This article originally appeared on HBR.org.
Despite companies spending billions annually on technology to try to systematize operations, business-to-business sales remains remarkably ad hoc and opaque.
Sales leaders routinely are surprised when they lose renewals from key accounts, or a product launch falls short of goals, or sales representatives miss cross-selling opportunities. Most sales organizations struggle to see what is coming through the pipeline for next quarter, or what their army of salespeople is actually working on.
Vendors of customer relationship management (CRM) technology have built a $60 billion global industry around such problems. Every major B2B company invests millions each year in sales technologies, yet 62% of 167 companies surveyed recently by Bain & Company said the return on their investment fell short of expectations. What companies hoped would be an intelligent CRM system ends up being used as a simple accounting and workflow management system. They’ve bought a high-octane car but lack driver training.
This is the situation that a global technology firm found itself in during 2015 after a large merger. It had lofty targets to expand revenues, and it had two salesforces, strong in their own ways yet different in culture and go-to-market approach. While the merger would take quarters, if not years, to complete, the salesforce was charged with moving faster, to create a new pipeline within weeks.
In stepped a small sales operations team. Tasked with combining all the separate customer data sets into one, the team could see where untapped opportunities existed. They proposed using data-informed sales plays—each one a coordinated set of actions to create and win an opportunity at a specific customer or prospect—in order to change how the sales system worked. The data included estimated spending by each individual customer and major prospect, which far exceeded the spending that the company already captured.
Sales plays had been kicking around the company for a while, mainly for high-stakes situations: in advance of a potentially tough quarter, to force reps to push a specific product line, or for a big product launch. The sales operations team had tracked plays, figured out which ones worked, and amplified those while sidelining dud plays.
Notably, the team saw how different corporate functions were forced to collaborate on devising and executing a play. The need for coordination meant that standing playbook teams met weekly, and the different functions rallied around one goal.
The team’s insights provided an edge in where, what, and how the company should sell. Sales plays replaced guesswork with reliable leading indicators and detailed guidance on the next best action. Senior sales leaders had confidence to make precise changes ahead of results, not afterward. The company soon began posting consistent gains in sales growth and market share that exceeded those of competitors and their own post-merger expectations.
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