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THE BENEFITS OF SALES FORCE AUTOMATION:

A CUSTOMER’S PERSPECTIVE
Othman Boujena, Wesley J. Johnston, and Dwight R. Merunka

This paper examines the benefits of sales force automation from the customer’s perspective within a framework based on
theories from the sales and information systems literature relating to the benefits of the implementation of information
technology. An in-depth study using qualitative research tools is conducted among managers occupying “buyer/logistic”
positions within customer organizations to identify perceived benefits of the use of sales force automation (SFA) systems
by their vendors. Three content analytical techniques (thematic, lexical, and cognitive mapping) are used to uncover the
benefits most valued by management in customer organizations. Results demonstrate that customers perceive benefits
on four main dimensions of their interaction with salespersons—salespeople’s professionalism, customer interaction
frequency, salesperson responsiveness, and salesperson–customer relationship quality. This study is the first to examine
aspects of SFA from the customer perspective.

In competitive markets, success increasingly hinges on the great potential for the collection and dissemination of market
means of developing and maintaining customer relationships. information and the development of value-added customer
Forrester’s Trends in CRM 2009 indicate the importance of relationships (Ahearne et al. 2008; Day 1992).
improving customer experience as a critical differentiation Early research in the area of SFA focused on issues sur-
element. The sales environment is changing and firms need a rounding the adoption and diffusion of technology (Jelinek et
new vision of the sales function to create more value and to al. 2006; Jones, Sundaram, and Chin 2002; Rangarajan, Jones,
gain competitive advantage. Consequently, companies invest and Chin 2005; Schillewaert et al. 2005; Speier and Venkatesh
heavily in customer relationship management (CRM) software 2002), followed by research pertaining to the impact of sales
solutions and especially in sales force automation (SFA) sys- technology on salespeople’s individual performance (Ahearne
tems (Widmier, Jackson, and McCabe 2002). In the context and Schillewaert 2001; Sundaram et al. 2007). In recent years,
of this research, SFA involves the application of information the issue of SFA technology benefits has come to the forefront
technology to support the sales function. in trade journals and academic research. Whereas managerial
A recent report of AMR Research estimates that customer literature advocates the potential benefits of SFA in terms of
management software revenues in 2007 topped $14 billion, productivity and customer service, more research is needed
which represents a 12 percent jump over 2006 revenues. to support these assertions. Despite many calls for empirical
Through their boundary-spanning activities, the sales force research on SFA (Buttle, Ang, and Iriana 2006), empirical
plays a strategic role in building mutually beneficial long- results remain sparse in terms of demonstrating the benefits
term customer relationships (Weitz and Bradford 1999). associated with SFA adoption and use and the changes related
Experts state that SFA implies remote access of salespeople to the way selling is done (Ahearne et al. 2008; Hunter and
to a continually updated centralized database (Parthasarathy Perreault 2007).
and Sohi 1997). Therefore, SFA, which also represents op- Research mainly concentrates on the benefits of SFA for
erational CRM applications in support of selling tasks, has managers or salespeople (Ahearne and Schillewaert 2001;
Barnes and Engle 1995), but to our knowledge, no research
Othman Boujena (Ph.D., Paul Cézanne University), Associate has focused on the customer’s perspective. In fact, the customer
Professor of Marketing, Rouen Business School, othman.boujena@ point of view is crucial, in that it might reflect the effective and
iae-aix.com. objective impact of SFA (Ahearne, Srinivasan, and Weinstein
Wesley J. Johnston (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh), CBIM Round- 2004; Engle and Barnes 2000; Honeycutt et al. 2005). SFA
table Professor of Marketing, J. Mack Robinson College of Business, is mainly directed at improving sales force productivity and
Georgia State University, mktwjj@langate.gsu.edu. this process should obviously have an impact on the customer.
Dwight R. Merunka (Ph.D., Paul Cézanne University), Professor For this reason, the way the customer assesses changes in the
of Marketing, Aix Graduate School of Management, Paul Cézanne operational efficiency of sales meetings and contacts through
University Aix-Marseilles and EUROMED School of Management, skills, competencies, and behaviors of automated salespeople
dwight.merunka@iae-aix.com. should be the best evidence of SFA success.

Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, vol. XXIX, no. 2 (spring 2009), pp. 137–150.
© 2009 PSE National Educational Foundation. All rights reserved.
ISSN 0885-3134 / 2009 $9.50 + 0.00.
DOI 10.2753/PSS0885-3134290203
138 Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management

