The No. 1 Reason Not to Buy a CRM? You Haven't Defined a Sales Process - Modern Distribution Management

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The No. 1 Reason Not to Buy a CRM? You Haven’t Defined a Sales Process

Without a sales process, even a purpose-built distribution CRM won't deliver. Benj Cohen shares tips for how to guarantee CRM ROI.
Sales Process (oatawa from Getty Images via Canva)

For years, has seen many distributors reap ROI from investment in customer relationship management software. One distributor we worked with achieved a solid return on their CRM in less than two months. 

But before rushing into a CRM purchase and expecting the same results, we caution that not everyone is ready for it.  

When we speak to distributors looking to buy a CRM, we ask everyone the same thing: “What’s your sales process?” It might seem simple, but this question is a game-changer. 

If you know how you sell, you’re ready for a CRM. It’s like knowing the recipe before you start cooking. Without this, even the best CRM won’t help much. When we’ve seen distributors transform their sales process with a CRM, making everything run smoother and faster, they weren’t starting from zero. They had a basic sales process in place and were looking to amplify it. A CRM isn’t about going from 0 to 1; it’s about accelerating from 1 to 100. 

Technology Shouldn’t Create Processes For Distributors 

Technology is key to many parts of a distribution business. Distributors depend on technology daily. However, your tech tools are there to improve and streamline existing processes, not create them from scratch. A well-chosen CRM can help coordinate sales efforts across your team, automate routine tasks, and provide insights into how effectively you’re moving opportunities through your sales pipeline. The notion that a CRM will magically instill a sales process is a misconception. 

Distributors who buy a CRM hoping a sales process will come with it are likely to be disappointed. 

We feel so strongly about this that we advise distributors against buying our product if they can’t describe their sales process. 

When we share this standpoint with distributors, it often prompts deeper inquiry. We’ve received questions like this one: You mentioned that distributors’ success with a CRM is dependent on our sales process. Can you elaborate? While we do have a sales process, we want to make sure we understand your perspective and don’t miss something critical to our success. 

Our perspective: In simple terms, if you have a step-by-step plan that you consistently follow to close deals, you’ve got a sales process. If you have a pipeline workflow you’re rigorous about, you have a sales process mature enough to justify a CRM. 

4 Practices to Enhance a Distributor’s Sales Process’s perspective is that having a pipeline process is sufficient before launching a CRM. But when we chat with distributors and find out they’re not just stopping there — they’re also tackling one or more of these four practices — we get excited. It tells us they’re not just ready for a CRM; they’re poised to really harness its capabilities. These practices can be very difficult to manage without a CRM. So, if you’re already working on any of these strategies, you’re not just ready for a CRM; you’re ready to take full advantage of everything it has to offer, pushing your sales process from good to great. 

  1. Alignment between managers and sales reps on the pipeline process: When managing larger opportunities, managers and sales reps follow an aligned workflow that includes sales stages, an established update frequency, and a pipeline review cadence.  
  2. Established lanes for each rep: Every sales rep understands which customers they’re responsible for and what’s expected from them. While circumstances might have them step out of their lanes occasionally, they follow established assignments most of the time. There is also a defined process for when to collaborate with others on the team. 
  3. Managers have established success metrics: Sales managers know what success looks like. They consistently manage to specific metrics, and there’s clarity between them and their sales reps about what “good” sales performance means.  
  4. Managers hold reps accountable: Managers have a system for holding sales reps accountable for the established processes and metrics. They hold regular meetings to review pipeline, account plans, and results.  

If you have all or some of these you’re in a great position to purchase a CRM platform. In fact, you’ll see a lot of benefits in streamlining these in a centralized system. 

Beware of Generic CRMs Not Built For Distributors 

If you have sales workflows in place, it’s a great time to start looking at CRM software. But not just any old CRM will do. The complexity of the distribution industry does not translate to a CRM built for any company.

We wouldn’t recommend buying a generic CRM if you’re expecting it to fit your organization’s needs out of the box. Historically, the market has offered few software solutions tailored for distributors. Distributors have been putting up with workarounds that push mainstream, square CRM into a round hole for years.  

Perhaps this explains why only 50% of distribution sales teams use their CRM — if they have one. There is perhaps no worse torture than investing in software no one uses.  

Thankfully, the tide is turning with a move to industry-specific CRMs.  

Here’s another question to consider: How much time do your sales reps spend inputting data into their CRM? 

According to a Distribution Strategy Group report, the answer should be no more than 20%.  

That same report illustrated just how long it takes for distributors to reap the benefits of their CRM:

  • 17% of distributors indicated it took more than two years, 
  • 11% 19-24 months, 
  • 14% 13-18 months, 
  • 15% 7-12 months, 
  • 19% 6 months or less, and;
  • the remaining respondents had yet to implement a CRM.

 These numbers illustrate a costly problem. Generic CRMs promise to automate selling, provide a central location for actionable data, help with task management and basically make sales reps sell more. 

For most CRMs, this isn’t reality — especially if your sales processes aren’t working. 

How Can Distributors Guarantee CRM ROI? 

Here are two key ways to guarantee a fast return on your CRM investment: 

  1. Have a sales process in place the CRM can support.
  2. Select a CRM built for distribution sales. Generic CRMs might lack the features you need and require a potentially frustrating workaround. 

Selecting the right CRM can be challenging. You’ll want a CRM that:  

  • Gives you a picture window into omnichannel purchasing patterns 
  • Integrates with ERP, PIM or ecommerce tools 
  • Is intuitive and easy to use, even by non-technical folks  
  • Facilitates a personalized sales approach geared toward distribution customers 
  • Supports the needs of field reps with a friendly mobile experience

The best CRM platforms for distributors are those built for a distribution sales process. But if you step into platform purchase mode without having an established sales process, even a purpose-built distribution CRM won’t take you where you need to go. 

So, ask yourself again: Do you have an established sales process? If the answer is yes, it could be the right time to find a CRM that’s right for you. 

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