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People still buy from people – not from computers

Willy Loman’s school of salesmanship teaches that “the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want”.

Loman, Arthur Miller’s ill-fated salesman, trawled New England with a shoe shine and a smile, and the only technology he had to face was a tape recorder with his boss’s grandson gurgling.

Today’s Willie Loman faces racks of iPads and smartphones, software that monitors his calls and his diary, and in-house social networks where he shares his contacts with the rest of the team.

“There’s always been a big debate about selling – is it an art or a science?” says Sean Farrington, UK managing director of QlikTech. “These days it’s definitely becoming more and more scientific. Every good sales department has CRM [customer relationship management] software, which is basically adding science to the art. The question is what else have you got?”

CRM software has been around in one form or another for almost 30 years. Originally known as database marketing, it’s essentially a tool for digitising and sharing as many aspects of the old school sales role as programmers can replicate, from appointments diaries to contacts books to customer loyalty rewards to leads and tips.

At the hard end, it’s known as sales force automation, responsible for anything from computerised cold calls to in-house social networks knitting together business-to-business sales teams, and sharing their information and activity.

This is important: “Some 83 per cent of sales managers got their job because they were good at selling,” explains Russell Ward, chief executive of Silent Edge. “They don’t have HR training. Technology allows them to be better team managers – spotting who needs help, who’s performing well, where the weaknesses are and how to deal with them.”

It took the arrival of the 2008 financial crisis for technology to really replace the shoe shine as the key ingredient of a successful sales cycle, according to Richard Kenny, managing director of TSA Europe. “That’s when everyone had to get smarter in the way they bought and sold – and had to work out the true value of each customer.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this sort of attention has shown up basic CRM’s weakness; it’s great at measuring what’s already happened, it’s not so good at helping people sell better. “The best sales people are the ones who seek out information about customers to build a better relationship and understand what they’re going to need. The clues are out there, but finding them is a time-consuming process,” says Andrew Yates, chief executive of Artesian, a cloud-based CRM service that monitors the web and social media for sales triggers.

“The info you can get from traditional business information providers is quite staid, often out of date and not useful in identifying critical points. The information is out there – blogs, social networks, thousands of newspapers… if you get that right, you can give the customer the experience of shopping in their local family butcher where they know what you like and are eager to help.”

These days selling is definitely becoming more and more scientific

Over on America’s West Coast, some companies are using technology to rethink the most fundamental part of selling – the commission. A study involving Goodyear Tires’ sales team, by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), shows that cold hard cash rewards tend to deliver less impressive sales performance than other rewards, from tangible incentives, like a beach holiday, to paid time working on areas of personal interest.

John Whitehead, solutions manager at CallidusCloud, a cloud-based software company, argues that technology provides the solution through a process he calls “gamification of sales”.

“Gamification, with its reliance on points, badges, leader boards and rewards, appeals to human desires for fun, competition, interaction and achievement,” he explains. November sees the company launch MySalesGame, which sets “levels” and “missions” in a company’s CRM software, such as sales staff adopting best practice, reaching milestones and hitting targets. Those finishing a mission or a level should get rewards from peer recognition on social collaboration platforms or dinner with the chief executive.

CRM software giant is taking this one step further and using technology to identify and reward socially influential staff members for their popularity. Salesforce’s internal social networking hub, Chatter, reviews how “influential” all staff are by tabulating how often and how usefully fellow employees respond to items posted on the network. To reward and learn from home-grown mavins, chief executive Marc Benioff invites the company’s top 20 to the annual retreat he hosts offsite for executives.

If this sounds a little like an electronic Big Brother monitoring every key stroke, you shouldn’t worry, soothes Ofer Guetta, IBM’s social collaboration leader. “Social doesn’t replace human contact – it enhances it,” he says.

“Think of all the replicated hours spent working on presentations, sending different reps to different departments of the same company, helping new employees find their feet and become useful, and researching leads or contacts only to find that information is lost when a top exec takes a new job with a rival.” The company’s own software, IBM Connect, even allows clients into areas of the in-house network to share thoughts on new products.

Which is something Willy Loman could have done with. The poor guy wore himself out driving store-to-store across the whole of New England. These days, he could work out what the big stores need before he sets out. He’ll still need to set out though. “At the end of the day, people buy from people,” Mr Ward, of Silent Edge, concludes. “No computer will ever replace the pleasure of a handshake sealing the deal.”