Many calls are made today from research companies such managers, sales management activity, and sales performance
as Forrester or SFA vendors leaders such as salesforce.com to (Barnes and Engle 1995), and various well-developed models
focus more on customer-oriented metrics than internal return address the causal relationship between general IT and indi-
on investment (ROI) when measuring the CRM/SFA impact. vidual performance (DeLone and McLean 1992; Goodhue
Customers expect from salespeople timely and accurate infor- and Thompson 1995; Hunter and Perreault 2007).
mation, prompt answers to requests, personalized offers, and Regarding effectiveness, Verity (1993) identifies several
market expertise (Atkinson and Koprowski 2006). Moreover, benefits from computerization, such as the reduction of errors
Homburg and Rudolf (2001) identified customer satisfaction common to manual sales processing, reduced support costs,
toward sales force interaction as the most important dimension improved closing rates, and increased average selling prices
of overall customer satisfaction in industrial settings. as a result of more accurate and timely pricing information.
The purpose of this paper is to examine SFA benefits from According to Pullig, Maxham, and Hair (2002), effective SFA
the customers’ perspective and within a relationship-building implementation can lead to enhanced productivity through
process. Borrowing from the information systems (IS)/ better customer prospecting, development, and account profil-
information technology (IT) and SFA literature, we identify ing. A salesperson generally has more and better (e.g., timely,
the types of benefits related to the use of sales technology in accurate) information to work with when using SFA tools,
the first part of the paper. We then conduct an exploratory which results in increased capacity to understand customer
qualitative study enabling us to uncover the benefits perceived needs, provide alternatives, make better decisions, develop
by buyers using thematic content analysis, lexical analysis, and more valuable customer relationships, and improve productiv-
cognitive mapping techniques. ity (Hill and Swenson 1994). Finally, technology researchers
argue that IT can facilitate data interpretations and analyses
CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK (Huber 1990) and favorably influence personal effectiveness
(Igbaria and Tan 1997).
SFA technologies enhance performance by increasing the effi- In addition to enhancing sales effectiveness, Keillor, Bashaw,
ciency and productivity of salespeople and improving both the and Pettijohn (1997) and Pullig, Maxham, and Hair (2002)
quality and quantity of communications among salespersons, theorize that using technology tools improves salesperson ef-
the buying organization, and the selling firm (Colombo 1993; ficiency. SFA reduces the time spent on administrative tasks
Davis, Bagozzi, and Warshaw 1989; Keillor, Bashaw, and Pet- and provides faster access to timely information (Rivers and
tijohn 1997; Srinivasan 1985). Brynjolfsson and Yang (1997) Dart 1999). Therefore, SFA tools may enable better territory
suggest that more than 90 percent of the benefits of computer management by increasing salespersons’ availability to custom-
capital emerge from otherwise unobserved intangible assets. ers and more relevant information delivery. Khandpur and
Borrowing from IS and sales literature, we identify the most Wevers (1998) indicate that SFA planning functions allow
often-cited benefits of SFA/IT and focus on those that pertain for downtime identification in the salesperson’s schedule and
to salesperson–customer interactions and that are likely to then direct new leads to the salesperson during those times.
be perceived by buyers. It appears that SFA affects the sales In addition to that, salespeople can access a centralized SFA
function on five main levels: system while traveling and identify the closest accounts to
• productivity, plan and make their sales calls (Ahearne, Jelinek, and Rapp
• information processing, 2005; Wedell and Hempeck 1987). Also, contact management
• communication effectiveness, tools can enhance salesperson efficiency by enabling contacts
• perceived competence, and organization based on different criteria (industry, region, po-
• customer relationship quality. tential purchase, etc.). Finally, a company can expect SFA to
deliver faster response times (Gilbert 2004), which is crucial
Salesperson Productivity to improve customer service quality.

Generally, SFA is considered to occur when firms computerize Information Processing


their routine tasks or adopt technological tools to improve the
effectiveness and efficiency of their sales force. One of the main SFA applications are designed to improve salesperson ability to
objectives of SFA applications is to help salespeople better ac- gather, analyze, and share product, customer, and competitor
complish their daily activities. Proponents of technology use information. Thanks to centralized CRM database, SFA enable
by sales forces have long advocated its potential to increase sales force–facilitated and faster access to a huge amount of
productivity (Hitt and Brynjolfsson 1996; Hunter and Per- information on products, customer records, competitive offers,
reault 2007; Moriarty and Swartz 1989; Wedell and Hempeck and new leads. Therefore, salespeople can better inform the
1987). One study suggests relationships among IT use by sales customer about product specifications and usage situations
Spring 2009 139

