Can Gamification Improve SFA Adoption?

Game dynamics have long been used to spur salespeople to close sales and surpass quota. With new tools and strategies, gamification also may be a solution to the ongoing challenge of SFA adoption.

Sales force automation (SFA) adoption problems have been vexing businesses for years. This challenge even spawned a cottage industry of tedious academic studies and heady debates over taking a "carrot" versus a "stick" approach to motivate salespeople to use SFA as part of their daily routine.

Maybe there's a less bookish, more appealing solution to this problem.

"Could gamification improve the adoption of sales force automation software?" asks CRM Analyst Lauren Carlson of Software Advice. "It seems logical that gaming elements would appeal to salespeople-a notoriously competitive bunch-and get them more engaged with the software. Is it time for SFA vendors to dust off those consoles and get their game on?"

Other analysts think so. Gartner projects that within the next three years more than 70 percent of Global 2000 organizations will possess at least one gamified application.

The term gamification is used to describe the broad application of game mechanics (think of portions of your favorite video game that spur you to keep playing and get better at the game) to non-game environments, "such as innovation, marketing, training, employee performance, health, and social change," notes Brian Burke, an analyst at Gartner. Other gamification experts use the term to describe "techniques that encourage and capture intrinsic human behavior and match them with extrinsic rewards."

The practice itself is not new. For decades call centers have used leader boards to display key performance metrics for their individual reps, sales managers have posted sales-to-date versus quota for each of their salespeople, and employee training programs have awarded points (or badges) for completed courses.

What is new is the notion that gamification might help improve SFA adoption and utilization, from a quantitative and qualitative perspective.

"Most SFA implementations only address the goal of automating the sales force," notes Vincent Beerman, director of development for Spectrum DNA. That's a problem because effective SFA adoption and utilization hinges on effectively socializing the sales force in a way that establishes SFA usage as a norm. Gamification, through its "use of interactive on-boarding techniques to teach the rules and explain the objectives," can provide that socialization, Beerman points out.

This helps explains why Gartner's Burke exhorts CIOs and IT planners to learn about gamification and then lead its introduction to their organization by educating their functional and operational colleagues about its potential benefits.

Sales executives may not want to wait for CIOs to come to them.

"I think most salespeople would consider learning and using a new SFA system 'tedious or unappealing' regardless of the purported efficiency or profitability rewards," Beerman explains. "By applying game dynamics to SFA initiatives, managers can highlight the intrinsic rewards of helping others on the team [using] social indicators, while providing the right extrinsic rewards for more mundane tasks."

Gartner identifies four ways of driving engagement, such as software utilization, using gamification:

  1. Accelerate feedback. Feedback loops like yearly performance appraisals take too long between milestones to deliver much impact. Gamification significantly shortens the time in a feedback loop, which maintains engagement.
  2. Clarify goals and rules. Goals can be unclear and rules are often applied selectively. Gamification requires clearly defined goals and rules of play to ensure that employees understand their specific objectives and feel that it's possible to achieve them.
  3. Tell a compelling narrative. Real-world activities tend to be more mundane than engaging. Use gamification to build a story that engages salespeople to participate in specific activities and aim to achieve the goals linked to it.
  4. Use challenging but achievable tasks. Real-world challenges tend to be large and are often long term. Gamification provides salespeople with a set of short-term, achievable goals, which helps to maintain engagement over the long term.

Carlson of Software Advice identifies several potential applications of gamification to increase SFA adoption. For example, she notes that companies can give reps "badges" as a sign of achievement: Whenever a sales rep completes a certain level of SFA training, they receive a badge that appears on their profile. Carlson also suggests publically posting data quality scoreboards, which display the average number of days since an SFA application user has updated his or her records. "This simple addition of gaming mechanics turns a repetitive, menial task into a challenge," Carlson reports.

While this sounds good in theory, effective gamification requires much more than making a game out of a mundane task. Beerman and Carlson also assert that effective gamification deploys the "science of human motivation" to drive measurable actions.

"One issue be aware of is that gaming techniques can be seen as manipulative," say Michael Hugos, principal at Center for Systems Innovation and author of Business in the Cloud: What Every Business Needs to Know about Cloud Computing. For example, it would be counterproductive to using game techniques like expert badges and contests in place of more traditional incentives. "That's a big mistake," he explains. "When people are trying to earn a living, offering games instead of cash is not going to fool anyone. Use games in addition to cash, or use games for activities that people do not get paid for in the first place. Don't try to reduce sales commissions or pay rates by substituting games and reward badges. You will destroy trust and get the opposite response from the one you hoped for."

Will gamification inspire higher SFA adoption and utilization? It's too early to tell. But according to Beerman, several major technology companies are putting down their academic research and looking for ways to adopt this more playful solution.