When most large companies use the word “innovation,” they’re talking about new products, services, technologies, or business models. Changing how they sell is often the last thing they mean.

GE Vice President Cate Gutowski thinks that’s a big mistake. “A lot of companies do forget about the sales force when they’re thinking about innovation, but it’s actually one of the most important things to consider,” Gutowski told listeners during a recent Innovation Leader Live conference call. “A lot of companies do think about product innovation. [But] what we’re focused on right now is commercial innovation. In order to innovate inside your company, you don’t have to spend millions of dollars on new products and R&D. You actually can innovate on the commercial side of your business.”

Gutowski adds that “the way that we sold in the past isn’t going to work for how we have to sell in the future.” So experimenting with new tools to help them collaborate better and use their time more efficiently can have major ROI.

Weaving the Digital Thread

My role has got two aspects to it. I lead the sales function for the company. In addition to that, I’m also responsible for driving our digital sales transformation. We refer to this internally as the “Digital Thread.” What that means is, it’s about how we create a digital DNA for the company?

One of the things that we recognize is that data is important. We believe that data is the new oil.

We have 25,000 sellers across 180 countries in tons of different business units… [But] essentially, sales hasn’t changed in GE over the last 20 years… When I spend time in the field, whether it’s in our health care business or our oil and gas business, what I’ve found is that the tools of the sales force are still the same as when I first started 20 years ago.

The tools are…PowerPoint, product-focused training, outcomes selling training. We’ve come to a realization that that’s just not good enough. One of the things that’s really important is, we’re trying to transform the company from a 125-year old industrial company to a digital industrial.

One of the hard questions we’ve had to ask ourselves is, “Are we thinking, acting, and working like a digital industrial?”

One of the areas where it’s more important than ever is with our sales teams. Our sales teams are our frontline to our customers. Our sales teams represent the company’s brand. They represent who GE is. …It’s important to be very thoughtful about how the sales team works, acts, and thinks, so that we can reflect this new digital industrial focus that we have.

Low-Cost Commercial Innovation

We don’t have a technology stack for sales. It’s just having a CRM be a system which is, essentially, a database. It isn’t modern, it isn’t contemporary. What we’re focused on is modernizing our sales force.

Most of the time, a lot of companies do forget about the sales force when they’re thinking about innovation, but it’s actually one of the most important things to consider. A lot of companies do think about product innovation. What we’re focused on right now is commercial innovation. In order to innovate inside your company, you don’t have to spend millions of dollars on new products and R&D. You actually can innovate on the commercial side of your business.

New value propositions to your customers, new ways of working with your customers that look like new business models. There’s all types of commercial innovation and a lot of them…don’t cost any money.

It’s about creativity. What a lot of people don’t realize is that our customers are changing. …All of your customers have something in common, which is they’re [users] of the current consumer internet.

Because of the ease and the simplicity that companies like Amazon and Apple and others bring, one of the realizations we’ve had here at GE, is we’ve had a realization that our customers demand the same level of simplicity and ease of use. We have to significantly improve our customer experience. That all starts with sales.

Is Data The Rocket Fuel of Sales?

In the next few years, the most important asset that we have is our data. One of the realizations that we came to was that we were spending so much time, money, and investment on our financial data, but we were spending no time or money on our commercial data, or on our customer data.

I would argue that our customer data is going to be more important than our financial data, because the companies that win and lose in the future are all going to be the ones that deliver the best customer experience.

For the 20 years that I’d been in GE, selling and leading sales teams, one of the simple things that I’d wanted but we didn’t have, is I wanted a warm introduction to our customers. We have 300,000 GE employees, [and] 25,000 are in sales. I wanted to access the 25,000 sellers that could give me a warm introduction.

In the past, if I wanted to go call on ExxonMobil in Houston, I would spend three weeks, on average, emailing and then calling around the company in order to find the right person that could give me a warm introduction to Exxon in Houston. I just thought that’s crazy. It’s not modern, it’s not contemporary.

We took our 50 instances of our CRM system. We laced them all together. We spent a lot of time creating a data governance model, a data governance standard. Then, we did the hard stuff. … We got over 100 people—CIOs, sales leaders, commercial excellence leaders—to agree on those customer standards and then to implement them in their processes.

The outcome of all of that work—coupled with machine learning technology from Tamr, who’s actually a fantastic local startup in Cambridge [Mass.]—all of that together enabled us to take 1.5 billion disparate data sets and neatly organize them into 350,000 customer entities.

The punchline is that now, if any seller goes into our CRM system, they can get that warm introduction to ExxonMobil in seconds, because all of our data is connected and integrated.

They can see in seconds, not weeks of persistent calling and emailing, exactly who are the 12 people in the company right now selling to ExxonMobil, and how can they get in touch with them.

The 13-Month Selling Year

We have a sales bill of rights. One of the rights of our sales force is the right to be mobile. We’ve proven through regression analysis that the more facetime the healthcare sales team has with the customer, the more they win.

What we were looking for was, “What digital tools could we develop that would essentially enable a sales team to never have to open up their computer? To never have to spend time manually entering data into a CRM system?”

In partnership with another startup, we used artificial intelligence technology to create something that we’re really proud of, which is called the GE Digital Assistant.

You go on a sales call [and] there’s those golden five minutes after the sales call where you remember everything. That’s the time that you need to capture the data, the information, the follow-up so that you can have a high “say-do” ratio with with the customer and continue to build on the relationship.

Today, the way our sellers are capturing that information is… at the end of the day, when they’re tired, when they’re cranky, when they just want to go to bed but they can’t, because they have to enter it into CRM.

