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Choosing the Right Sales Tool
In order to select a proper sales force automation tool, you must take into account the exact business needs of your company, including your processes, training needs, business rules, connectivity and the interests of your customers.
Posted Dec 5, 2001
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Selling profitably is the most important component of a company's survival. Effective selling tools, which simplify the selling process, are key to this process. Selecting a Sales Force Automation (SFA) tool can be a tricky and expensive endeavor, with its most critical issues depending on the individual needs of the company.

Contact management, connectivity, reporting and sales and inventory forecasting make up basic sales tool functionality. But with the merging of processes, capabilities and vendors, SFA products blend with other operational systems. It is not uncommon to see ERP, PRM, CRM or SCM tools integrated or available as an add-on capability.

When selecting a tool, consider if the company would benefit most from a CRM tool with SFA capabilities or an SFA tool with CRM capabilities. Depending on the company strategy, integration of other functionality such as e-commerce or knowledge management can be mission critical or an unnecessary expense.

Set Business Goals and Document Processes
To ensure an effective tool selection, define the business goals first. Vusiness rules should then be set to define the necessary functionality. Review current processes, how they have been optimized for specific situations and what needs improving. Defining goals and processes up front can help avoid costly customization and work-arounds.

Determine what specific data and processes a system needs to handle. What happens to the data before and after entering the SFA tool? Investigate, define and catalog the underlying data. It may be best to select a tool that assumes the data being entered into the system has 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? It is important to know whether this information can be used to enhance the next experience this same customer has with the organization.

Data Management and Integration
Make sure that the tool will interact with existing systems. Will it "talk" to the accounting and inventory systems? Does interaction depend on batch file processes? Will it import and export data? Will the system integrate with e-mail or does it offer its own e-mail 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 or mass importing of 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 database system.

Ease of Operation
Consider if the tool will accommodate the sales force's working style. Will salespeople 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. Such tools should interact with the e-mail and Internet systems, capture and distribute leads automatically and flag opportunities as they age.

Simplification and complexity often butt heads in software solutions. 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 information 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 all sales organizations. The tool selected should expedite both 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 whether an internal tool or hosted system will best fit with the current environment. Will remote users be able to work online or will they need to synchronize periodically? How does the system manage backups and upgrades, connectivity and security?

Learning the System
When examining training options, determine whether they are customizable to fulfill your needs. Audit some sessions, if possible. 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 then have 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. In any case, a defined upgrade path should be discussed with the vendors. With the rapid growth in this sector, versatility and adaptability are often more important than existing functionality.

Check to see what each tool's development path is and whether it fits with the growing needs of the company. Often, 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 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. Integration, training and ongoing support must also 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.

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