology can aid them, to encourage adoption.

“Reps are starting to be told the things that sales force automation can do for them if they use it,” says Dickie. “For instance, with workflow – if they put their contacts into the system and tag them with their roles and the types of products they’re interested in, then when a new product announcement comes out marketing can automatically send an email to that person about that. The salesperson doesn’t have to do that anymore, the system can do it automatically. But if the details aren’t there, then the burden falls on the rep to do that – they have to send out 50 emails and make 50 phone calls.

“So you need to tell them that if there is information in the system and it is current and accurate, there are many things that the system will automatically do for them. It will automatically generate their forecasts, they don’t have to go and plug everything into Excel. It will automatically calculate what their commission statements are going to be, so they don’t have to go and figure them out. It will automatically send out invitations if there are webinars or seminars in their area that they want their prospects to go to. So it is kind of bribing them, and explaining that if data is in there, good things will happen for them. If data is not in there, then they will have more work to do.”

McPheat says that both carrot and stick are being used by many organisations to further encourage adoption.

“The most successful companies are linking the sales force automation systems to performance measurement these days, so they’re including them in their performance management systems and it’s a criteria of performance – you will fill out your system with the latest up-to-date information,” he says. “And off the back of that, a lot of companies are actually rewarding activity as well as the end product.”

Ken Krogue, president and co-founder of, agrees that brands would do well to look at incentive programmes to encourage adoption. “We have tested and found some great results with what we can an ‘effort bonus’,” he explains. “The typical structure is a base salary plus incentives and we include a small proportion of the base to include the level of engagement with the effort and the data integrity of the sales teams. And that has been a huge success. They are very coin operated and we have rankings on data integrity like we have rankings on sales performance, and granted it is a much smaller piece of the potential income, but if it’s there at all they will notice and drive towards it.”


A more sophisticated way of encouraging SFA adoption that is emerging is gamification, the process of integrating game mechanics and dynamics into technology and business process to drive participation. A growing number of sales leaders are now exploring how extrinsic rewards and recognition can improve adoption. The potential that this holds is such that Gartner has predicted an evolution from sales force automation to sales force gamification, with managers highlighting the intrinsic rewards of helping colleagues on the team through social indicators, while delivering appropriate extrinsic rewards for more mundane tasks.

And while businesses are looking to weave game dynamics into the process flow, SFA vendors themselves are seeking to support the trend with new functionality.

“There are quite a few companies engaging this,” says Krogue. “We have found real-time dashboards and statistics in the form of leaderboards will immediately boost sales significantly. But you can also present challenges around real-time promotions or contests around an effort format (such as calls and appointments) and result format (sales closed). The ability to put statistics in real-time in front of the sales teams and then allow them to compete and to recognise for individual and team achievements has been very powerful.”

With new initiatives like gamification accompanying tried and tested techniques such as financial rewards and education, and with the maturing of the technology itself, sales force automation is experiencing greater adoption rates than ever before. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” is no longer an excuse for sales leaders.

“Overall a lot of salespeople have bought into what SFA can do – they are being given better training, there is better reporting facilities and they are also linking it to performance management as well. And all those together mean that you are getting much higher levels of adoption compared to 10 years ago,” concludes McPheat. 

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