Sep 05 2013

Always Closing: Tech Tools for the Sales Team

The latest tools for collaboration, mobility and analytics help sales teams stay competitive on the go.

From the earliest luggable computers and pagers to today’s sleekest smartphones, one constant has remained in the IT industry: Salespeople and technology innovation are a perfect match.

The reason? Salespeople thrive on gathering minute details about their prospects and customers because even the smallest piece of new information can reap big rewards. This is especially true if it helps tailor the right solution or convince the customer that they’re receiving a targeted treatment.

The latest technologies available to sales staffs go further than ever in helping reps stay in close contact with clients or provide in-depth analyses of an emerging market. These innovations not only strengthen the ties between reps and technologies, they’re becoming disruptive enough to reshape customer relationships.

“There’s now the potential for salespeople to become true partners, trusted advisers that customers turn to for answers to tough business questions rather than just basic sources for information about pricing and availability,” says Greg Walters, president of Walters & Shutwell, a consulting firm that specializes in mobility, communication and business transformation. “This helps salespeople achieve a connection with their clients that’s not easily broken.”

The key for CIOs and senior sales executives is to not just focus on the latest and greatest hardware and software. Instead, it is to understand how a mix of solutions can promote greater success among front-line sellers. That mix includes these top technologies for sales professionals.

Collaboration at the Core

Collaboration solutions are becoming both more readily available and more feature rich, which enables sales staffs to communicate more effectively with coworkers and with customers.

Unified communications (UC) provides a broad platform for communications, offering the ability to mix and match several components:

  • Conferencing, ranging from audio, video and web formats
  • Telephony, including fixed and mobile voice communications
  • Presence information, so parties can quickly locate each other and show their availability
  • Multiplatform support, facilitating a full range of communication across desktop and mobile devices
  • Instant messaging and voice mail capabilities
  • Management and administration tools, for quickly updating contact lists, user profiles and individual accounts

IT managers now have the option of cloud-based UC, sometimes called UC-as-a-service. It lets organizations subscribe to the individual components they need for a set monthly fee rather than a lengthy and potentially expensive implementation process.

Whether cloud-based or an on-premises solution, UC offers a number of benefits for sales staffs. First, reps can stay closely connected with clients without racking up excessive travel expenses, hotel fees and other costs. This reduces overall travel expenses and allows the sales staff to focus on high-return trips to the most lucrative prospects and customers.

UC also enables closer internal communications, especially for sales staffs spread across large geographical distances. Rather than trying to get everyone in a conference room at the same time, UC facilitates virtual meetings anytime everyone has an Internet connection.

“A sales manager may schedule a weekly sales meeting to review forecasts and get updates about customer accounts even with a geographically dispersed sales organization,” says Robert Romano, vice president of global marketing for Avaya, a provider of video, conferencing, messaging and communication solutions. “To really understand what’s going on in a sales organization, managers can create a rich experience using video, so salespeople can show a presentation and see how others are reacting.”

What’s more, maturing industry standards and the cloud can extend communication further to include suppliers, distributors and other partners. “We’re starting to see technologies that allow UC platforms from different vendors communicate with each other,” Romano adds. “Or people that use the same cloud service to traverse boundaries.”

UC Solutions

One standards-based UC example is Microsoft Lync, which unifies voice and video calls, Lync Meetings, presence and IM within a single client. The platform supports Windows PCs, Windows Phone, iOS and Android smartphones, plus a new Lync app for Windows 8 and Windows RT touch devices.

Lync federation also extends UC securely over the Internet to customers, suppliers and partners using Lync or Skype. The solution supports open standards, including H.264 SVC for high-quality video conferencing and lets as many as five participants communicate simultaneously.

Support for industry standards allows integration with other communication platforms. For example, Polycom recently announced interoperability with Lync 2013 and some new Polycom voice solutions, as well as a software extension to the Polycom RealPresence Platform.

The latter supports interoperability between Lync 2013 and the portfolio of Polycom standards-based video collaboration and content-sharing solutions, such as Polycom RealPresence Group Series, executive desktop video systems, mobile video apps and other end points.

Sales organizations can also choose smaller footprint collaboration systems, such teleconferencing solutions that use building blocks many organizations already have in place. This includes inexpensive webcams with built-in microphones on monitors or components embedded in notebooks, tablets and smartphones. The cameras capture users’ streaming video and audio to ease collaboration and provide the benefit of seeing facial expressions and body language.

In addition to real-time communication, sales staff also benefit from platforms for sharing information and managing content. For example, Microsoft SharePoint, a long-time leader in this area, provides a central hub for organizing content and sharing it with people throughout the sales staff.