and more accurately fulfill customer needs, and that enables cess, SFA increases the perceived competence of salespersons
the company to offer more products and services and perform (Huber 1990). A survey indicates that sales managers believe
more appropriate customer data analyses. information technology influences buyers’ perceptions of
During initial customer contacts, SFA can help salespersons salesperson competency; 90 percent of those surveyed decided
by allowing them faster access to targeted information, thereby to automate their sales force because it made the salesperson
reducing the time needed to prepare for meeting presenta- appear more professional and competent (Colombo 1994;
tions, as well as the number of follow-ups when the customer Keillor, Bashaw, and Pettijohn 1997).
requests additional information (Taylor 1994). Salespeople Thanks to SFA, salespeople can review customer purchase
who use technology can sift through customer data and focus and payment record, prompting them to ask questions that
on critical information, putting them in a better position to improve their understanding of existing customer needs and
demonstrate customer interest and make the sale. For example, future requirements. Ahearne and Schillewaert (2000) and
the salesperson can track customer records and then identify Ahearne et al. (2008) also find positive correlations between
accounts that might be good prospects for cross-selling and technology usage and market and technical knowledge.
up-selling efforts, as well as those that may no longer remain Furthermore, greater access to database knowledge held else-
profitable (Jayachandran et al. 2005). where in the sales organization can be crucial in helping the
salesperson build customer trust and commitment, as well as
Communication Effectiveness ward off competitors. These arguments all suggest an indirect
effect on customer relationship quality (Park, Holloway, and
Sales technology applications enhance salespeople’s ability to Deitz 2005).
communicate clearly and rapidly with customers and contacts
(Hunter and Perreault 2007; Rice and Blair 1984; Sproull Customer Relationship Quality
and Kiesler 1986), which improves their responsiveness and
capacity to fit customer needs (Ahearne et al. 2008). For While previously identified categories are more directly re-
example, interactive presentation tools enable salespeople to lated to the salesperson, customer relationship quality can be
make more effective comparisons between their products and considered as the outcome category that crystallizes on the
competitive offers, to demonstrate a personalized content, and customer side the effect of SFA on sales force abilities and be-
to provide customer-oriented solutions through automated haviors. Customer relationship quality refers to the bundle of
sales configurations (Khandpur and Wevers 1998). Along intangible value related to the interchange between buyers and
these lines, Ahearne and Schillewaert (2001) find a positive sellers (Lagace, Dahlstrom, and Gassenheimer 1991) and is
effect of IT on sales presentation quality and adaptive selling defined as a buyer’s trust in a salesperson and satisfaction with
behaviors. The effects of SFA also include easier information the relationship (Crosby, Evans, and Cowles 1990). Successful
exchange due to less communication inhibitions, facilitated relationships are characterized by high levels of mutual trust
maintaining of customer relationships, and increased com- and commitment between parties (Morgan and Hunt 1994).
munication among geographically distant individuals (Engle Ahearne, Jelinek, and Jones (2007) define “salesperson service
and Barnes 2000). From a company standpoint, the greatest behaviors” such as responsiveness, speed in answering customer
potential of SFA stems from shared contact information and requests, and salesperson diligence, and underline their role in
increased coordination across the company’s various customer helping to build satisfaction and trust satisfaction. Concerning
service functions. Firms that use SFA systems to initiate su- the impact of CRM technology on relationship quality, Hitt
perior market-sensing and customer-linking capabilities are and Brynjolfsson (1996) indicate that overall IT investment
in a position to inform and guide internal processes respon- leads to increased customer value, and Fisher (2001) states
sible for creating customer value (Pullig, Maxham, and Hair that the “people side” of CRM is probably the most important
2002), as well as understand customer needs more easily across element. Technological changes can heighten interactions in
functions. The combined result is a more knowledgeable and terms of time, intensity, and emotions (Kasper-Fuehrer and
competent sales force and support staff. Ashkanasy 2001). In a selling context, SFA facilitates the de-
velopment of buyer–seller relationships through its impact on
Salesperson Competence trust drivers and enhances the buyer’s trust in the salesperson
(Keillor, Bashaw, and Pettijohn 1997). As many as five factors
Competence, in this research, refers to the customer’s percep- may increase the potential for buyer–salesperson trust (Hawes,
tion that a salesperson is knowledgeable in areas related to Mast, and Swan 1989). These include customer orientation,
products, customer needs, and market intelligence (Keillor, competency, honesty, dependability, and likability. SFA may
Bashaw, and Pettijohn 1997). By increasing both the volume help salespersons in developing customer trust by allowing
and the quality of market intelligence and the speed of ac- them to better demonstrate trust driving behaviors.
140 Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management

