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Douglas Costantini, director of sales operations for Corby Spirit and Wine Ltd., in the Toronto office.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The series: We look at decision makers among Canada's mid-sized companies who took successful action in a competitive global digital economy.

In marketing and selling some of the best-known spirits and imported wines on Canadian liquor shelves across the country, Corby Spirit and Wine Ltd. accounts for 21 per cent of all spirit sales in Canada, according to the company.

With revenue of $140-million in 2016, Corby realized about an $8-million gain from the year before, highlighted by some strong performers such as Jameson Irish Whiskey and Absolut Vodka, which saw shipping growth of 19 and 4 per cent year-on-year, respectively.

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Key performances such as those have been easier for the company to chart since mid-2013, when it put into play a customer relationship management (CRM) system, run on Salesforce.com, an American cloud computing company.

The switch was made in an effort to free up its salespeople, who look after restaurants or liquor and beer stores, or sometimes both, from paperwork and other details so they can focus on building relationships and sales within their designated territories.

Patrick O'Driscoll, president and CEO at Corby Spirit and Wine Ltd., describes the company's I Thank technology, which allows employees to recognize their peers' efforts

"Now you have data at your fingertips, you have tools to really discuss the business with your [store] managers and I think that's a definite advantage," says Douglas Costantini, director of sales operations for Corby in Toronto.

As a result of the change, all of Corby's district managers have now been equipped with electronic tablets. "We've gone from stone tablets to iPad tablets," Mr. Costantini quips.

The switch from paper to an electronic system has given district managers instant access to product information, distinct goals for each brand and territory, and allows them to produce reference materials such as spreadsheets at the touch of a finger, as well as build up a reference history on each account.

"There's still ability to leave paper behind if that's required, but the ability to actually to bring up some sales data to have discussions on their stores is something that's definitely beneficial," Mr. Costantini says, adding that store managers don't have much time for sales people who don't come prepared.

While the CRM is run on a Salesforce platform, it is proprietary to Corby, and came at a cost of just over $500,000.

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The change wasn't easy, though. An undertaking such as this, which involves moving from manual processes over to modern technology and changing the way a company goes about its work, required a total commitment from the entire staff, which numbers about 450 across Canada.

Corby embarked on a cross-country road show with the new system, called Achieving Customer Excellence (ACE), to showcase the new tool in staff workshops, allowing them to get comfortable with a new way of doing business.

"Sales made the decision with the business, but there was a huge project undertaken with IT, with human resources, with corporate communications, to bring the whole organization along because it was a massive change in the way we work," Mr. Costantini says.

However, change such as this takes time, and three and a half years after adoption, Corby should only now be starting to see the fruits of its labour.

"It won't happen overnight," says Derek Major, chief executive officer of Eligeo CRM Inc., a CRM software consulting company in Vancouver. "I tell companies it takes three to five years to really embrace CRM as part of their culture."

While sales is one of the main things that a CRM system helps to improve, marketing and customer service can also be improved, such as offering information on products and services before customers start reaching for their smartphones to find it. Ultimately, that should help improve sales, Mr. Major says.

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"Everyone wants immediacy, they want information at their fingertips, they want to check their social networks for information," he says. "But if you can provide them all that detail instead of them having to run around and find the information, they're going to make a purchase faster."

By putting information right in the palm of employees, a company is enabling them to improve operational efficiency. For instance, by running data, such as appointments, e-mails, clients' purchases, and so on, through a CRM, it cuts out Friday afternoons spent filling out a report about the week.

Scott Billows, the CEO for Belmar Consulting Group in Burnaby, B.C., says switching over to an electronic CRM such as the one used by Corby should result in a rapid bump in efficiency of at least 20 per cent.

One of the key benefits is what he calls "tribal knowledge," where the CRM ensures that every one of a company's employees is on the same page. For example, if a new opportunity arose with a client, the CRM would detail any previous contact that had been made with that client. In that way, it stops sales people stepping on each other's toes, bombarding clients with repeat pitches.

"That, historically, is information that just doesn't get shared easily," Mr. Billows says. "[So now] you can begin to build knowledge across the organization and open up that information to a broader team."

These positives counterbalance the negative perception of some employees who feel that CRM systems monitor them in all aspects of their work, including their location and productivity.

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The management challenge is "to break through those perception issues and ensure that the sales people really see the technology investments as being enabling to their day-to-day activities," says Berkeley Warburton, the Toronto-based managing director of advanced customer strategy for Accenture.

However, the switch to new, improved processes can prove a hindrance as much as a help. An Accenture report produced in conjunction with CSO Insights last year revealed that 59 per cent of global sales executives say they have access to too many sales tools and are overloaded with too much customer data to be truly effective. Another 55 per cent said that sales tools were an obstacle to selling.

It's a fine line, says Ms. Warburton, although she adds that, done properly, tools such as the one CRM Corby is employing can only help its business, both now and into the future, particularly when it comes to providing the kind of predictive sales intelligence that these systems now provide.

“It’s really about striving for the simplification of the sales experience and if you can do it in a way that the sales people feel enabled, they’re getting efficiencies, it’s saving them time, it’s helping them close deals faster … that’s kind of the secret sauce,” she says.

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