In Conversation With: Haya Ajjan

CSO Insights recently enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion with Haya Ajjan, Associate Professor of Management Information Systems at Elon University in North Carolina. Having earned both an MBA and a PhD in IT, Haya brings a unique perspective to her research on sales, social media and information technology. She is the coauthor of “Social Media in Large Sales Forces: An Empirical Study of the Impact of Sales Process Capability and Relationship Performance” and many other scholarly papers.

In 2016, Haya created a center for analytics at her university that currently has students working on projects in the areas of social network analysis and data optimization. Always being alert to practical applications of academic research led to off-campus projects such as creating a web-based dashboard for North Carolina that allows the state to monitor and track its global engagement efforts.

These projects led to the CEO of a company with a large sales force reaching out to her for help in using analytics to improve salesperson retention. The company has about 21,000 salespeople, and the challenges that arise from turnover [see our 2018 Sales Talent Study] are especially acute at this scale.

The CEO asked Haya to find a way to predict which salespeople were most at risk of voluntarily leaving the organization. Her team collected three sources of data to triangulate:

  1. Salesperson performance data
  2. A survey to capture sales reps’ perceptions of training and engagement, level of commitment to the company, likelihood of leaving or staying, reasons they joined the company, and their creativity and other elements of perception
  3. Salespeople’s social media postings

“With these three sources,” she told us, “we were able to understand their social media influence, their work performance in general and their perceptions of their company. This is actually something new in the literature; there has been triangulation of data sources before, but not with the social media aspect.”

One surprising finding that emerged from this analysis is the impact creativity has on organizational commitment. “It’s a very strong impact,” Haya said. “We found creativity to be a very strong indicator for someone’s likelihood to remain in the company.”

In addition, social media engagement in general is higher among salespeople who are more likely to stay in their current jobs. “This is very revealing,” Haya noted, “because we always talk about social media as a way to engage with external customers, but it can also tell us something about turnover.”

Regarding sales organizations’ more typical use of social media – to engage with external customers – she also has some advice: First, “figure out what it is that you want. Is your goal to offer customer support or to broadcast information? Figuring out your strategy is really important. You may start with one approach and adjust your strategy based on what your customers want. Not enough organizations begin with a strategy. We treat social media as a must-have – and maybe in today’s world you do need that visibility – but take the extra step to do the analytics and understand what you want to create.”

Haya commented that in the past, performing social network analytics might have required third-party expertise. “But today, if you already have an analytics team in place within the organization – even if you have a person who’s just running and understanding your data in smaller organizations – with just a little bit of reading you could actually understand how a social network analysis is run and how it could be set up, so you don’t need to go to a consulting firm. I think companies could do that internally.”

Haya’s background in information technology and experience working with sales organizations led us to ask her how technology will change sales in the near future. “Regarding personnel, I’d say that near-term, technology will provide augmentation, not replacement, of salespeople. What we’re seeing in terms of general patterns and trend reports is that lead-generation efforts could be simplified via the use of technology. For example, sending personalized emails could be automated.”

She also sees AI as having a bigger role early in the buying cycle and the human seller coming in later: “The salesperson will mostly be involved in the later process of closing the sale and building the relationship. Also, we expect AI to play a big support role in helping the salesperson as they’re talking with their client to determine the likelihood of a sale based on historical data. This is an area where different tools and add-ons are being introduced to a traditional or more established CRM system. So that’s also very exciting. If you’re looking at the entire sales process, it seems like the lead process and then the assistance in closing the sale and then performance evaluation as it happens later on in the cycle are three of the processes that we’re seeing being streamlined or augmented right now – already – by the use of AI.”

Our thanks to Haya Ajjan for taking the time to talk with us. For further reading, see our previous conversations with other distinguished academics:

In Conversation With: Michael Ahearne

In Conversation With: Tom Steenburgh

In Conversation With: Robert Peterson

And, as always, we invite you to participate in our most recent survey – The World-Class Sales Practices Study.

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