Salespeople customer orientation relies on their ability based on thematic exhaustiveness and data variability was
to demonstrate customer interest by emphasizing product adopted to lead the interviewing process (Guest, Bunce, and
benefits, providing solutions to customer problems, and Johnson 2006) and the sample size is in line with the levels
being readily available when needed. Technology can assist required for exploratory qualitative studies (Kuzel 1992). The
salespeople as they seek to communicate customer benefits buyers were identified through a cascade process during which
more effectively through interactive sales presentations putting we contacted the main SFA vendors who provided us with
the product within a context or situation that is appropriate companies (sales managers and their salespeople) using their
for the buyer (Ahearne and Schillewaert 2001). By accessing tools that, in turn, indicated their customers. The interviewed
databases, the salesperson can retrieve the appropriate informa- buyers demonstrate an experience of at least two years with
tion that will solve the buyer’s problems with regard to his or salespeople and exposure to SFA tools. This period is enough
her objectives and constraints. The ability to quickly address to reach the SFA implementation process maturity, to know
customer problems and questions can increase salesperson the salesperson, and, consequently, to better assess SFA benefits
credibility as well as trust in the salesperson. Widely used (Engle and Barnes 2000; Geiger and Turley 2006). Participants
technology such as e-mail, fax machines, voice mail, and cel- were asked to indicate the benefits for them of dealing with
lular phones help provide easier access to salespeople, which a salesperson using SFA according to the following interview
enables a customer’s concerns or difficulties to be addressed guide:
more rapidly (Jones, Stevens, and Chonko 2006; Keillor,
• SFA definition: description by the interviewer of tools
Bashaw, and Pettijohn 1997).
and applications to ensure a common understanding
Dependability involves the buyer’s perception and expec-
of what SFA means.
tation that the salesperson will keep commitments (Keillor,
• SFA benefits identification: could you tell us what does
Bashaw, and Pettijohn 1997). Dependability contains a poten-
SFA change in your interaction with the salesperson?
tial relational dimension in a sense that it’s generally developed
• Impact on supplier relationship: does this change any-
over time and with regard to arising situations. SFA contact
thing in the perception of your supplier?
management applications, for example, can help a salesperson
recognize, remember, and follow through on commitments Because of the semistructured method, our interviewing
to customers and ensure regular contact. These features allow process had a beforehand framework of themes to be explored
the salesperson to keep commitments and enhance regular but remained flexible to allow new ideas to emerge. To ensure
contacts with customers—increasing customer perceptions of that the provided benefits are attributed to SFA usage by sup-
the salesperson’s dependability (Keillor, Bashaw, and Pettijohn pliers’ salespeople (variance source), we asked interviewees to
1997). Finally, SFA might contribute to customer satisfaction answer by contrasting with a non- or less-automated salesper-
by enhancing the salesperson’s ability to meet customer expec- son. The main objective of this research stage was to assess the
tations. If these qualitative relational outcomes are achieved, relevance of the identified benefits and uncover new ones.
there may be monetary or tangible benefits as market share, Interviews were recorded and then transcribed to be content
share of category requirements, or turnover. Some evidence analyzed using established qualitative data analysis techniques
indicates that the implementation of SFA tools leads to higher (Miles and Huberman 1994). The overarching objective of our
revenues due to increased closure rates and higher customer investigation was to identify the benefits of SFA perceived by
retention, which stems from enhanced customer satisfaction buyers. For this purpose, we analyzed the interviews’ corpus
(Fisher 1998). using a methodological triangulation—thematic content
We have identified a range of potential benefits of SFA usage analysis, lexical analysis, and cognitive mapping.
from the literature. We now wish to both verify the existence
of these benefits and possibly uncover others through field Data Analysis
investigation. We therefore conduct a qualitative exploratory
study with a sample of industrial buyers in contact with sales- Thematic Content Analysis
people who use SFA tools.
Thematic content analysis refers to the process through which
transcribed interviews are dissected into meaningful semantic
RESEARCH METHOD units called “themes” or “codes.” These semantic units rep-
Sample and Data Collection resent thematic categories derived from an agreement-based
coding process inspired by our research question. Following
We conducted a qualitative study through semistructured in- Miles and Huberman (1994), we adopt a two-step coding
depth interviews with seven buyers or purchasing managers procedure. The first step consists of comprehending, syn-
from different industries (see Table 1). The saturation principle thesizing, and sorting inductive themes both manually and
Spring 2009 141

using the N’Vivo software. In the second step, we refine our Table 1
thinking about codes by theorizing and generating meta- Sample Characteristics
thematic categories that match the themes (nodes for N’Vivo) Company’s Industry Interviewee’s Position
and concepts identified in the literature. Our assignment of
themes to meta-categories (see Table 2) is subject to an infer- Telecommunications Buying manager
ence mode based on their proximity to the definition of the Consulting Buying manager
Consumer goods Wrapping and packaging
related concepts (Miles and Huberman 1994). To ensure cod-
buying manager
ing reliability, interviews were double coded; the agreement Cosmetics Buying manager
coefficient Cohen’s kappa equals 80 percent. Manufacturing Buying manager
Consumer goods Buying manager
Retail Logistics and retail manager
Lexical Analysis

Here, our objective is to (1) characterize the corpus according


to indicators and statistical measurement and (2) help rapid individual maps for each buyer and provide an example of a
understanding of the corpus through lexical approximation. causal cognitive map with the representation of SFA benefits as
We focus our attention on the words cited most frequently by perceived by a particular buyer (Figure 1). To ensure validity,
the buyers when they evoke benefits. In Table 3, we provide each interviewee has been shown his or her map and asked if
some of the key words, which together represent approximately it accurately reflects the causal relationships mentioned.
75 percent of the main words carried in the lexical analysis. Next, we aggregate buyers’ cognitions using average map-
For example, the word “presentation” has been cited 54 times ping to ensure accurate and comprehensive representation
by customers and represents 17.65 percent of total words (Bougon, Weick, and Binkhorst 1977; Ford and Hegarty
identified in the corpus. 1984). This collective mapping method consists of generating a
causal composite map that represents the average shared vision
Cognitive Mapping of SFA benefits from the buyers’ perspective. To identify the
average underlined links, we index (for each map) the causal
To gain an in-depth understanding of buyers’ perceptions of links mentioned for every pair of concepts in a disjunctive
SFA benefits, we conduct a cognitive mapping procedure us- similarities table. This comparative table represents the relations
ing Decision Explorer (version 3.2.0) software (Ackermann between concepts in rows and the statement of interviewees in
and Eden 2005). The term “cognitive map” was used first by columns. The existence of a causal link (intersection), or lack
Tolman (1948) and has since been widely employed in psy- thereof, in each interviewee’s comments is then binary coded as
chological science. In organizational studies, the term traces 1 when the interviewee indicates the relation and 0 when it is
back to Axelrod (1976), who uses it to analyze the decisions not mentioned (Figure 2). Finally, we operate a topographical
of politicians and decision-making bodies. Cognitive mapping analysis of buyers’ cognitive maps (see Table 4). During this
begins at the individual level to represent the cognitions of each step, we examine the maps’ structure and organization (Eden,
interviewed buyer. We then aggregate the data to produce a Ackerman, and Cropper 1992; Weick and Bougon 1986).
cognitive map of the phenomena under scrutiny at the group
level (all buyers). RESULTS
Concerning individual cognitive mapping, Langfield-Smith
and Wirth (1992) posit that each cognitive map contains in- The triangulated content analysis of interviews allows (1) the
dividual beliefs concerning a particular domain at a point in identification of SFA benefits for the customer, (2) the rank-
time. For our research, cognitive mapping enables us to capture ing of these benefits with regard to their importance and
in detail buyers’ thoughts and ideas about SFA benefits, and obviousness for customers, and (3) the revelation of value
then explore them to gain additional insights. The associated creation mechanisms of SFA from the customer’s perspective.
software generates comprehensive qualitative models through According to the meta-categorization process, we obtained
map building. Because we are interested in identifying the 10 meta-thematic categories. Professionalism appears to be
benefits stemming from SFA usage, we adopt causal mapping the most important category with an occurrence rate of 23.5
to underline links, following an unstructured method (text percent. This benefit covers themes such as salesperson image,
based), to explore the interview corpus and look for causal argumentation relevance, or salesperson organization. The
indicators. Using the software, we represent the structural rela- second main benefit concerns customer interaction frequency
tions between concepts. Similar to a research model, we refer which represents an occurrence rate of 19.1 percent. It essen-
to every variable as a concept or node, and each arrow refers tially covers critical information exchange with the salesperson
to a causal cited relationship (Axelrod 1976). Finally, we draw related to product or market knowledge. Responsiveness takes
142 Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management

