Brokerage Ops the July/August 2016 issue

Robots Don’t Sell

A customer relationship management system can be essential at a certain point. The key is to embrace a human process first.
By Brian Comerford

Producers tell you the CRM system is cumbersome, requires too many steps or is useless to their sales process. Then they tell you “IT should fix it” and that they’re simply not going to use it—unless, of course, the agency invests in a Cadillac product that every salesperson can’t stop talking about.
Since there are no actual mandates in place requiring accountability with CRM, the producer has free license not to use it. And since the agency operates on profits generated by its producers, no one in management is terribly eager to undertake responsibility for doling out dictates to ensure accountability.

Leaving CRM alone assures the problem remains an “IT issue.” Does any of this sound familiar?

If the subject of customer relationship management is a corrosive theme at your firm, it may be time to ramp up the level of empathy required to understand your producers’ experiences, challenges and thought processes. Start with a guiding inquiry: what is it we are trying to accomplish? Then let the discussion around sales strategy begin. The ultimate objective is to embrace a sales process, not a technology process.

Start with a guiding inquiry: what is it we are trying to accomplish? Then let the discussion around sales strategy begin.

Resistance may first emerge in the form of product-specific chatter. This is immediately recognizable with phrases such as, “If only we had Product X.” When this happens, redirect the discussion back to your guiding inquiry. There are great products available but no silver bullets. The solution comes in the form of clearly defining what success looks like for your sales organization. Customer relationship management, after all, is really just an underlying strategy applied by salespeople to learn more about existing and potential customers’ needs in an effort to develop resilient relationships. This strategy often includes technology; however, customer relationship management is not synonymous with a technology system.

Strategy Is Inherent in Good Sales

Another point of resistance might appear when the sales team cries foul for being tasked with creating a sales strategy in the first place. You might hear that producers feel strategy should be the responsibility of top management. Nod your head and listen, then use this affirmation: good salespeople are ultimately good strategists.

They may not describe themselves in those terms, but every effort in the sales process follows a strategic orientation—or on-the-fly strategic redirection—as each unique sales opportunity might require.

Here are a few questions to ask your sales team so they can conduct a strategy check, which in turn helps get to good requirements:

  • Why do we care about the customer experience?
  • What activities could improve the customer experience?
  • What are three critical behaviors necessary to achieve your definition of success?
  • What are the three most perilous inhibitors of achieving this success?
  • What is required from CRM to augment sales effectiveness?
  • Are these things the same for everyone in sales?

Similarly, mapping out the journey of the current sales process easily identifies where opportunities exist for improvement (in lieu of wholesale changes). This fits hand-in-glove with strategy development when, as an exercise, the sales team describes the “perfect” sales experience at your agency. Walk through the entire process.

Gradually this might even include a features list of what should be included. Before long, a clearly defined sales strategy begins to emerge.

A natural theme should materialize. Producers universally agree CRM is more imperative than ever because a much broader range of relationship data can now be considered. Data, of course, are your agency’s greatest asset, and no data are more prominent than customer data.

The digital age brings new visibility into the customer relationship. Preferences based on industry type, location, affiliate networks, desired frequency and method of interaction are all factors that contribute to greater sales intelligence. Existing clients in one line of business may be ideal prospects for another, identified by detailed, quality data points. Adding these dimensions to the other common relationship metrics typically gathered begins to shape an image of a sales lead much richer than an ordinary purchasing target. Suddenly these new inputs correlate to very specific customer behaviors and needs, thus enabling producers to provide exactly what customers want even if customers haven’t directly articulated it. In due course, that translates into a highly satisfactory customer experience.

As a matter of ordinary discussion, the sales team has thus now arrived at its own preferred future state objective, and voilà—the first draft of a sales strategy is complete.

Now comes the gruesome part. Once your team is clear on what it is trying to solve, it needs to identify who will make sure the new strategy is executed. The bottom line: Someone has to do the hard work now that the team knows what it wants to undertake. Because time and money are involved, ownership needs absolute clarity.

Ownership is more than a stakeholder for a business case or a champion for a system. Ownership implies there is one throat to choke when it comes to authoring guidelines, enforcing rules of engagement, determining which information is required in the database, conducting training and undertaking the all-important (and often overlooked) facilitation of change management. Ownership can be a single executive sponsor, or it can be a sales leadership committee. Whatever its form, its existence is the most powerful insurance against the high failure rates so many companies experience with their CRM initiatives.

If your agency determines it is a journey worth taking, your producers will quickly understand how a well-defined strategy for system-oriented automation can help them acquire new relationships, enhance existing relationships and retain clients. At its core, that is the essence of customer relationship management. And while a machine may be the hub, it’s people—not robots—who form these relationships so important to quality customer experience.

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