Boffins Discover Recipe For Sales Software Of The Future

The world of sales software and sales practices is like an island kingdom, secure and comfortable.  But on multiple horizons, we catch a glimpse of the future.  And the future of sales is likely to be different than what we take for granted now.  It is the view of this writer that sales governance, sales technology, sales practices and sales self-understanding wlll all undergo major evolution. 

Today, let's look at one of the four anticipated changes on the island of sales: that of sales technology.  Intriguingly, our search for sources of positive change will lead us unexpectedly to the world of scientific writing and pharmaceutical research.  

But first, let's look particularly at technology that supports the individual sales rep.  On the criteria that such technology should support the two key productivity leverage points of the individual sales rep, "story support" and "low latency task staging", sales software fails to deliver.  This posting will explore briefly the reason for this failure, and then some exciting innovations that could open the way to positive change.

Two Secrets Of Great Sales Software

Sales reps need to keep many stories "in flight".  On a forecast call as a sales rep you might be called to reprise your top five opportunities, and details on any of several dozen.  A sales rep's job is very much about maintaining and progressing stories, "up or out".  And thus any successful sales technology should be great at "story" or "narrative support".  Better story support means "more stories".  And more stories opens the possibilities of more "happy endings",, which are deal closings and satisfied customers!

Except there is no sales software billed as such and which provides story support. 

The second major leverage point for the sale rep is "low latency task staging", which is a technical way of defining "what do do next".  A sales reps' job is typically to execute in any given day, as high a volume as possible, good quality sales tasks.  These sales tasks are often similar to each other, for example making a call, but conducted uniquely in the context of the story.  And the key to leverage here is "low latency", which is a reference to the fact that for many reps, buried in a sea of disorganized stories and facts, identifying the next high value thing to do, and assembling the understanding necessary to executing that task, is much too time consuming.

One Sad Secret Of The Sales Profession

A recent study by McKinsey, referenced in this blog (, suggested that much of the time sales reps aren't even selling.  Your host explains part of this frustrating situation by reference to software.  If software for sales reps is to truly succeed, it needs to address the real use case needs of the sales rep.  And these needs or leverage points are again, "story support" and "low-latency task staging". 

These two sales leverage points focus on the critical high volume daily activities of the sales rep.  In contrast however, most sales software is focused elsewhere, and concerns the lower volume transactioning of bookings and contract management and forecasting, certainly important and especially of interest to management.  But these lower volume are issues of sales management and sales governance -- not the work of sales execution that leads to deals. 

You could compare sales software with software that might be used to book operating theatres in a hospital.  However important being able to book an operating room is, that software is not really relevant to what happens in the operating room, or the work done by a surgeon.  You wouldn't say that "operating room booking software" is also "surgical-support software".  But we do say that "sales booking software" is synonymous with "sales software".  It's the difference between the organizational context and true front line support.  (The picture painted here is a little black and white to be sure, and often so-called contact management software is more tuned to front-line sales reps' tasks.  But ironically, contact management software is often used by individual reps in parallel to corporate mandated systems -- as a personal survival tactic.)

Now We Know That Sales Success Is Due To The Right Balance Of Bodily Humors

For readers outside North America or who may not have seen the original TV skit on Saturday Night Live, "bodily humors" is a reference to a hilarious skit by actor Steve Martin.  Martin played Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber"You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors . . . " 

Current sales practices are certainly not medieval, but in our understanding of sales it's not clear that we are much beyond bodily humors yet.   Most sales understanding today can be described as "folk wisdom", which is not to deride that understanding.  One does not survive in sales without mastering the wisdom of the guild of sales.  But being a member of the guild does not mean that sales as practised is delivering the best possible result to host organizations -- or even the most satisfaction to professional sales people. 

There is a lot to say and learn about the question of sales governance, but right now, let's look at how sales self-understanding or sales theory might be enhanced and what impact that knowledge could have on sales software.

Rhetoric, Or "Sales In Ancient Greece"

If there is yet no serious, useful and defensible "theory of sales", where might we begin in our quest for a better foundation for sales software?

Sales is very much about persuasion, and we have at hand the traditional body of knowledge about persuasion, which is rhetoric.  From ancient times through until only a few generations ago, the study of rhetoric and argumentation was considered to be an important part of any good education.  Interestingly sales' sister community in marketing seems to have a much higher awareness of rhetoric.  But rhetoric is only one of several disciplines that might contribute to a general theory of sales; other helpful domains of knowledge for sales theory and sales self-understanding include anthropology, literary criticism, discourse theory, deconstructionism, systems theory, etc., to name a few. 

The practical-minded reader who is still with us and who is also a sales rep might be asking at this point how theories of rhetoric and anthropology could possibly lead to better sales software for the individual sales rep! 

There are two answers to this question, a sarcastic answer and a serious answer. 