Table 2
Generated Meta-Thematic Categories

Themes Meta-Thematic Categories Coding Percent of


(First-Level Coding) (Perceived Benefits) Frequency Total

Salesperson image Professionalism 43 23.5


Argumentation relevance
Professionalism
Salesperson organization
Salesperson relationship
Information exchange Customer interaction frequency 35 19.1
Customer information
Offer knowledge
Responsiveness Responsiveness 30 16.4
Effectiveness
Service
Trendiness Supplier image 27 14.8
Brand image
Corporate image
Trust Customer–supplier relationship 19 10.4
Supplier relationship
Recommendation
Commitment
Satisfaction
Customer knowledge Customer knowledge 9 4.9
Adaptive selling Adaptive selling 7 3.8
Decision-making uncertainty Decision-making uncertainty 5 2.7
Availability Availability 4 2.2
Proactivity Proactivity 4 2.2

Table 3 the third rank and reveals the importance of the contribution
Most Cited Words of SFA to help the salesperson in providing a prompt answer
Citation Percent of Total
to customer requests. We should notice here that those three
Words Frequency Words Identified benefits represent already more than 50 percent of cumulated
occurrence rate. In the same line, lexical analysis results point
Presentation 54 17.65 out that sales presentation is the most cited word when evoking
Customer 25 8.17
SFA benefits (Table 2). Results indicate also that SFA is an
Time 17 5.56
Image 16 5.23 image vector that leads to associations in the minds of custom-
Quality 15 4.9 ers concerning the salesperson, the brand, and the supplier
Response 15 4.9 (Table 1, Figures 1 and 2). For example, customers indicate
Exchange 13 4.25 that equipping salespersons with SFA makes the brand appear
Computers 13 4.25 trendy. The relationship between the customer and supplier
Information 10 3.27
Reporting 10 3.27
is another impact level of SFA. According to customers, the
Sales call 10 3.27 usage of SFA by salespeople contributes to reinforcing the
Management 8 2.61 relationship with the supplier through better satisfaction,
Communication 7 2.29 trust, and commitment. This can lead customers to recom-
Comprehension 6 1.96 mend their supplier on the basis of perceived service quality
Effectiveness 6 1.96
and demonstrated customer orientation.
Commitment 6 1.96
Concerning maps’ topographical analysis, as a source of
benefits, SFA seems to be the central concept in all maps,
Spring 2009 143

Figure 1
Sample Individual Causal Cognitive Map

19

and all described effects start from SFA. As far as structure is appearance. Many authors also stress the communication
concerned, buyers identify an important number of concepts aspect of professionalism (e.g., Jackson, Keith, and Schlacter
(30) related to salespeople productivity and professionalism. 1983; Pilling and Eroglu 1994), though professionalism may
Besides, customers demonstrate an assessment of SFA effects also refer to the general behavior of the salesperson.
and value-creation mechanisms by stating more than 100 links
between concepts. Consequently, the density that represents I think that the personality shows through the presentations.
(Telecommunications)
links to concepts ratio equals 3.36 and means that each concept
(node) holds three links on average. As a result of their capacities, SFA tools give the sales-
person the means to demonstrate his or her know-how in a
DISCUSSION sales context. Several studies have demonstrated the impact
of technology on individual behaviors (e.g., sales presenta-
Consistent with our predictions and the statements set forth in tion, adaptive selling); for example, Behrman and Perreault
sales and IS theory, the qualitative study’s findings support the (1982) indicate that well-thought-out and well-done sales
overall assertion that the usage of SFA contributes significantly presentations and the ability to work well with customers are
to relationship-based selling. Based on the analysis of qualitative important behavioral dimensions of salesperson performance.
data, we uncover four major SFA perceived benefits: salesperson By allowing high-quality product demonstrations and better
professionalism, customer interaction frequency, responsive- graphical visualizations, SFA is likely to enable salespersons
ness, and customer–salesperson relationship quality. to give clear and effective presentations.