What ends up happening is they put that off. The result is, we don’t have enough data in our CRM, and we don’t have enough of the right data. We don’t have good data quality.

The GE Digital Assistant solves that problem by enabling the sales force to capture either via text or through voice, like Siri or Alexa, all the information from the customer meeting in a simple way.

We had one of our health care leaders said to me, “Cate, in one day, I was able to see more customers than I ever have before, and I was able to never open up the CRM system. …Yet, I was able to add data into the CRM system eight times today, whereas in the past, I either wouldn’t have entered it into the CRM system, or I would have only entered it once per day at the end of the day.”

He said, “I never even had to open up my laptop. … This is the best day ever.”

Measuring Face-Time

The way that we sold in the past isn’t going to work for how we have to sell in the future. Our customers are so much more savvy, and they demand more value. The old days of me going to Starbucks headquarters in Seattle and winning a $50 million LED lighting deal all by myself are gone.

Today, in order to win deals, our teams need ways to rapidly collaborate with all of the other functions. One of the realizations that we’ve come to is that we have to enable that rapid collaboration.

The types of metrics that we’re looking at now are more about, how much face time do you have with customers? What we’ve found through the Digital Assistant work…is that our sales team now is saving two to five hours on average per week, and they’re using that time back with the customer. In addition, we’re finding out that data quality is so important.

When sales teams are reporting that they’re updating CRM 8 times in one day in our healthcare business and 16 times a day on average for our GE Digital business. … That tells us that we’re starting to improve data quality.

That’s important because there’s people in finance, marketing, and in engineering that all want to help the sales force win more and win faster.

But we’ve never given the other enabling functions a way to work with the sales team easily because the data in CRM was always so bad.

Startup Collaborations and Our CRM Platform

We’re now working on the sales forecasting, for example, as a collaboration between finance, and IT, and sales. We also work with GE Ventures, because GE Ventures sees a lot of innovation as they’re evaluating startups to invest in. Collaborating with them has been very fruitful, and has led us to a lot of new partnerships with startups that have technology that can benefit the work we’re trying to do on Digital Thread.

It’s a work in progress. … I think we should continue to be more connected than we are.

We’re currently partnered with Salesforce.com, which has been a great partner for us, and so [our CRM is] not a home-grown system. We’ve been innovating with them and partnering with them to try to continue to improve the product so that it meets more of our needs. The GE Digital Assistant is an overlay on top of Salesforce.

…We’re obsessed with startups [at GE.] We want to be a startup. One of the things that we tried to do is we challenged ourselves to think, act, and work like startups.

That means testing, learning, failing, iterating, and doing that in a consistent process…

I’ll be honest, there’s a lot of type A people, including myself, that feel like they have to be perfect. We have a lot of them here. Culturally, that’s our biggest barrier.

One of the things I’ve tried to do is be as vocal as I can—and I know other leaders in the company have done the same—[is] that failure is not bad. It’s actually really, really good. If we’re going to get so much better as a company, we’ve got to start getting bruised a bit more.

‘Do We Really Need So Many Salespeople?’

I think that the role of sales is completely changing. If you understand your buyer’s journey, the buyer wants to buy completely differently than they did even two to three years ago. What that’s done is that’s helped us to see that there’s an opportunity for a new division of labor. In other words, “Do we really need so many salespeople?”

What we need is more investment in the front end marketing. A customer wants to hear about an interesting case study at a conference, or they want to read a great white paper on LinkedIn. We need more marketing investment on the front end.

Then, we need more investment in inside sales, because customers don’t actually want to see a person. They want to just engage in ways that are easier for them, which might be over LinkedIn or online or what have you.

We actually need salespeople much later in the process. That’s a new division of labor we’ve been putting into practice in some businesses.The other question is…how do you attract people into the sales community?

Our former CEO, Jeff Immelt, asked me that same question at a dinner he put together in 2014.

The topic [of the dinner] was how do we get more women into sales, and how do we get more women into sales leadership? The way I responded was by creating a new program called, “Leadership Through Storytelling: If You Can See It, You Can Be It.”

The whole idea is that sales and sales leadership is actually a wonderful place for women to grow their careers and actually balance the needs of family and so forth.A lot of people don’t think that, because they think it’s a lot of travel and things like that, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s a lot of roles in the commercial function that can enable new types of talent to be successful.

The future sellers are going to be people from all different functions. Great financial people are going to make great sales leaders. People with great marketing expertise are going to make great sellers. Sales and marketing are starting to combine.

Will Automation and AI Threaten the Human Sales Force?

I understand the concern [about AI and sales]. One of the things I believe is that AI can actually significantly improve the way we sell, and it’s not here to take away jobs or replace them. I look at it the next evolution, right? This is the fourth evolution that’s coming.

We’ve been incubating some artificial intelligence technology. It’s similar to Waze for sales. It tells you if you have a 10 percent chance of winning this deal or an 80 percent chance of winning this deal. How do you continue to improve your odds of winning?

We’ve learned a lot. It’s all about understanding what’s important to your sales team. Tools like the Digital Assistant have been a home run for us, because it demonstrates to the sales team that you care, that you don’t want them to have to spend time manually entering data into a CRM, that there’s easier, more contemporary ways of doing it.

You have to start small, and you have start on things that are more of a home run, before you move to other things like division of labor. At the end of the day, it’s all about enabling them to sell more and win faster. Any sales professional that’s worth their salt knows that they want to just sell. It’s just about helping make that connection.