And the sarcastic answer is that "any sales software is likely better than the sales software we have now". 

But a more serious answer would be that all these disciplines contribute in some way to the two leverage points identified earlier: "story support" and "low-latency task staging".  Among these potentially helpful disciplines are those that are substantially about "narrative" or "story".  And other useful disciplines concern the ability to model "work, task and agency".  So on the basis of great story support and task staging, for the first time ever the software designer will have the domain model supporting the software that needs to be built.  (Whether the software actually will get built and used is a separate question of sales governance, and outside the scope of this post.)

Three Boffins Ride To Rescue

Recent work, oddly enough championed by boffins mainly in the pharmaceutical industry and in the world of academic publishing, has resulted in three technical developments that are directly related to the project described here.  These three interesting technical developments are:

1. Annotation Software: Most people have the experience of using sticky notes -- and losing them  But in a variety of settings, including nicely the latest version of Adobe's Reader X we are seeing the systematic arrival of annotation software.  No form or document can capture a priori the richness of reality encountered by anybody in the course of their day. If software technology is to fully realize it's potential, one has to be able to capture the streaming "bits of life", or annotations, as the day progresses.  So-called "social software", currently experiencing a bit of a backlash due to inflated expectations, is a kind of annotation software, although with emphasis on the group before the individual.

2. Nano-Publications (Nanopubs):  We are beginning to see the development of so-called "nano-publications" ("nanopubs") which are the identifications of individual statements related to pharmaceutical research.  In the world of pharmaceuticals, the result is that individual research papers can be disassembled into a machine-readable collection of statements, which can then be searched and assessed by both machines and humans.  But instead of scientific claims, one can imagine nanopub statements mined from sales diaries such as "New Acme Corp. budget expected in Q3" or "Extra technical support helped solve problem in January" or "Helen has the budget".  Nanopubs can be seen as a semantic layer that adds additional value on top of annotations.

3. Rhetorical Modelling:  Most excitingly, work by Anita de Waard, Disruptive Technologies Director, Elsevier Labs and others presents a model of the scientific paper as "story plus data", where the story is very much about "persuasion" or "rhetoric".  And Ms. Waard's presentation of this work includes annotated scientific papers which have been "marked up" for standard "rhetorical forms".

de Waard has a marvellous comparison of the compositional elements of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and a scientific paper on something called "The AXH Domain".  Your host's reaction was that the analysis -- and envisioned software -- can just as easily, or even more easily, apply to sales stories!  

A rhetorical ontology applied to annotations and nanopubs opens the possibility to even more semantic enrichment.  And semantic enrichment is exactly what is required for narrative or story support and task staging.

Scientific Papers Are Stories Too . . .

Excerpt from Page 3, "Stories, that persuade with data.", Anita de Waard, Elsevier Labs, 2nd May, 2011, highlights added.

What are the implications of these three software technical innovations for sales software? 

Clearly your host has identified these innovations as exciting and relevant because of their implication for the construction of better sales software.  Everything that is being done by Elsevier for the scientific paper can be equally done to a set of sales notes. 

With the growth of remote sales (and the fact that many reps are very fast typists), many sales reps are adept at keep near-complete records of phone conversations -- which can then be mined for story construction.  Some of the markup and annotation can be done automatically, and some may be assisted by humans.  But the result is the capture of a wonderfully rich vein of information about sales relationships, which can be used in many, many ways.

Consider the state of the art in sales, where a huge portion of any sales reps' day is spent figuring out what to do next, or possibly doing something, but not necessarily the most important thing.  And consider too that much of what is done is lost in the memory of the rep, never to be recorded -- in large part because there's no where to record it outside the mind, where it could be easily retrieved and contextualized later.  So organizational sales memory is really the memory of individual reps, and at the end of a quarter, the usual turnover and shredding of memories takes place.

Sticky, Story-Based Fast-Cycle Sales Processes

For the first time, on the basis of the innovations listed here, software can be envisioned for sales people, software which directly supports the rep in his or her work in sales.  For the first time, a sales rep could have software that would make it easy to track stories, and the dramatic ups and downs of a relationship with prospect or customer.  And it would be easy to annotate special aspects of a story, in ways that are easily retrieved later.  And because the sales reps' sales system is "aware" of story arc and task, staging important, contextualized tasks for action would happen very quickly.  Stress around information overload would diminish while face-time, something that most sales reps treasure almost as much as commissions, would increase. And the summary result of all these changes should be more sales interactions, more effectively , best of all leading to more deals in less time!

Another time, we can discuss some of the challenges of implementing the software imagined here.  Assume for a moment that the software can be built, there will still be major issues of sales governance.  We are seeing now the rise of BYOD ("Bring Your Own Device"), and there are major questions about who owns the information in a sales reps' head.  Unlike the usual situation today, where sales software is difficult to use, the availability of easy-to-use sales software will only highlight the question of data ownership.

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