Salesperson Professionalism Yes! absolutely, it helps, absolutely because all figures are im-
mediately available. . . . I have seen some presentations with
Professionalism is the most frequently perceived SFA benefit videos, it’s very nice. (Consumer goods)
from the buyers’ perspective (Table 2, Figures 1 and 2). Ac- More conviviality, it [SFA] illustrates proposals, it al-
cording to Knoll and Tankersley (1991), professionalism is a lows quick computation, it’s a communication support.
function of three criteria—behavior, salesperson’s image, and (Manufacturing)
144 Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management

Figure 2
Buyers’ Average Causal Map

Table 4 By providing access to large amounts of data, SFA enables sales


Topographical Analysis of Cognitive Maps representatives to tailor their sales messages to each customer
Indicators Buyers
(Ahearne and Schillewaert 2001), a form of adaptive selling,
or alter sales approaches across and during customer interac-
Maps’ Structure tions (Spiro and Weitz 1990; Sujan, Weitz, and Sujan 1988). A
Differentiation salesperson supported by automated technology can determine
Number of concepts 30
more easily which products to prioritize during a sales call
Interconnection
Number of links 101 and can customize the sales presentation content accordingly.
Density 3.36 These behaviors can be interpreted as a customer orientation
Maps’ Organization and thereby denote the salesperson’s willingness to care about
Central concept SFA buyers’ needs. Appropriately, the word “customer” frequently
appears in the interviews as a description of SFA advantages.

Ah, exactly proactivity, yeah, uh, proposal strength.


Furthermore, SFA can help salespersons better address cus- (Telecommunications)
tomer questions through profiling and previous calls records
(Jones, Stevens, and Chonko 2006). These assertions are also Finally, though professionalism pertains to the general per-
supported by customers’ statements. ceived behavior of salespersons, it also expresses perceptions of
According to the lexical analysis results, “presentation” is the the salesperson’s image. In this sense, customers indicated that
word cited most often by buyers when evoking SFA benefits, using technology can project a trendy, well-organized image for
possibly because sales presentations offer one of the most the salesperson. They also added that such technological tools
straightforward witnessed salesperson behaviors. Furthermore, have a structuring effect on salesperson task accomplishment
SFA applications designed to create sales presentations gener- (e.g., call planning, presentation conception, offer generation,
ally are spread among selling companies, which renders this communication effectiveness), and because the salesperson
feature obvious to all. is the firm’s external representative, these positive image at-
As Marshall, Moncrief, and Lassk (1999) report, IT im- tributes get transferred to the selling company and its brands
proves the professionalism by which sales calls are prepared. (see buyers’ shared perceptions in Figure 2).
Spring 2009 145

Even if the salesperson is not, if he hasn’t a rationale personal- communication media provide access to the database from
ity, . . . this type of applications inevitably forces some rigor. anywhere, including in the midst of a sales call, and can com-
(Consumer goods) municate data in almost any format.

Customer Interaction Frequency We communicate only by e-mail. (Telecommunications)

