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Management Best Practices: Avoid Epic IT Implementations

In today's computer-enabled workforce, information technology has become as integral to a world-class sales effort as great products and superior salespeople. Customer relationship management, sales force automation, Websites, communication platforms, and other applications are now the mission-critical infrastructure linking buyers to sellers and sellers to their mothership.

On the other hand, we've all seen the sobering data on the low percentage of companies that actually consider their IT implementations to have been a success. Even worse, most of us have personally endured the pain of an ambitious, large-scale system implementation that was extremely disruptive to our business, yet yielded little tangible benefit.

These classic everything-including-the-kitchen-sink IT projects always bring the promise of a better tomorrow…but they also gave birth to a certain cynical refrain: "The only system you'll ever love is the one you just replaced."

In our study of world-class sales forces, we were therefore particularly interested to see how leading organizations developed technology to enable their salespeople. Surprisingly, it turns out 75 percent of the companies we studied had no large, household-name software packages deployed in their sales forces. They had never endeavored to purchase a "best-in-class" enterprise solution, nor had they chosen to build their own.

How could it be that some of the best sales forces in the world are run without massive, pervasive software applications?

A Different Approach

These companies' sales leadership took a different approach to software development. They chose not to spend a year or more assembling user requirements and even longer building, testing, and deploying a major IT project.

To them, the effort required to do so would have left them without desperately needed functionality for an unacceptably long period of time. The drain on resources would have distracted their sales force from its real job—to find, acquire, retain, and grow their customers.

Rather than fall victim to an all-or-none IT implementation strategy, they chose to develop their systems incrementally over time as their salespeople and customers demanded specific functionality. If customers asked to see their orders online, they built that capability. If salespeople needed access to customer information from the field, they made it happen.

There were no lengthy design and development efforts in sight—just focused responses to any reasonable requests.

Leadership could have taken those various requests as a sign that a large-scale system development effort was in fact required, but instead they showed restraint. Rather than thinking to themselves, "If we build it, they will come," they determined, "They're here…Now we should build it."

The CIO of one company phrased it this way: "We don't have a formal CRM system, though we have talked about it many, many times. We never implemented any packaged applications, because they weren't architected the way we do business.

"We never pushed anything on our salespeople; we just responded to their requests for additional functionality. Really, what started out as a series of 'quick fixes' ended up being full-blown systems."

While it's seemingly counterintuitive such a reactive posture could produce better supporting technology than a more deliberate, proactive effort, it is wholly pursuant to the philosophy that technology should be responsive to user needs.

Further, this organic system development strategy did several things for these companies that helped them overcome classic pitfalls:

• It enabled the speedy development of required functionality that was swiftly deployed to the field.

• It inspired end-user adoption of the technology, since the functionality was a relevant and timely response to a stated need.

• It minimized the disruption to both the sales force and larger organization, since the software development and training efforts were meted out in more manageable chunks.

At least for these world-class companies, more rapid and more iterative software development was the key to a more enabled sales force.

Sometimes it's Messy

Reading the above will, of course, make many people cringe in horror. Quick fixes, multiple IT platforms, disparate databases…this is the kind of stuff that gives most CIOs nightmares.

In an ideal world, things would always be elegant and seamless—especially IT infrastructure. But elegance and seamlessness need not always be the priorities, particularly when they demand an epic investment of time and money.

As the enlightened CIO stated above, the top priority for sales-focused leadership is to respond to the needs of its salespeople and customers, not to architect the most elegant solution. Information systems in the sales function exist to support the selling effort. And if the details get a little messy? Well, that's just the nature of details.

So before embarking on your own IT adventure, an odyssey that could exhaust your organization and overwhelm your sales force, our research suggests that you should ask yourself two important questions:

1. What do my salespeople and customers really need from my information systems?

2. How quickly and painlessly can I possibly get it to them?

The solution your answers lead you to, while not necessarily flashy, could end up saving you a ton of aggravation.

Note: This column is based on research collaboration with HR Chally into the management practices of sales forces identified by their customers as world-class. An overview of the published report can be downloaded here.

Jason Jordan is the director of research for the University Sales Education Foundation Foundation, as well as a principal with Go To Market Partners and World-Class Sales Leader.