The Best Service Firms Invest in Sales and Marketing

The proof is in the margins
by Jeanne Urich and Dave Hofferberth, SPI Research

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At this year’s Oracle OpenWorld, the shift from a product-driven to a service-driven world was evident. Each year over 60,000 aficionados flock to San Francisco to hear about the latest Oracle developments. In the central exhibit areas, the product-oriented tech titans of the past — Sun, PeopleSoft, JD Edwards, Retek, Siebel, Agile, Hyperion and Primavera —have been gobbled up by Oracle’s voracious acquisitiveness. In their place, the new tech titans — Tata, Infosys, Wipro, Deloitte, CSC, Accenture, Cap Gemini, Cognizant, PWC and KPMG — have raised their banners. The numbers of product-oriented platinum sponsors, including HP, Dell, NetApp, Cisco, EMC, Fujitsu, Motorola and Brocade, have diminished year over year and the remaining product-oriented firms are scrambling to add services and solution selling capabilities.

Companies move from products to services

Due to shrinking profit margins and product commoditization, product-focused firms are emphasizing services and starting to acquire their way to solution-provider status. HP and Dell are recent examples of product-oriented organizations grasping for some of that tantalizing service gold with their acquisitions of EDS and Perot. According to the September 22nd Wall Street Journal, “The deal is Dell’s biggest ever and the most striking move beyond its core personal-computer business, where profits have dwindled. Combining Perot with Dell’s existing services would bring Dell an $8 billion a year tech-services business and a shot at competing better with IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co. and others in selling services …”

As service has emerged as a differentiator and predictable source of revenue and margin, product and service-oriented firms alike have been forced to invest in solution selling and service marketing.  They have found that marketing and selling services is far more difficult than selling products.  Buyers “experience” services and buy based on reputation and relationships.  Product buyers buy based on features, functionality and direct price comparisons.  The product buying relationship ends with acquisition of the product while the service buying relationship really only begins once the sale has been made.  The bottom-line business impact of services is measured after the service has been consumed or the project has ended.

Oracle’s dominance underscores the power of sales, marketing and service. Arguably the ever-vanishing list of tech titans had as good if not better products than Oracle’s, yet they are gone while Oracle thrives. Oracle’s never-ending focus on sales and marketing coupled with over 50 acquisitions has been a constant differentiator. Years ago Oracle made the decision to become a market-maker and forced industry consolidation leaving SAP, its closest rival, in the dust. Oracle invests 20 percent of every revenue dollar in sales and marketing and derives 80 percent of its revenues from support and professional services.  Although Oracle still emphasizes horizontal products it is increasingly going to market by vertical industry and leading with industry-specific business process domain knowledge.

Dedicated solution sales

In the 2009 Professional Services Maturity Model benchmark, out of 170 participating organizations, seven firms significantly outperformed the benchmark average by scoring 4’s and 5’s (on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the most mature) in most service performance pillar dimensions.

The most dramatic difference between the “best” and the “rest” is the focus on a dedicated solution-selling force. The top firms reinvest almost 20 percent of their professional service revenue in sales and marketing. Embedded service organizations (the service arm of product companies) use the product sales force for lead generation, and invest in dedicated professional service (PS) business development experts, arming them with pricing, estimating, proposal generation and contract management tools. The significant investment in sales and marketing pays off with an almost 40 percent better bid-to-win ratio (7.43 wins per 10 bids) compared to the average.

The “best” lead with paid pre-sales engagements – assessments, site surveys, proof of concepts and conference room pilots which reduce their cost of sale while enhancing their understanding of client requirements.

The “best” invest in marketing to establish their thought leadership and domain knowledge and expertise.  They also understand the value of direct marketing and use events, webcasts,  white papers and tele-sales to generate qualified leads.

Benefits of integrated customer relationship management

As we dug deeper into the effect of sales and marketing on professional service organization (PSO) performance, we found 92 percent of the organizations in the study invested in client relationship management (CRM) ) applications. CRM is second only to core financial applications, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) as a primary IT focus for PSOs. Although most firms recognize the importance of CRM to gauge sales and marketing effectiveness, they predominantly deploy their CRM applications as stand-alone applications, with only 24 percent reporting integration between their CRM application and their core financial applications. For those few firms that have integrated CRM with their core financial system, the performance rewards have been significant.

The effect of a focus on sales and marketing becomes even more apparent as we examine the differences between the firms that have not deployed CRM compared to those that have. The statistics show both the benefits of purchasing and deploying CRM, and more importantly highlight the increased benefits of integrating it with the core financial solution. For example, firms that do not use CRM showed a respectable bid-to-win ratio (number of winning bids out of 10 submitted) of 5. This figure increased to 5.3 when firms deployed CRM, and when they integrated it with their core financial solution, this figure jumped to 5.5.

Priming the pipeline

The performance improvements become even more profound when examining the impact of CRM on pipeline-to-booking percentage. (This is a measure of the size of the qualified deal pipeline to the current quarter bookings forecast.) The recession has caused the pipeline-to-booking benchmark to steadily decline over the past three years, from 240 percent in 2008, to 190 percent in 2009, to 170 percent in our current survey.

PSOs that don’t use a CRM showed the lowest pipeline-to-booking percentage of 100 percent. This figure means the PSO must close and deliver every engagement in the pipeline to hit the current quarter booking forecast. A poor sales pipeline leaves the firm no cushion for error — the organization must win and deliver every single deal in the forecast.

Based on a poor sales pipeline, desperation to achieve the revenue forecast causes firms to commit unnatural acts to win every deal including excessive discounts, concessions and acceptance of unfavorable terms. If the firm is unable to close enough deals, the PSO won’t have enough work to fully engage the staff, which leads to utilization reductions and causes layoffs, poor morale and reduced profits. Firms that purchased CRM showed significant improvement in pipeline-to-booking percentage, with an increase in the size of the pipeline from 100 percent up to 193 percent. This figure climbs to over 200 percent for PSOs that integrate CRM with core financials.

The effect of CRM on margins

Another net effect of purchasing and integrating CRM with core financials is an improvement in overall margins. Research shows that both project gross margins (from 23 to 30 to 37 percent) and contribution margins (from 15 to 22 to 25 percent) appreciate substantially as PSOs purchase and integrate CRM. Integrated CRM and PS applications facilitate the overall business planning process, ensuring opportunities don’t slip through the cracks, and the “right” resources are ready to start the project so firms can generate revenue as soon as possible.

These applications are invaluable for codifying a consistent approach to business development and provide visibility into sales and marketing effectiveness. Enhanced visibility to the number and nature of deals provides a powerful planning tool for service execution. By providing “one source of the truth” about client demand (the types of leads and clients and type of work in the pipeline), the service supply (execution) side of the organization can plan for skills, and engagement location and duration.

Moving beyond seat-of-the-pants selling

The days of solo ‘partner or ‘rainmaker’ seat-of-the-pants selling for complex projects are over. A team approach and well-defined sales methodology are now of paramount importance. Firms consistently report their number-one priority is improving sales and marketing effectiveness to enhance revenue. While cutting costs will never go out of style, the best firms continually expand their service portfolio and constantly add new clients.

The Darwinian pressures of technology consolidation favor PSOs that embrace solution selling. The only survival option for PS firms is to invest in sales and marketing. If one doubts the power of sales and marketing, just look at Oracle’s climb to the top.

There is no time like the present to begin building the pipeline of the future.  Our research shows investments in sales, marketing and CRM provide handsome returns and are a necessary foundation for professional service firm growth and prosperity.