Valuable insights from Dreamforce 2018

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Among the many sales-related events I attend each year, Dreamforce is easily one of my favorites. What’s not to love? In a scant four days, I get to chat with hundreds of customers and prospects, check in with businesses from across the tech landscape, and get a wide-angle view of the future of sales. (The free nitro ice cream at Anaplan’s Sales Oasis didn’t hurt, either.)

As I flew home on Friday, I spent some time reflecting on the insights gleaned over the week. I’d like to share a few trending topics I found particularly useful.

Behavioral economics provides essential knowledge, and not just for incentive comp

One of the most powerful ideas from the week came from Anaplan CEO Frank Calderoni’s keynote speaking session. As part of his presentation, entitled “Connecting Strategy to Success for Faster Decision Making,” Calderoni brought up a topic that’s dear to my heart: behavioral economics. Calderoni pointed out the work that behavioral economics has done to catalogue the often-unobserved tendencies that steer our decisions.

In the world of sales, behavioral economics is usually addressed in the context of incentive compensation. This makes sense, as incentive comp is all about using rewards to nudge salespeople into adopting desired behaviors. What Calderoni showed was that behavioral economics can help explain scenarios with much bigger stakes.

As he explained, one of the main insights of behavioral economics is that our decisions are often biased in ways we can’t see. In large enterprise organizations, this can be disastrous. This is because far too many companies make decisions in silos, without sharing knowledge and data across the enterprise. In situations like these, the biases that underpin any single decision can snowball, cascading throughout the enterprise without being balanced or improved by data from other decision-makers in the enterprise.

This was a powerful point: instead of leveraging collective knowledge to make better decisions, companies who make decisions in silos end up acting less intelligently. One might imagine that the exact same is true for sales organizations, which are also complex entities, with lots of moving parts. As sales organizations across the world strive to figure out the recipe for outpacing their competition, it’s time well spent to think about how bias can creep into their decisions, and to think hard about how they can go about mitigating those biases.

Point solutions are too myopic to plan the future

Another insight gained in part from Calderoni: Although point solutions may solve short-term problems, in the long run, they hamper companies from preparing for the future.

Walking around the Dreamforce expo floor, one can see any number of companies that profess to cure what afflicts your sales organization. But so many of these point solutions fail to address a key fact of business today: The parts are all connected. The modern enterprise is defined by its connectivity. The decisions made in any area of the sales organization inevitably affect other areas of the business.

The truth is that business problems are rarely localized. Truly solving them requires an organization to step back and take a wider view.

As powerful as point solutions can be in restricted contexts, by professing to be able to solve larger problems, they’re like doctors that prescribe the same medicine for every ailment. “Back hurts? Try X!” “Indigestion? Try X!” “Allergies? Try X!”

Every company’s problems are different. The best solutions are big and flexible enough to give organizations a holistic approach when charting the future.

The future of sales involves data and people

Sales leaders today have access to a deeper ocean of data than ever before. This trend is unlikely to abate.

Yet what was abundantly clear at Dreamforce was that data on its own doesn’t provide solutions. Rather, effective strategies come from being smart with data, using it to simplify the decision-making process. The sales teams that own the future will be those that can wield their data with the most intelligence. And doing this requires human foresight.

Sales itself is in a very interesting position right now. The heart of sales still rests in the direct personal interaction between salesperson and customer. (That 170,000 people thought it was worth attending Dreamforce in person certainly suggests that direct human engagement isn’t going anywhere.) But the best sales teams are now using data to make far better tactical decisions about how to use the innate selling power of their sales people. Which customers or prospects deserve more attention? How can we make sales territories more efficient? Which metrics give us the most insight into performance, and how can we obtain them? How can we make our sales forecasts more accurate?

These questions aren’t just addressed by adding data to data; they’re addressed by combining data and human decision-making. As sales teams begin to add more data to their decisions, we’ll start to see more and more models that optimize the two.

Lots of tools help your CRM. But the wrong ones can hurt you.

As this was Dreamforce, the vast majority of companies on the expo floor were pitching their ability to extend your Salesforce system. As I’ve written, Salesforce is inarguably a powerful tool, one that has dramatically changed the way sales teams operate.

A CRM is only as powerful as the information in it. For those involved in running sales teams, there are many ways to leverage CRM data to make better decisions.

The best of these, I believe, help sales leaders actively manage and plan their go-to-market strategies.

What do the worst ones do? At best, nothing—they sit there, inert. At worst, ineffective tools can siphon off money and time that would be better put to work running your team.

To figure out what tools you really need, it’s worth stepping back and understanding how your contributions fit into the larger sales organization, or even the enterprise as a whole.

Every year, I leave Dreamforce thinking about how the world of sales is changing, almost by the day. As we take stock of this year’s conference, I find it helpful to use these insights to think about how I can improve my sales strategy. Do the same and next year you can be the one supplying the ideas for the rest of us.

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