Technology is for People

By Bruce Dickes and Mick Occhiuto


The Peril

The peril confronting every industry today rears its ugly head on many fronts. The three C's of Competition, Consumerism, and the Cost of doing business are more powerful than ever.  A fourth C - that of legal and ethical Compliance is here to stay and must be considered in any plans for growth and development.

Non-traditional competitors, manufacturers, and marketers of your products (at least you thought they were your products) are out to build a better mousetrap. It becomes your job to build it first.

Product innovation is a fleeting thing. Just being first to market is no longer good enough. Every year, competitors match and enhance product innovation at a faster and faster clip. The secret is in getting ahead and then finding a way to stay there.

Today's consumers are more educated and aware of the value of product and process than their counterparts from decades past ever dreamed of. And, the availability of information (Consumer Reports, Internet, et. al.) is awesome.

The cost of doing business demands effectiveness and efficiency through bigger-ticket sales, better closing rates, and more focused sales activity. But, how?

Among changing demographics, negative publicity and greater financial demands on the average family, the consumer we meet today still demands face-to-face contact, service, relationships, trusted advisors and a value based analysis of their needs and objectives. The sale should be easier and more straightforward than ever. People have more money. They are better educated and more aware. The things these products help make happen and guard against cost more every day.

Unfortunately, this is where the people part of the equation comes into play - with a vengeance. The sale of your products is more necessary than ever, but people are harder to see, it is more difficult to gain their attention, troublesome to maintain their interest, more problematic to build their desire, and trickier to convince them to take action.

Partly because of the new consumer and partly because of our inability to properly equip our businesses for these new realities, productivity on average is not keeping pace with the cost of doing business. Retention of new employees and 'real' net growth in the traditional company is more challenging than ever.  Without a solid boost to the bottom line, the traditional product delivery system becomes too expensive.

The Opportunity

Technology, hardware and software, has matured to a degree that it provides an opportunity to demonstrate order of magnitude improvements in productivity and overall results. And, it is showing up just in time.

Technological innovation holds the promise of better meeting the needs of the marketplace and developing a more professional employee group and sales force in a shorter timeframe.  Technology cannot passively represent us but can be used as a tool to do what we do best; communicate with people.

So, it seems that all we need to do is buy some laptop computers, load some nifty software, and turn the troops loose. The result should be better productivity, improved retention and more profitable operations.

Unfortunately, this is where real life intervenes. Just throwing a Pentium, MMX, high color graphic, 24X CD, 4.1 gig., zip drive solution at the problem offers no sure success in warding off the barbarians at the gate.  Even if the
technology was easy to implement, the traditional organization has not exactly been ahead of the learning curve when it comes to acceptance of innovative.

Technology is for people. Moreover, all the reasons why technological solutions work and why they fall short can be summed up in one word - people.

The best designed, most elegant solutions can be derailed by the people quotient. A less cutting edge approach, warts and all, can sing in the hands of people who perceive its 'real' value. If we can decipher the people part of the problem, we'll have it licked.

The Stumbling Blocks

The biggest obstacle to successful technological innovation is getting people to adopt the automated tools. The most successful endeavors are those that start with how people work (or how they would like to work) and then buying or building technology that helps them do just that. Technological solutions that recognize the work process and provide intuitive support for it are far more likely to succeed.

The general practice has been to identify a product distribution problem from the vantage point of corporate headquarters, select software designed to improve that problem and then attempt to get the employee group sales force to change the current work process - ouch!

Another dilemma the year 2000 organization faces is finding a reasonable answer to the question, 'If we do what we are now doing - more efficiently - will we get where we are currently going - but faster?'

Thinking outside the nine dots applies here.  Has the distribution work process been confined by boundaries that automation can now remove?  If not, steer clear.

Best Business Practices

The search for best business practices is a must. Automation should focus on the work force first with technology as a means to support them. Automation projects with an internal focus, without direct and active involvement of the work group experience are destined for an uphill, expensive and possibly fatal struggle.

Look to your own company leaders.  While we broadly strategize, they are learning the key elements of effective recruiting, selection, marketing, employee development and relationship building through 'real time' activity.  Look outside your company to the leaders in the industry.  Understand the elements that have been mastered and clone the process.  Do not overlook the less obvious sources for best business practices.

Alternative distribution systems within our own organizations may provide insight into how to build a stronger, more effective organization.  There are also many examples outside your industry of successful sales and distribution processes that have created winning strategies.

Fancy graphics or whiz-bang functionality are no match when pitted against people, their feelings and motivators.  The euphoria of spinning logos, flaming logos, floating 3D-animated graphics wear off quickly. When the smoke clears after intense training, employees will ask the tough question, 'Is this making me more productive and more profitable?'

