As I researched and wrote Getting the Most Out of CRM: Best Practices for Wholesaler-Distributors, I had the opportunity to gather insights from hundreds of distributor executives, and I quickly learned two critical factors for successful CRM implementations. First, as discussed in my previous article in Industrial Distribution, CRM success begins long before implementation with a well-designed strategy that targets specific growth opportunities and clearly defines the required sales behaviors. Second, CRM implementation is hard and takes time.
Today’s CRM systems hold considerable promise for wholesaler-distributors, but success cannot be gained without well-planned execution and follow through. The lessons I learned from experienced distributors are summarized below, and offered with the goal of helping other distributors learn from the best practices that can help distributors use CRM to improve salesperson performance, upgrade sales management and connect sales leadership with real-time date for making better and faster decisions.
Be Prepared: The Three Phases of CRM Implementation
Successfully implementing CRM takes time because it requires sales people to change their behaviors. Top performing sales people will resist because their personal methods are tried and true. Technology-averse sales people will push back because they are uncomfortable with software and devices. And virtually all sales people are skeptical and suspicious, knowing in their hearts that CRM is really about micromanaging their efforts and second-guessing their decisions!
But there is good news. The battles that must be fought are known and the mistake of early CRM adopters need not be repeated. As the president of one wholesaler-distributor explained, “Barriers will come up. Plan for them, knock them down, and trumpet successes. Prove that CRM is delivering results.”
Successfully implementing CRM is about learning what works for your business and building credibility with your sales people. Each implementation phase presents unique challenges and requires differing solutions, but every implementation must travel through each step:
- Phase One: Recognize Resistance and Push Forward. Salespeople resist adoption through active and passive means. The goal is to gain initial traction and momentum, then move on.
- Phase Two: Overcome Barriers and Create Success. Barriers to use arise. As they are overcome, success stories emerge and CRM builds real traction in the sales force. In this phase, improved sales effectiveness begins to improve sales and profits.
- Phase Three: Improve Performance and Expand Use. Successes build momentum, raising performance across the entire sales force. CRM expands first as usage rates reach 100% and second as new features are added to address additional challenges and opportunities
Top 10 Methods for Overcoming Barriers for Wholesaler-Distributors
Across all of our research, experienced users of CRM pointed to ten essential methods for overcoming implementation barriers:
- Include active support from leaders. The critical role for leaders is to communicate expectations, align resources and make decisions. Leaders must close the deal with sales people. As one wholesaler-distributor CEO put it, “Make sure your sales teams truly understand the benefits of CRM and how CRM will help them.”
- Develop follow-on training after launch. CRM training begins before launch and continues through all three implementation phases. In fact, CRM training never ends because sales training never ends. All sales training, on any topic, must integrate CRM as an essential part of the sales process.
- Implement face-to-face training. One distributor sales leader argued strenuously for pulling sales people together for CRM training, explaining that “In-person training triples understanding and retention.” Travel is expensive, though, and many distributors reserved hands-on training for initial launch and follow-on training around difficult topics that stretch sales people beyond their comfort zones.
- Add online and telephone training. Lessons learned for making virtual training effective include conducting frequent short training events, buddying up (getting sales people in adjacent territories together) and combining recorded training events with open ended questions that require sales people to apply new knowledge and find creative solutions.
- Include coaching by sales managers. Coaching with real customer data improves sales manager effectiveness. As a VP, Operations of an equipment and parts distributor stressed, “CRM must become central to any and all conversations about customers. If the opportunity doesn’t exist in CRM, then it does not exist at all.” Coaching with data leads to practical solutions and immediate impact.
- Match CRM to your sales process. Some wholesaler-distributors advised that well-documented sales processes should be in place before launching CRM. Others argued that CRM forced their company to adopt disciplined sales processes. Either way, following a sales process designed for each distributor’s business objectives and customer needs, enabled and managed by CRM, is a key element if improving sales results. Have a game plan. Follow it.
- Assign CRM champions. Encouraging sales people to adopt CRM is all about telling success stories. And when offered by top performers, sales people take notice. A wholesaler-distributor president explained the value of champions for overcoming barriers as “Over time, our sales people came to see CRM as a tool for success instead of a tool for monitoring their activities. Getting the confidence of top sale people was essential. Once onboard, we asked them to become CRM champions.”
- Recognize and reward top users. Sales people are achievers by nature, and recognition and rewards should play a key role in implementing CRM. The VP, Sales of a chemical distributor explain his strategy as “We started by offering incentives for using CRM, until sales people discovered that CRM helped them achieve their sales goals. Then, our incentive plans were enough of a reward.”
- Make CRM mandatory. It’s a common question asked by many distributor executives -- shouldn’t I make CRM mandatory? Experienced users answer “yes”, but with a important distinction. It is a critical mistake and unforced error to mandate the use of CRM before 1) you have demonstrated that CRM actually improves sales results for your sales people and, 2) a critical mass of your sales people actively use CRM. Only then, as more than one distributor explained, “CRM can become a condition of employment.”
- Roll our CRM in phases, not all at once. The advice of two wholesaler-distributor executives explain this final bit of advice: “Be prepared for a long and difficult journey. It takes time to get enough information built into the system to start to receive the real payback” and “Stick to it … the end result is worth it!” CRM requires a culture shift, and changing behaviors and attitudes takes time. Modern CRM systems offer a wide range of features and benefits, but it is often a mistake to try to do too much, too fast.
Beyond CRM: The Digital Channel Project
Since publishing Getting the Most Out of CRM: Best Practices for Wholesaler-Distributors, I have had many conversations with wholesaler-distributors that indicate CRM is just one part of an ongoing digital channel evolution. CRM decisions are not made in a vacuum. Often, other tools including e-commerce, social media, data analytics and more are part of an overall strategy. These same distributors are often frustrated because digital tools are conceived and marketed in silos, rather than as part of a comprehensive solution accompanied by a playbook for achieving business results with the distributor business model.
To address these issues, I have just launched my next initiative with the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence -- the Digital Channel Project. We are currently measuring distributor awareness and attitudes around digital tools, and executive interviews will add additional deep insights and experiences. I am also “practicing what I preach”, and sharing findings along the way with the distribution community on the Digital Channel Project’s Knowledge Hub. I am looking for contributions from as many distributors as possible, as well as manufacturer suppliers, and will be sharing results in a future edition of Industrial Distribution magazine. If you would like to take a survey or provide an interview, please reach out to me at my contact information, below.
Mark Dancer is the Founder and President of Channelvation, Inc. Mark helps clients generate ideas and actions that drive growth and profits in complex and changing markets. Mark’s book, Getting the Most Out of CRM: Best Practices for Wholesaler-Distributors, is available from the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence at www.naw.org/crmfordist. Mark can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.