The second major benefit refers to the concept of customer What’s important is the quality of the electronic documents
interaction frequency (CIF), defined as a means of communica- sent. (Consulting)
tion that reinforces the coordination between partners by diffus-
ing critical information and thereby leads to relationship success The final dimension of CIF deals with interaction fre-
(Crosby, Evans, and Cowles 1990; Lagace, Dahlstrom, and Gas- quency, which depends on call planning (Sujan, Weitz, and
senheimer 1991; Mohr and Nevin 1990). Information exchange Kumar 1994). By running specific data queries, salespeople
plays a crucial role in industrial relations, and one of the main can list and sort customers to determine their call priorities. By
functions of the sales force is to manage information (Darmon replacing the calendar, SFA applications enable sales represen-
1993; Moncrief 1986). Due to their boundary-spanning roles, tatives to manage their time effectively, set up appointments
salespeople represent a valuable source and bridge of informa- accurately, and perform sustained planning. Consequently,
tion for buyers in various areas, including product, market buyers are approached by the salesperson as needed and
(Behrman and Perreault 1982), promotion, customer behavior, with appropriate frequency. Calls from salespeople are better
and competitor information. By improving the information informed, so meetings become more structured and focused
processes, IT enables the salesperson to better inform customers because the object of the call has already been communicated
(Grover, Teng, and Cheon 1998; Huber 1990). to the buyer (e.g., by e-mail) and appropriate follow-ups
ensue. As we show in Figure 2, following up with customers
There are several [advantages] in fact of technology . . . , it and availability represent key elements for a majority of the
helps understanding the company with which one deals, if I buyers we interviewed.
ask him to send me the presentation of his company, he will
send me a PowerPoint presentation with turnover, potential
customers, I mean key customers, his know-how and argu- Salesperson Responsiveness
ments. (Telecommunications)
The information and communication capacities of SFA sys-
Specifically, as a result of its storage, retrieval, and network tems render salespeople more responsive to and available for
capacities, SFA facilitates the processes of information col- customer requests. Responsiveness has been defined as the
lection, analysis, and sharing (Marshall, Moncrief, and Lassk willingness to help customers and provide prompt service
1999). In other words, SFA offers salespeople an expansive cen- (Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry 1988). As a result of pa-
tralized memory of people and databases with which they may perless communication, a salesperson can answer customers
update their knowledge about business processes (Day 1992; in real time and offer a service of good quality (Ahearne et
Parthasarathy and Sohi 1997). The resultant enhanced infor- al. 2008). Our interviews also show that it is important for
mation role of the salesperson gives buyers tremendous help buyers to be able to reach the salesperson whenever needed,
during the decision-making process, because, as organizational which highlights the concept of availability, or the presence of
literature notes, uncertainty reduction is the most important the salesperson for problem solving during the business cycle
challenge for decision makers such as buyers. Decision-making (Cooper, Dröge, and Daugherty 1991), that has been identi-
uncertainty is “the difficulty experienced by the decision maker fied as a meta-category (Table 2). In addition, the adoption of
in predicting the outcomes of a purchase decision in terms SFA tools by salespeople should help them concentrate more
of its likely benefits and costs” (Duncan 1972; Kohli 1989); on their territory management because it automates their
therefore, the better informed the salesperson is and the more administrative tasks (Wedell and Hempeck 1987).
information he or she offers the buyer, the more likely the
salesperson can reduce the perceived risks or uncertainty of Customer–Salesperson Relationship Quality
the buyer (Henthorne, La Tour, and Williams 1993; Jackson,
Keith, and Burdick 1984; Moriarty and Spekman 1984). As a When customers benefit from SFA through enhanced sales-
relationship-building practice (Dwyer, Schurr, and Oh 1987), person professionalism and interaction quality, relational out-
SFA holds the promise of helping customers make effective comes follow. In accordance with Huber’s (1990) theory and
decisions (Gao et al. 2002). several IT studies, we consider the impact of SFA on customer–
The other aspect of CIF deals with communication, or salesperson relationship quality to be indirect (Brynjolfsson
the channel and format of information diffusion. Electronic and Yang 1996; Mooney, Gurbaxani, and Kraemer 1996), such
146 Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management

that it follows from the enhancement of salespersons’ behav- we combine three qualitative methods to gain an in-depth
iors and competence. Crosby, Evans, and Cowles (1990) state understanding of buyers’ SFA considerations. Specifically,
that salespersons’ knowledge benefits the quality of customer we perform a thematic content analysis, a lexical analysis,
relationships; furthermore, relational outcomes strengthen and a study of cognition through cognitive causal mapping;
over time and through multiple interactions. Therefore, they the latter approach has rarely been used in management and
should take place after the relationship development. particularly in marketing. Our study of the perceptions of
buyers, especially those that pertain to a domain for which no
It improves the communication with the customer. (Con- research results are available, relies on cognitive mapping to
sumer goods) reveal interviewees’ thoughts, beliefs, and causal interactions.
From a substantive standpoint, our findings indicate that the
The average causal map also indicates that in buyers’ minds,
main benefits of SFA as perceived by buyers focus on profes-
enhanced customer information means greater trust in the
sionalism, customer interaction frequency, responsiveness, and
salesperson. In addition, the capacity of salespeople to solve
relationship quality. These findings coincide with theoretical
customers’ problems and help them make effective decisions
models developed in the literature. As in other studies of the
because of SFA can lead to trust.
impact of IT, our qualitative results support the existence of
Meanwhile, a high-quality interaction and exchange of
direct effects of SFA on information and communication
valuable information between SFA-supported salespeople and
processes in sales activities, as well as indirect effects on rela-
customers influences commitment. With regard to satisfaction,
tional outcomes.
defined as a “customer’s emotional state in response to its evalu-
From a methodological standpoint, this research employs
ation of an interaction with the salesperson” (Crosby, Evans,
qualitative methods and could then encourage qualitative
and Cowles 1990), Homburg and Rudolph (2001) show that
approaches within the sales domain. In addition to that, this
such interactions provide a crucial dimension of satisfaction
study demonstrates the potential of cognitive mapping to
in industrial settings. Thus, SFA tools that help sales forces
examine perceptions and to clarify a complex problem that
better meet customer expectations likely influence customer
entails both technology and human interactions.
satisfaction as well. In support of this claim, the average causal
From a theoretical point of view, this paper provides a quali-
map in Figure 2 indicates that satisfaction follows customer
tative examination of SFA benefits that have been organized in
knowledge and reliable argumentation.
five main levels. It also analyzes the impact of SFA from a cus-
He is able, based on my previous orders, to propose tomer’s perspective, which offers insight into underresearched
me other prices, or other items, or other solutions. and intangible facets of the return on investment on SFA. The
(Telecommunications) findings show how the effect of SFA on salespersons’ cognition
and behavior results in relational outcomes. Whereas previous
Finally, when a satisfied buyer assesses the relationship with research mainly has studied the impact of SFA in terms of sales
a supplier’s salesperson positively, he or she is more likely to outcomes (e.g., turnover, market share), we reveal its impact on
recommend the seller to other purchasing professionals. customer–salesperson relationships, which are crucial because
To summarize, our results indicate that from the customer’s relationship quality leads to increased purchase and loyalty.
perspective, SFA is changing the way selling is done by im- We therefore propose that the impact of SFA on sales should
pacting different levels of the sales functions. By enhancing be studied through a series of mediating variables, some of
salesperson professionalism, interaction frequency, and respon- which we identify here, such as customer relationship quality.
siveness, SFA leads to a more customer-oriented selling, which The exploratory aspect of our study enables us to reveal several
helps to build and develop better customer relationships. Thus, value-creation mechanisms through which SFA usage might
SFA is a set of applications aimed not only at automating influence customer relationships.
manual tasks but also at making every customer interaction Our results thus suggest additional research to confirm
an opportunity to increase satisfaction and ensure loyalty. our exploratory findings and analyze the benefits further,
such as professionalism, image (brand, corporate), interaction
CONCLUSION quality, salesperson proactivity, customer decision-making as-
sistance, and relational outcomes. In addition, the analysis of
The current research helps in identifying and understanding our qualitative material leads us to identify a set of concepts
how SFA may be beneficial from the customers’ perspective. (sales presentation, responsiveness, adaptive selling, trust,
It represents an important extension of SFA research which commitment) that should be integrated into a research model
shows that it is increasingly implemented in line with a and empirically tested to confirm the benefits of SFA from
relationship-building approach. Furthermore, most studies on the customer’s perspective. The next step is naturally to build
SFA call for customer-centric research. To explore this topic, and test a comprehensive model of the impact of SFA on cus-
Spring 2009 147

