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How GE digital transformation won over the sales force

A major part of the GE digital transformation is getting its 25,000 salespeople on board as it rethinks its vast commercial sales function.

Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part series detailing a GE digital transformation initiative targeting the company's sales force. Part one focuses on the vision behind the effort.

When General Electric decided to bring digital transformation to its sales operation, the company knew it had a big job ahead of it: convincing some 25,000 salespeople in 180 countries to get on board with change.

At GE, digital transformation in sales involves more than redesigning processes and deploying productivity tools. The task requires a new mindset about how work gets done, according to Cate Gutowski, vice president of GE Commercial and digital thread. That recognition led to another, more fundamental question: Why?

"To get people to work differently, you need to think about … what is going to get them to jump out of bed in the morning," she said.

Finding the 'why'

Cate GutowskiCate Gutowski

Gutowski said early discussions of sales transformation answered the "why" question in terms of driving growth, increasing speed and boosting productivity. While laudable goals, this litany didn't seem likely to get anyone's blood pumping. GE decided to bring a cross-section of its sales professionals and leaders to Boston to tease out the why of digital transformation.

The core questions, according to Gutowski: "What would a purpose-driven digital transformation look like and what would that purpose be?"

The Boston meeting revealed the GE sales force wants "to wake up every day to build trusted relationships with our customers so, together, we can change the world," Gutowski noted. She said that motivation resonated with sales employees regardless of whether they were selling aircraft engines, electrical power gear or healthcare solutions.

Gutowski said one of her influences over the course of the transformation journey has been Simon Sinek, an ethnographer who studies leadership. Specifically, she cited Sinek's book, Start With Why, which posits people aren't inspired to act unless they understand the why behind a product or project.

Jeanne RossJeanne Ross

Jeanne Ross, principal research scientist at MIT Sloan's Center for Information Systems Research, has argued that understanding why an organization is undergoing digital transformation is critical to its success. Speaking earlier this year at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, she urged corporate leaders to ask themselves how they propose to improve the lives of their customers.

"A company that does not have a clear and active vision of how it will improve individuals' lives … will not transform," she said, even if it succeeds in creating some "cool apps and technology."

GE digital transformation: Building on the vision

Next on the agenda for GE: putting its sales transformation vision into action. That part of the plan is unfolding within the broader context of GE's digital thread initiative, which Jim Fowler, CIO at GE, said aims to find a new way of linking processes, and the data and systems surrounding them, to drive productivity.

Gutowski said her role is to lead the digital thread effort for GE Commercial, a term that refers to the company's enterprise-wide sales activities. In that capacity, she works as a business partner with Fowler, who she said "has really been leading the digital thread initiative.

"We have been partnering with [Fowler] and his team very closely," she said. "The commercial function is really important in the company -- it is really the biggest of the digital threads that are going to flow through the company."

To get people to work differently, you need to think about ... what is going to get them to jump out of bed in the morning.
Cate Gutowskivice president of commercial digital thread, GE

The sheer size and scope of GE's sales force, spanning 11 business units, targeting global markets and generating massive amounts of data, meant the company had many potential targets for transformation. But what projects should get priority? Where would the GE digital transformation generate the greatest benefits?

"The hardest thing … is what should we focus on first and how do we prioritize our effort so we can have the most impact," Gutowski observed. As with the transformative vision, GE asked the sales team to supply the answer.

As it turns out, what GE salespeople are most interested in is greater visibility. For example, a field sales staffer from GE Aviation calling on an airline account wants to know if someone from GE Lighting is also calling on his or her customer. A GE Digital salesperson, meanwhile, may want a warm introduction when calling on a hospital account from his or her counterpart at GE Healthcare.

In some cases, a lead from a fellow salesperson can provide a considerable head start when cultivating new business opportunities. GE Energy Connections may sell power generators and other elements of electrical infrastructure to a healthcare facility prior to its construction. If a GE Healthcare sales rep knew of that relationship, the process of selling healthcare equipment could start a couple of years before the facility is even built, Gutowski said.

Seeing more = winning more

But those connections are hard to make if salespeople lack ready access to sales data across GE's business lines.

"If we can see more, we can win more," is how Gutowski summarized the issue.

A study of sales opportunities shows that GE wins 75% of the time when it gets to the customer first, she added. So, sniffing out potential deals before rivals is a significant plus. But to deliver the benefits of greater visibility -- the sales force's top GE digital transformation request -- would call for the company to create a single master customer database spanning its business units' sales operations.

Gutowski said she consulted with a couple of experts who had been through similar database projects and was told the job would take two years to complete. But before embarking on the database work, Gutowski said she received a challenge from Fowler: "Can you do it in half the time?"

Next: Find out how GE Commercial dealt with the customer database project's accelerated schedule in the second part of this GE digital transformation series.

Next Steps

Find out what Microsoft's digital transformation means for corporate CIOs

Learn how to distinguish actual digital transformation projects from the wannabes

GE digital transformation explained by CIO Jim Fowler

This was last published in September 2017

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