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Back in the early days of customer relationship management (CRM) systems, I was a skeptic. Why would I need a technology solution to help me with what I already do best in sales? My sales process, activities, and pipeline were all fine, thank you very much.

At one point in my career, I joined a construction equipment rental company as the vice president of sales, and the CEO expressed his interest in a CRM system. Even though I had had recent success with a turnaround of a CRM system at a previous company, I very much doubted that CRM would work in this particular industry because the construction rental business is a very repetitive type of sale. You acquire an account, but rent equipment to construction companies over time with multiple deals and many different job sites. How would that work with CRM, which I viewed as more of a solution for technology companies?

Of course, the CEO is the boss so I had to check it out. I spent two solid months riding along with salespeople; spending time with sales managers, branch managers, and regional management; and studying their processes. One of the most telling experiences was in salespeople’s trucks: I would reach underneath the seat of the truck, and there were always wads of paper. It was typically a bunch of sales leads! And we’d go through them, and he could tell me which was a good one — or not. Can you imagine? Leads they didn’t even know existed or simply forgot about.

On top of it all, the contact information for the people who actually made the decisions were on a “system” of blue and yellow cards stored in milk crates in the sales reps’ trucks. The blue cards documented accounts, and the yellow cards documented activities and opportunities around the job site. There were all levels of note-taking, too. As for activity planning, it was siloed within each individual salesperson’s calendars and planners with varying levels of actual detail. While all of this may have worked for the individual salesperson, it didn’t work for the company, which needed to know what was really happening with accounts and also about potentially untapped business.

After learning more about the sales process out in the field, I knew CRM had an answer for the company. There was a total lack of visibility that could be corrected with CRM in a way that I hadn’t imagined before, especially for contact management. I took all of the concepts and processes and mimicked them digitally in a CRM program. And you probably won’t be surprised to hear that management loved it right away. Sales reps? It took some time and quite a bit of convincing. But as time went on, they found even more success (more on that in a minute) than they could have imagined with those old blue and yellow cards.

Here’s the really interesting piece to all of this. I’m recounting a story from years ago. But you could go out to many industries and companies and see this same scenario today: an outdated sales system or lack of digitization, with limited visibility and a sales team that is reticent to use CRM. However, throughout my career and experiences, I’ve found the following areas can make a huge difference in getting over the CRM fear factor and making a seamless transition.

Communication is absolutely vital.

Once we decided to move forward with CRM and before we even launched the pilot at the construction equipment rental company, I spent a great deal of time at every sales and management meeting — whatever the level — to talk about what was coming. I told management and senior leadership that this would be an upheaval, and I was committed to not losing our top talent.

At the same time, communication is a two-way street. Don’t just force-feed CRM to a team. Everyone should be involved; they can even be in on things like helping to name and brand the system, reflecting the company culture. The CRM system isn’t an invasion — it’s a new digital member of your team.

You also need to hear what is working and what needs to be improved from the sales reps’ experiences. I would always try to make changes quickly to demonstrate our responsiveness and our commitment. If you want your sales team to use the technology and commit to the program, you also need to be open to the tweaks and changes they may need, too. If they’re frustrated, you’re not going to get far.

You’re not changing the process — only the tools.

Why mess with success? Won’t a CRM system radically change the way we sell?  These are typical questions. I’ve found that CRM isn’t about trying to change the process; it’s all about changing the tools. That point of view is a key difference.

For the construction rental company, I could show reps that they didn’t really lose their treasured blue cards with leads; they were just digital instead. The yellow opportunity cards were also yellow in the CRM system, too. Things don’t (and shouldn’t) radically change. It’s all about moving to the next level, becoming even more productive, and gaining the visibility that simply doesn’t exist otherwise.  

Find carrot-shaped sticks.

Implementing a CRM system is one thing. Getting it into actual use is a whole other ball game. It’s important to start small and know that it will take baby steps. Prioritize what you really want to start documenting and viewing. Sometimes people will talk about using carrots and sticks to motivate change. Personally, I prefer finding carrot-shaped sticks.

Remember those leads that I would pull out from underneath the seat? Many of them were from a third-party lead source. On day one of the CRM deployment, the only way sales could access new leads was through the CRM system. However, it wasn’t only getting their hands on a lead; we put new notifications on the jobs and their stages, whether it was planning, bidding, and so on. Now the lead was even more valuable because the context was there, and they weren’t wasting time. So the motivation started with just getting access to the lead, but reps then found the actual value of using the CRM system for their own prospecting and movement of deals.

Reps discover the payoff.

Over the years, I’ve seen even the most skeptical of reps and management (including myself, of course) finally have an aha moment with CRM. Often one of the first realizations about the benefits is the fact that a sales rep can take ownership of their clients. Sales is a notoriously territorial business. Now, everyone can view who owns which account. And if someone (whether it’s management or a peer) can lend a hand with a deal, they can communicate that in the CRM system.

There’s no question about it: There is a mental shift that has to happen for reps adjusting to CRM. But once you do, there’s a whole new world of productivity and — maybe most importantly — more money. That doesn’t hurt.

The real proof is in the numbers, of course. For the construction rental equipment company, our ramp-up prior to CRM took 11 months for a brand-new sales rep to build monthly revenue up to $70,000 for the assigned territory. Two years after CRM, that ramp was five months to average $100,000 per month. With those type of numbers, you can sign me up for CRM any day.

In the end, remember to always put people first. Let sales reps know that they are the ones who are vital to making the company successful — and a CRM system is one way to help them succeed and be even more productive. The technology isn’t taking over anything. It’s only enabling them to go further.

The CRM system isn’t an invasion — it’s a new digital member of your team.”

Steven Settelmayer | Executive Vice President, FieldLogix

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