tomer relationship quality and buying behavior. At this level, SFA. For this reason, we cared about a common understand-
our qualitative study allows us to identify some factors that ing of SFA before starting the interview process. The second
are critical to the assessment of SFA benefits by customers. In limitation concerns the adoption of the customer’s perspec-
fact, while interviewing buyers, we noticed that salesperson tive. Because we decided to examine SFA benefits from the
familiarity, customer attitude toward IT, and customer usage customer’s point of view, it’s obvious that some facets of SFA
level of IT are determinants for SFA benefits perception. Thus, cannot be perceptible. In fact, the customer could base his or
future studies should integrate these variables as moderators her apprehension of SFA usage and benefits on some tangible
of the effect of SFA as perceived by buyers. In addition to elements pertaining to computer-assisted sales presentations,
this, future research could benefit from taking a sector-based the relevance and the personalization degree of sales presenta-
approach. The mix of relational competencies varies across tion content, the usage of personal digital assistant to plan
industries and the impact of SFA usage on relationship selling calls, the access to a CRM database during the sales call to
could be partly industry specific. check market or product information, the degree of infor-
Finally, from a managerial standpoint, this study sheds mation sharing about customer profile when the buyer calls
light on new means for evaluating returns and justifying in- the company, and so forth. The third limitation regards the
vestments in SFA that go beyond salespersons’ productivity. sampling method. As we explained, we go through a cascade
Managers should reconsider studying or communicating the process of interviewees’ identification. We can consider that
effects of SFA solutions. For example, SFA vendors com- interviewees could sometimes be tempted to communicate
municate success stories and tend to stress the impact of SFA their best references which can lead to less objective state-
solutions on sales and profits to prove the short-term profit- ments. However, because we were looking for SFA benefits,
ability of these systems. Also, many companies invest in SFA we wanted to ensure homogeneity of SFA applications starting
as a matter of blind faith, to align with their competitors, or by controlling SFA software attributes. Finally, our research
to improve salespeople’s productivity. belongs to the deterministic stream in terms of examining
Our results provide insight on the relationship-building technology impact. The aim of our research is to identify
role of SFA which is probably not considered by research sug- benefits, then we adopted a positive and optimistic approach
gesting that up to 70 percent of SFA/CRM projects fail or do of SFA/CRM impact. However, technology in general and
not allow any obvious benefits (Reinartz, Krafft, and Hoyer more specifically SFA can also have some negative influences
2004). The perception of SFA benefits by the customer shows on the salesperson, the customer, and the company. Some
that the impact of IT on productivity can be channeled in a studies looked at the effect of SFA on salespersons’ stress
profitable way through customer satisfaction improvement. and turnover (Speier and Venkatesh 2002) or the effect of
We believe that firms should move toward an approach of SFA knowledge sharing on task performance (Haas and Hansen
that involves the customers—the central focus of all marketing 2005). Information represents power, and sharing it can in-
and the key to gain competitive advantage—by considering crease salesperson precariousness perception. In addition to
the relational consequences of SFA. Communicating clearly that, the usage of SFA can dehumanize business relationships
on this focus might improve the acceptance and usage of through the automation of different processes. During our
SFA solutions by salespersons if they can be convinced of the interviews, some salespeople and customers underlined this
positive consequences on customer perceptions, customer re- risk. Moreover, while SFA is supposed to relieve salespeople
lationships, and customer satisfaction, which are important to from performing some administrative and support tasks to
them in their everyday challenge to achieve objectives. A recent become more available to customer calls and requests, it
study of Hunter and Perreault (2006) underlines the role of increases the time allocated to enter data in the centralized
salesperson’s technology orientation in generating performance system, to ensure synchronization, and to check electronic
under management influence. Also, when evaluating the mails and market data.
contribution of SFA, management should look at customer-
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