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Selecting the Correct Sales Tool

Article By Ari Buchwald May, 2001

The process of selling, both effectively and profitably, is the single most important component of a companies’ continuing existence. So selecting a Sales Force Automation (SFA) tool can be a rather tricky and expensive endeavor, with the most critical issues in SFA tool selection depending on the individual needs of the company. SFA tools simplify and routinize aspects of the selling process.


Specifically, lead and customer contact management, connectivity, reporting and sales and inventory forecasting make up basic product functionality. But with the merging of processes, capabilities and vendors, SFA tools blend with other operational systems. It is not uncommon to see Enterprise (ERP), Partner (PRM), Supply (SCM) or Customer (CRM) tools integrated or available as add-on capability.


When selecting a tool, it is important to consider if the company would benefit most from a CRM tool with SFA capabilities or a SFA tool with CRM capabilities? Depending on the company strategy, integration of other functionality such as e-commerce, business intelligence or knowledge management along with case management collaboration capabilities or even mobile access can be an unnecessary expense or mission critical. This question can help define selection of one system over another.


Set business goals and document processes


To ensure an effective tool selection, define the business goals before selecting a technology solution. Once goals are established, business rules should be set to define the necessary functionality. Review what is happening today, how it has been tweaked or optimized for specific situations, and what the ideal processing should be going forward. Defining goals and processes up front can help avoid costly customization and expensive or ineffective work-arounds.


What specific data and processes does this system need to handle as opposed to others in the enterprise? What happens to the data before entering the SFA tool and after? It is critical to identify, investigate, define and catalog the underlying data. While some SFA tools tend to incorporate other functions, other products make assumptions. It may be in the best interest to select a tool that assumes marketing has occurred and the data being entered into the system is already been cleansed and qualified, but make sure that the tool is compatible with all lead generation marketing and reporting processes - direct mail, telemarketing, trade shows and Web.


Also, consider the relevance and value to the customer of each piece of new technology. Will the tool accommodate and enhance the specific functions of a customer’s interaction with the company such as contact preferences and channel usage? How can this information be used (and by whom) beyond the SFA tool to enhance the next experience this same customer has with the organization?


Data Management & Integration


Make sure that the tool will interact with existing systems. Will it “talk” with, or to the accounting and inventory systems? Does interaction depend on batch file processes? Will it import and export data? Will the system integrate with email or does it offer it’s own email system? How do mobile tools interact with the system? How does it manage synchronization? Not all SFA tools easily expedite ongoing marketing, accounting reconciliation and administration such as batch updates, cleaning of data or mass importing of campaign or contact files.


Some tools use proprietary data management structures to keep customers hooked into their product. Make sure that once data is entered into the system, it can be retrieved and moved to another product or database system.


Ease of operation


Historically, sales have considered their job to be that of knocking on doors. Consider if the tool will accommodate the sales force’s working style or does it add to the workload? Will they keep up on data entry or will they let the tool sit unused? Look for tools that incorporate and expedite data entry processes that fit with the organization’s needs. Will the tool interact with the email and Internet systems, capture and distribute leads automatically and flag opportunities as they age?


Simplification and complexity often butt heads in software solutions. Tools that offer robust functionality can be both good and bad in this case. If a user can do one task three different ways, data and opportunities can get lost in the system. Consider the design of the tool as well as who is using it, how complex the tasks are and how often they will be performed. For instance, if there are three fields used to code the origin of customers and prospects, can the same task be handled with one field? If not, can all three fields remain adjacent on one screen to make their different uses apparent??


Management also requires robust functionality with ease of operation. The ability to define and document processes, create custom reporting, move data, and manage workers can be critical in both large and small sales organizations. The tool selected should expedite both the day-to-day and overall management tasks. Remember, if it does not fit well into the workday, no one will use it. Everyone needs to see the value and be able to use the tool on the fly.


Systems and operations compatibility


There are infrastructure and environment implications as with any tool. Some software packages will integrate directly into the existing LAN or WAN. Others require dedicated servers and dial up access. Consider what will best fit with the current environment, an internal tool, ASP or hosted system. Will mobile or remote users’ ability to work online or do they need to synchronize periodically? How does the system manage backups and upgrades, connectivity and security? Up time and scalability too, are always concerns, as are upgrade paths. Age-old administration questions lie here – what is the cost/benefit of outsourcing? Does infrastructure need to be upgraded? Can the IS or IT department support the system?


Learning the system


While most companies offer training and support, there is a second aspect that is often overlooked. When examining training options, is it customizable? Audit some sessions if possible as many are conducted online nowadays. Is the trainer knowledgeable? Does online training work? Does it fit the specific needs of the company?


Often, vendor training serves to teach functionality but not necessarily usage. Internal administrators are then put into the position to develop company specific training and support.


The goal of sales is growth


If a company is starting on the road to SFA or CRM, the best tool may be an interim solution. Even if this is not the case, a defined upgrade path should be discussed with the vendors and their technology partners. With the rapid growth in this sector, versatility and adaptability are often more important than existing functionality. Since major software RFP, implementation and training projects can potentially consume crucial man hours and even the biggest budgets, it is best to determine when the company may need to go through the selection exercise again.


Check to see what each tool’s development path is, does it fit with the growing needs of the company and will they accommodate the company in their development plans? Often times, a vendor will welcome the opportunity to use customers to field test beta versions of software. This provides an open venue for a company to be heard directly by the developers and have an impact on how the tool fits their growing needs.


As with any piece of mission-critical software, due diligence is key to selecting the proper tool. Also, the process does not stop there. Integration, training and ongoing support have to be considered. Look to build a partner relationship with the SFA vendor, because the sales department is the heart of the company. As long as it is pumping strong, the rest of the company can keep moving forward.