Another point that becomes increasingly clear is that automation is only as good as the person who uses it and only to the degree it supports them. Critical to long term acceptance is understanding the present work process position of your current work force and estimating the range of the change that will be expected.

Change and the Paradigm Shift

Employee and sales force automation requires change.  Without significant change to process, real, meaningful, lasting improvement may not be possible.  Just automating what currently exists guarantees more of the same.

Sales force automation provides an excellent window of opportunity to address the significant issues that plague the work force today.  A reevaluation of practices and processes coupled with strategically developed automation is the one best way to realize material, order of magnitude improvements in productivity - and therefore bottom line profitability for the employee and company.

Change will occur - resistance is natural and to be expected.  It should be managed and will require a tough moving forward attitude 'forcing' the change points as part of the implementation plan.  Recognizing that change is the catalyst to exceptional results and placing change management on an equal plane with technology when planning any automation project will lessen the pain and increase the speed of acceptance.

Know the Scope

Technology doesn't do anyone any good if it does not fit the need. Any automation has to start with the end user or customer in mind. The scope of the change should be decided on in advance and used as a guidepost in developing the final delivery. Remember the big picture and begin with the end in mind.  This strategy should help you minimize throwaway, even if some of your solutions have a limited shelf-life.

Top-Management Support

Can technological innovation be delegated?  After all, delegation is the sign of a significant leader.  Above all other considerations, this issue of top-management support must be seriously evaluated before one dollar is allocated to the project.  Support must be more than lip service.  Actions speak louder than words.  Vision and leadership cannot be delegated and must be shared, believed in and acted on passionately at all levels of leadership.

The buck stops at the top in a project this big.  Business accountability for the success of a Sales Force Automation project rests on the shoulders of the Executive team.

Timely Implementation

The speed at which technology changes today is blinding.  The first personal computer began to influence the business world less than 20 years ago.  Microchips and processors with ultrasonic speed as well as software exist and are commonly sold today that were virtually unheard of just months ago.

With this reality comes a brief window of opportunity.  The usual long-term automation project needs to be strategically deployed in rapid-fire segments to get the greatest benefit in the quickest period.  Rapid development and rocket speed deployment diminishes the chance that technology will drop the curtain on you before you have made a productive impact on your sales force.

Applications that have a direct impact on productivity and therefore revenue should be considered in a one-year development and deployment timeframe.  This means the all too usual 'let's try it and see' attitude when approving funding will need to take a more risky long term look at this necessary jump into the future.

The Consequences of Failure

The price of Sales Force Automation failure is measured on a grand scale.  Some of the impact is measurable and still others are not so obvious.  The expected impact is loss of revenue, time and people deployed to the project.

The less measurable impact is found in an agencies inability to compete for qualified candidates, loss of trust with current sales force from a failed attempt and the related production and growth associated with these attitude driven issues.

The consequences of not automating can be far more damaging. There have been organizations that were slow to adopt the telephone, the fax machine, the automobile, air travel, e-mail, and other new-fangled inventions until they no longer recognized their own businesses.

The Consequences of Success

Success comes at a cost, too.  You will no longer be working the way you used to. Your expectations will have expanded. There may be others who find it difficult to make the transition. If successful, your business will not be the same place. Be prepared to grieve a little for what no longer exists, but don't let it get in the way of progress.

Pilot Everything

Take no chances!  Pilot everything!  Learn and adjust during real live pilot testing.  Involve a willing group of pioneers to assist without question by using the complete system including the process changes that are designed alongside the technology.

Clearly, define in advance - the range of change you would expect from your participants.  Define the expected commitment and be thoughtful about what you say here.  Make a valid estimate of the time and pain commitments expected and then gain a firm agreement to participate blindly.

Expect and provide avenue for feedback - unchallenged, unjudged feedback.  Provide an open line of communications of what is to come, what has occurred and what results are being achieved.  Remember these are sales people who have egos and expect positive strokes.  Reward achievement!  Analyze performance and process deviations and develop action plans for retraining.  Provide passionate talented support to assist the implementation process.

A friend who owned an upscale franchise eatery and saloon once told me that when he started with the firm, they sent in a 'start-up' team that lived on-site for the first 30 days.  They assisted in setup of the equipment and systems.  They helped secure the initial employee staff and were there to advise during the opening week of operation.  He attributes his 'fast start' success to this small contribution from the parent firm.

We may not have the luxury of a 'start-up' team - but we can consider the development of a traveling team of 'guardian angels' who help the on-site team implement this new system and process to our mutual advantage.

