Selecting the Correct Sales Tool
A guide to the things you should consider and determine when choosing the optimal SFA tool for your company.
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The process of selling profitably is the single most important component of a company's continuing existence. Effective selling tools, which make aspects of the selling process simplified and routine, are key to successful selling. Selecting a Sales Force Automation 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.

Lead and customer 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 (supply chain management) tools integrated or available as an 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 an 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 mission critical or an unnecessary expense.

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.

Determine what specific data and processes a system needs to handle in the enterprise. What happens to the data before and after entering the SFA tool? It is critical to identify, investigate, define and catalog the underlying data. While some SFA tools may 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 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--and by whom--beyond the SFA tool 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" 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 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, 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, salespeople have considered their job to be that of knocking on doors. Consider if the tool will accommodate the sales force's working style or add to the workload. 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. 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 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 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 whether an internal tool or hosted system will best fit with the current environment. Will mobile or 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? Up-time and scalability too, are always concerns, as are upgrade paths.

Age-old administration questions pertain here--what are the costs and benefits 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, determine whether they are customizable to fulfill your needs. Audit some sessions, if possible, as many are conducted online. 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 of having 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 request for proposal, 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 and whether it fits with the growing needs of the company. Will the tools accommodate the company in their development plans? 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 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.

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