Other tools help with managing projects, connecting with others in the organization and tracking conversations across the organization, and creating portals and public websites to exchange information with customers and partners.

Doubling Down on Mobility

Salespeople have always been the poster children for anywhere, any time solutions, so it makes sense that this group is reaping big rewards from innovations in mobile devices and apps. Notebooks are now thinner, lighter and more powerful than ever thanks to instant-on, solid-state hard drives, high-performance processors and built-in power-management capabilities.

Of course, notebooks are just one tool in a salesperson’s arsenal for mobile communications. Smartphones and tablets, which let reps stay in constant contact with coworkers and customers, run an increasingly rich portfolio of apps designed to keep essential information readily available.

Enhancing the value of highly portable hardware is a steady stream of innovative software that can make sales staff more effective.

“Mobile applications have progressed far beyond the basic contact management software that individuals would use like electronic Rolodexes,” Walters says. “The top sophisticated sales force automation solutions not only store all of your contacts, they manage prospecting information, purchasing histories and notes about customers that other sales reps may have entered.”

Along with all this new end-user power comes new challenges for IT managers. In addition to giving salespeople the tools they need to stay competitive, technology administrators also must bolster security and enforce company usage policies. This becomes particularly complex in diverse bring-your-own-device (BYOD) environments.

To balance freedom with control, IT teams must update mobility policies so they’re comprehensive enough to address management and support issues, along with any regulatory requirements. They also must provide high levels of security for devices that connect to wireless LANs and other networks that don’t use traditional firewalls.

To jumpstart efforts like these, CDW recently rolled out its Total Mobility Management solution, which provides a suite of best practices, applications and on-demand services for managing and securing mobile users. Options include MaaS360 from Fiberlink, a software-as-a-service mobile device management solution that organizations can launch quickly to control user access, enforce policies, secure devices and perform other essential tasks.

United by Clouds

The cloud gives sales staffs more than just a platform to support UC. By storing client information in a central location, “Upper management can see everything that’s going on across the entire sales staff,” Walters notes. “This enhances the customer experience by keeping salespeople more tuned in to what’s happening with prospects.”

The ability to dynamically allocate resources within a private or public cloud also helps managers quickly cope with new demands for processing power and storage space. “The sales staff typically generates high volumes of transactions at the end of the month, end of the quarter or end of the fiscal year. With clouds, organizations can reallocate resources to handle these spikes,” says Laura DiDio, principal for the analyst consulting firm Information Technology Intelligence Consulting or ITIC.

Cloud-based service for storing and sharing documents can help organizations manage the personal and corporate data captured on mobile devices, DiDio adds. Sales reps create files in these repositories for business information that authorized co-workers can access, while personal data stays safely stored in separate folders.

Business Analytics and Big Data

Many leading hardware and software solutions make it easy for sales professionals to gather and share information. However, just amassing facts and figures about customers and markets doesn’t guarantee business success.

Managers and field reps also must understand the implications of the gathered data, especially whether any emerging buying trends signal new sales opportunities. Sophisticated analytics and tools for processing Big Data offer help in turning raw data into profit-producing insights.

These tools are particularly helpful for sales manager, says Ashish Vazirani, managing principal of the high-tech practice at ZS Associates, a sales and marketing advisory firm. The promise of Big Data is the quantity and quality of insights it can provide to help sales organizations increase productivity and effectiveness — ultimately generating more revenue, he says.

“Platforms for big data are now being positioned to address specific areas around sales, such as territory management, territory planning, quota design and quota allocations,” Vazirani adds. “This can help sales managers do a better job making those kinds of planning or resource decisions.”

But along with understanding the potential of Big Data, sales organizations must also filter out a lot of hype, he cautions. The tools by themselves won’t generate the insights or take the actions required of that insight. In many cases, the data itself can be misleading, Vazirani says. As more and more data is generated, the sales team must ensure the veracity of the data before taking action.

Another factor when selecting analysis tools is how efficiently they will help deliver relevant insights that support the sales process and whether they align with how salespeople engage customers and prospects. These tools are increasingly mobile, so organizations may want to start thinking in terms of "mobile first," Vazirani says.

And finally, it’s crucial to clearly define a sales strategy and then find the best analytical tools to help execute on that plan. “If I want to penetrate a new market, for example, I’ll need to understand what customers offer the greatest market opportunity and what their business needs are,” Vazirani adds. “If I understand all of the decisions that I need to penetrate that market, then I can think about what information is required to make those decisions and what tools or models I need to draw insight from that data.”