Participation and Ownership - Transfer Ownership Early

The ability to produce meaningful results will depend on who feels accountable for the results.  As mentioned earlier, the accountability for a Sales Force Automation project rests at the top.  Likewise, accountability for the implementation of systems and processes designed for field improvement lies with the individual field managers. 

Accountability is for individuals - not groups.

Clarify the responsibilities for which the field manager will be held accountable - both physically and philosophically.  State your expectations in clear, concise terms and include measurable checkpoints and timeframes.

Discuss the consequences for meeting or failing to meet the agreed upon checkpoints and take action immediately to reward or reprimand on a timely schedule.  Be immediate, objective and emotionally clear.  Accountability requires consistent reinforcement from top project and sales management if
results are to be realized.

Expect Casualties

A key to success is in communicating expectations, not just regarding the tools being developed, but how people will employ them and what life will be like when the implementation is complete.

Not everyone will make it to the other side - but remember a decision has been made about the necessity for change. Associates and peers will gnash teeth and resist the change.  Expect it!  Understand that people resist being changed and help them go through the phases of acceptance.

A time may come when you must make a decision to continue implementation with or without the complainers.  You have very little time to think about it and must make these decisions carefully but quickly.

In a successful implementation of sales automation, one of the top sales people in a particular organization was overheard lamenting the loss of the 'good old days' in a public forum.  'I've been selling for years!' he groaned loud enough for all within earshot to hear, 'I never needed any machine to tell me what my customers needed.'  He paused for effect and made certain he had an audience, 'We were trained to use our sales instincts!'

This person's attitude should be considered a normal resistance to the change being handed his direction.  Your challenge is control his method of reacting without being forced to sacrifice him as an associate.  Carefully weigh the impact of this open display on the audience against the potential this top producer -- after the change has been implemented.

It is always difficult to evaluate and make decisions during a technology implementation because your paradigm will only allow you to think in terms of the 'before' and you will find it very difficult to envision the 'after' but you should - expect casualties - at the onset.

What to do When Real Life Intervenes

Wanting change to occur will not automatically make it so. Adding automation and technology to the mix just makes it more uncomfortable when push comes to shove (and it always does). The hard part is the every day, take the necessary steps, make the critical decisions, grind it out and do it stuff that lasting successful change requires.

This is high-stakes stuff. There isn't a magic wand that will make it fun or get us past the change without a few bumps in the road. It's always easy for most of us to procrastinate making the tough decisions . . . or put off until tomorrow making the necessary changes. Rationalization and half-measures are easy when business has to go on.

Real life always intervenes. But, a well-thought-out plan (if you really believe in it) has to take precedence. Otherwise, we will never get beyond the comfortable today to the tomorrow that your plan should describe.

It's the Process, Stupid

Don't get hung up on the notion that effective implementation of technology all by itself can bring major improvement for your business.  That is not in the cards.  It's not about the technology!  It's not about the machine or its powerful capabilities.  It's not about the custom built software or the speed and throughput made available by the latest development in microchips.

Do you understand how the new hardware and software will integrate with the work you do?  Do you understand the work you do?  Often, we don't!

Remain focused on the process.  Ask questions that identify if you are supporting the correct way to do business - in your industry.  Does the technology force you to work around it to do your job?

It is all about enabling technology - that's the stuff that helps someone do a better job or a different job than they've ever done before. So, if the technology can't enable the process (or if you're not sure what the process is or ought to be),  you need to beware. You will be setting yourself up for a major disappointment or worse. Remember - it's always the process that really matters!

The Wright Brothers kept track of every attempt they made, both failed and successful.  They understood more about flying than maybe anyone else.  Their ability to ultimately guide us into air travel had more to do with a careful commitment to process and less to do with inventor's stumbling luck we often attribute a great discovery to.

There are no rules for this high-wire act of reinventing how your business gets done. The risks may look enormous, but the risks of inaction are even greater. The eyes-wide-open business professional needs to understand that automation by itself is no cure-all. By paying attention to these critical issues, chances are far greater that the result will be beneficial to the organization, its customers and the employees who need to carry them out.

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Copyright 1998 - 1999 by Merritt-Gentry Group

Thank you for requesting this article from Merritt-Gentry Group. This was guest written by two well known Insurance Professionals who have first hand experience with sales force automation.  Bruce Dickes is a well known author in the insurance industry. Merritt-Gentry will feature other articles from Bruce.  Mick Occhiuto has been instrumental in the design and development of a sales force automation suite deployed at the Mutual of Omaha Companies. Both understand the insurance business from the field to executive level positions from first hand experience. For assistance in getting your sales force automation project off the ground, visit Merritt-Gentry Group at or contact by email to

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