Pity the modern sales manager: in a market teeming with software-as-a-service (SaaS) CRM solutions, she’s forced to make do with sales enablement and sales engagement services that have been designed with front-line sales reps in mind.

Sales management, and sales managers, can sometimes seem like afterthoughts.

Okay, maybe this is putting it too strongly. But it really does seem as if most of the innovation in the CRM space focuses on front-line sales representatives; CRM software providers usually have much less to offer to sales managers. Perhaps this is because sales management is seen as a mature domain: there’s nothing new to see here; move along, move along. 

Not so fast, says Nipul Chokshi, vice president of marketing with sales management specialist Atrium.

“We think that sales managers have been almost kind of left out, if you will, in this wave of technology and equipment and instrumentation that’s out there,” he told host Eric Kavanagh, during a recent episode of Inside Analysis, a weekly data- and IT-focused program. Chokshi, too, suggested that the focus of CRM development and innovation, especially in the cloud, seems to be on sales reps.

“We feel like sales managers, when it comes to … not just the art but the science of managing their teams, they’ve been left to their own devices, they’ve been forced to use dashboards and reports within a CRM dashboard [or] within their CRM tools” to do their jobs, he argued.

The problem is that these instruments neither capture nor measure useful metrics, at least from the perspective of sales managers. In some cases, frustrated sales managers have hired dedicated operations analysts to translate from CRM-ese into meaningful metrics. “That’s the gap that we fill at Atrium,” he said.

“Sales managers will use our platform to become data-driven, and to ultimately be more effective when it comes to having coaching and development conversations for the folks on their teams.”

Sales management analytics, with an AI assist

This is good, so far as it goes. But how does Atrium actually accomplish this? Most of the magic happens via analytics: Atrium consolidates information from disparate contexts – Salesforce CRM, email, calendaring, etc. – and runs it against different kinds of pre-built models which correspond to metrics that are of particular interest to sales managers. (So, opportunity age, average cycle time, opportunity conversion rate, share of overall pipeline owned, share of new pipeline owned, pipeline change, etc.) Atrium’s default user experience exposes a pre-built dashboard that the sales manager can modify to suit her preferences, either by populating it with elements from other pre-built dashboards, or – e.g., by manipulating pre-built analytic elements (“cards,” in Atrium-speak) in a GUI design environment – by creating her own views.  Currently, Atrium offers the following pre-built dashboards:

  • End-of-day standup: at-a-glance insight into the performance and activities of sales reps;
  • Weekly 1:1 dash: tools for scheduling, managing, and documenting 1:1 meetings with reps;
  • Clean your room: tools for managing and decluttering sales pipelines;
  • Last-week progress: provides a weekly summary of each sales rep’s performance;
  • End-of-the-week/month: similar to the last-week progress dashboard;
  • First-quarter ramping: self-explanatory;
  • Selling efficiency: also self-explanatory

“So, what we’ll do is we’ll look at your opportunity data, your activity data, the tasks and activities. And then we’ll also pull in data from your calendaring system, we’ll pull in data from your email system, we’ll pull in data from your call-recording system [and your] sales engagement systems, and so on and so forth, and kind of bring it all into a single place,” he explained. “That helps sales managers make sense of all of the different activities that they’re doing, so being able to look at trends in number of meetings that each of the individual reps are having, how many follow-on meetings are they having, what kind of email [engagement] – are they actually engaging in multi-threading.”

Not surprisingly, at least some of the magic comes via an ML-powered god-from-the-machine. “There’s an engine behind the scenes in the app that automatically always just is looking for anomalies [and] looking for trends to help managers kind of say ‘Oh, you know, Jane’s been doing really well when it comes to progressing activities and opportunities from the discovery stage,’” Chokshi told Kavanagh.

Because sales managers need coaching, too

Atrium aims to simplify sales oversight by making it easier for sales managers to identify top-performing sales people, such as Chokshi’s hypothetical “Jane.” From the sales manager’s perspective, he explained, an Atrium dashboard shows “what [Jane has] been doing that you may want to suggest that your other reps do as well, like she’s been doing really well when it comes to multi-threading across an account, meaning she’s actually sending emails and having meetings with a lot of different constituents at each of the accounts in an opportunity that she’s working.”

The fact is, Chokshi suggests, sales managers can use the help. Like Dunder-Mifflin’s Michael Gary Scott, they tend to be very, very good at the “sales” part of their job descriptions – and much less adept at managing and developing sales people. Scott is a caricature among caricatures, to be sure, but his character does have some basis in reality. In too many cases, sales managers end up doing the work of their reps. This is less a function of their tendency to micromanage than of their own killer instinct for sales taking over.

“At least in our experience, the folks who become managers are generally the star reps, and so they’re great at deals, they’re great at kind of managing relationships with clients to kind of get revenue,” he said. “But when it comes to actually coaching and developing their individual reps so that the reps are doing the work, rather than the managers doing the work, there isn’t really a lot of training or equipment that’s provided to those managers, and we felt like that was a really big gaping hole there.” 

So, for example, Atrium provides fact-based insights managers can use when conducting a metrics review with a struggling sales person. The purpose of the review should not be to unduly criticize the sales person, but, rather, to coach her as to how she can improve her performance by focusing on certain key metrics. Absent a tool that can correlate the sales person’s bookings trend with specific up-funnel metrics, the manager may struggle to explain the problem to the sales person, let alone to coach her to do better.

There are some obvious caveats. For example, if you cannot capture what your sales people are doing – that is, if they are engaging with prospects and customers via non-digital channels – it is difficult, if not impossible, to measure their performance, not without imposing onerous digital documenting responsibilities on them. (So far as sales people are concerned, many organizations already do this.) That said, email remains a popular channel for sales communication, while another popular channel – Slack – was recently acquired by Salesforce itself. Data from other common channels, such as SMS, Whatsapp, Snapchat, or even Signal, can also notionally be captured digitally.

In the same way, and for the same reasons, almost all companies have their idiosyncrasies, too, at least with respect to the design of their digital workflows, if not to the structuring of their sales processes. For example, sales teams may also depend on custom or third-party software, in addition to Salesforce CRM, to provide certain functions. If these teams adopt Atrium, they (or their IT departments) must undertake integration work to acquire useful data from these external sources, too.

Notwithstanding these caveats, Chokshi and Atrium’s pitch resonated with Inside Analysis host Kavanagh, who doubles as CEO of analyst firm the Bloor Group. As CEO of a small company, Kavanagh explained, he handles sales management himself: “I manage folks so I know … there are people who are naturally good managers and then there’s the rest of us. But if you have data, you can have much more productive conversations because you can look at the data and say, ‘Looks like you had a lot of success when you were using LinkedIn to reach out to people and that’s kind of tailed off, why did you change?’”

About Vitaly Chernobyl

Vitaly Chernobyl is a technologist with more than 40 years of experience. Born in Moscow in 1969 to Ukrainian academics, Chernobyl solved his first differential equation when he was 7. By the early-1990s, Chernobyl, then 20, along with his oldest brother, Semyon, had settled in New Rochelle, NY. During this period, he authored a series of now-classic Usenet threads that explored the design of Intel’s then-new i860 RISC microprocessor. In addition to dozens of technical papers, he is the co-author, with Pavel Chichikov, of Eleven Ecstatic Discourses: On Programming Intel’s Revolutionary i860.