Can a data-led approach make salespeople more human?

By Zane Koeller, Domain Principal, Sales Performance Management, Anaplan and Nick Turner, RVP, UK and Ireland, Anaplan 

For all the worry about technology taking our jobs, it’s hard to imagine a technological solution ever being sophisticated enough to reproduce the human relationships salespeople build with their customers. Salespeople don’t just deliver information; they forge connections.

They allay fears. They work with customers to understand their unique challenges and devise specific solutions that are tailored to fit.

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Despite sales’ reliance on human interaction, however, the last few years have seen the field transform into an increasingly data-led enterprise. Outfitted with armfuls of advanced tools, today’s sales leaders are slowly replacing the experience and gut instincts of their forebears with advanced calculation and numerical analysis.

For those interested in the future of sales, the question is whether this newfound reliance on data means the end of sales’ human focus.

As it turns out, the answer is “not at all.” In fact, when used well, data can not only drive high-level strategic decisions, it can also help salespeople be better at the human parts of their job.

In what follows, we’ll describe three ways that adopting a data-led approach to planning in a sales organization can empower salespeople to focus more on the human-centered work of selling and connecting.

Increased speed in target-setting 

In most sales organizations, the levers we employ to motivate reps—incentives and other commission payments—remain traditional. What’s changed is the way sales leaders calculate targets. Although blanket percentage rates were once the norm, today’s advanced sales organizations design individualized quotas custom-fitted to each rep.

The results of this tailoring can be impressive. When quotas incorporate a salesperson’s territory, the potentials of their accounts, their personal sales history, and other relevant data, they can be far more motivating to the rep, reducing sandbagging and spurring reps to perform to the best of their ability.

The difficulty is that calculating the ideal quota for each rep takes an enormous about of time and number-crunching. There’s a great deal of data to incorporate. In many cases, the process can take as long as six to eight months, long enough for the whole market to have changed.

In response, today’s advanced technologies have improved calculation speed so that sales operations teams can calculate individual rep quotas in days or hours, rather than months. The result is that reps’ targets are able to mirror the shifts in the market, and provide customer solutions that better address the specifics of their customers’ needs.

Visibility 

For many years, accepted practice was that reps were unable to fully understand how their targets were generated, or how at any point in the month they were performing relative to their targets. This is still true in many organizations and it becomes a more exaggerated problem with more complicated incentive plans. In these situations, it becomes difficult for reps to be able to correlate their activity with their payouts and to modify their behavior accordingly.

To remedy this situation and allow reps to better connect their actions to their rewards, forward-thinking companies are using dashboards that can calculate incentive payouts in real time. At any time, reps can log in and see how and where they stand relative to their monthly, quarterly, or yearly quotas, and adjust their behaviors accordingly. Managers have access to those same numbers and can coach proactively, helping the reps who need assistance.

Some organizations have even created goal-setting modules, in which reps can enter a number they’d like to earn for the month or quarter, and the dashboard instantly displays a variety of potential pathways to that particular goal.

When reps can instantly understand how their sales activities will be rewarded, they end up more motivated to focus on the customers that matter and they create the connections that power their organization’s bottom line.

Forecast consistency

In most sales organizations, change remains a constant. People come and go, market priorities shift, products enter and leave the market, accounts move through the pipeline at different rates. As a result, it’s inordinately difficult for sales leaders to produce accurate sales forecasts.

This is important because sales forecasts often drive so many other decisions: how many reps to hire, which accounts to focus on, how to draw territories, and so on.

When the above two processes are in place, however—fast, individualized quotas and visibility into performance—reps tend to stay with the organization. This lets sales leaders more reliably plan ahead, which itself tends to produce more accurate sales forecasts. The result is a kind of snowball effect: More accurate forecasting helps ensure that reps’ quotas are more accurate, which encourages reps to stay, which drives more accurate forecasting.

In addition, today’s powerful software allows sales leaders to effectively model potential changes to their sales plans, and use “what if” scenario planning to evaluate the effects of potential disruptions before they occur.

In all cases, the result is a more stable organization.

Data in the world of humans

As these examples indicate, the increasing use of advanced technology in sales organizations need not be understood as a way to replace the human connection at the heart of the sales experience. Rather, an effective use of big data and advanced calculations can end up empowering a sales team to be more human, more energized, more committed to their customers, and more loyal to the organization.

Does the future of sales belong to big data, or does it belong to human connection? For now, the answer seems to be: both.

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