Sales Force Automation: Standalone or Suite Component?

A few years back, an SFA package was the obvious choice when a firm wanted software to boost sales performance. But today, searching the market for the right package is much more complicated. The industry has embraced a new buzzword--CRM--and as with many buzzwords, this one has been stretched to encompass so many meanings, it's hard to pin down a definition. Some products that call themselves CRM contain exactly the features companies traditionally sought in an SFA system. Others combine sales automation with tools aimed at marketing, customer service and support, e-commerce and other customer-facing functions. Some CRM systems don't address field sales at all.

The variety of CRM products can breed confusion in a company looking to implement software for its sales force. If a company wants to link all of its customer touchpoints, should it buy a full CRM suite from a single vendor? Or should it choose the best IT tools it can find for each activity and then integrate them?

When Silos Converge

Traditional SFA systems provide tools such as to-do lists, appointment calendars and quotation generators to help sales associates work efficiently. SFA also helps sales managers monitor reps' activities, analyze performance and make forecasts.

stand-alone SFA packages predate integrated CRM suites. "CRM really got started with a bunch of disparate modules" automating functions such as sales, tcall centers, marketing and field service, says Denis Pombriant, research director in the CRM group at the Aberdeen Group in Boston. "It was only over the last two years that a critical mass of vendors consolidated all those modules into product offerings."

Even before comprehensive CRM products emerged, analysts tracked gross sales of CRM as a market category, along with sales by individual product function. "SFA has been the leading selling module every year in CRM," Pombriant says. The reason, he says, is simple: Companies spend money to make money or cut costs, and SFA is very good at helping companies make money.

A report published last February by Boston-based AMR Research, however, paints a gloomier picture of SFA's career. Surveying 100 companies that have implemented CRM solutions, AMR found that only 37 percent had included SFA modules. Many CRM projects have brought disappointing results, AMR contends, and much of the tarnish surrounding CRM originates from the failure of sales force automation.

The Holistic Approach

Regardless of where each module ranks in the CRM marketplace, many vendors that once addressed a single customer touchpoint have recently broadened their portfolios, developing complementary modules or acquiring other firms for the sake of their software. Vendors say they are responding to customer demand.

"People realized the advantage of having a shared database between sales and support," says Jeremy Klages, product marketing manager for the SalesLogix product line at Interact Commerce in Scottsdale, Ariz. SalesLogix started as an SFA system, but it now includes marketing functions as well as a module to track customer support activity.

Proponents of broad-based CRM say an integrated system helps sales reps understand their customers better than standalone SFA. A rep preparing to call on a customer, for instance, might check the CRM system to learn if that customer has any outstanding service issues, says John Dillon, CEO at CRM vendor Salesforce.com.

Integrated CRM takes a holistic approach, which ultimately benefits the sales department, Dillon says. "Today, companies in our business talk about having a 360 degree view of the customer. If you can achieve that, then ultimately you will augment the selling process."

Like Salesforce.com and Interact Commerce, Invensys CRM in Golden, Colo., also started as an SFA vendor but now addresses marketing and customer support as well. Sales, however, remains at the heart of its strategy.

"Sales force automation is certainly critical in the entire arena of CRM, and that's why we've focused on it so much, along with some other areas that are also critical in supporting the sales initiative--such as pricing, configuration, quotations and proposals and call centers," says Don Brower, the company's vice president of product management, marketing and strategic alliances.

Adding SFA Last

The evolution from single-purpose product to CRM suite doesn't necessarily start with SFA. E.piphany, based in San Mateo, Calif., entered the CRM market four years ago with products that allowed companies to analyze data about their customers. It introduced an SFA module only in May of this year.

In the past, customers used E.piphany's software to analyze data obtained from SFA systems they already had in place from companies such as Siebel Systems and Pivotal, says Paul Rodwick, vice president of market development and strategy at the company. E.piphany built its own sales module because customers felt that existing SFA systems were inadequate, he says.

"Classic SFA has been all about a tool for the sales managers to understand the pipeline and forecast and manage their teams," Rodwick says. SFA serves the sales team best when it can draw intelligence from a full CRM suite. "To be effective, you have to understand who your customers and prospects are and understand the business they've done with you," he says. The only way to keep customers and win more of their business "is by bringing customer information together across marketing, sales, service...then you need to deliver that in a way that's useful to the sales rep."

Another vendor that only recently added SFA to its CRM package is TechExcel in Lafayette, Calif. TechExcel started out selling tools that software developers use to track defects in their applications. It entered the CRM market when customers asked for software to help their technical support staffs. It later added modules for marketing, asset management and, just this spring, sales.

Jeff Johnstone, senior director of marketing at TechExcel, agrees with Rodwick that SFA and other modules work best when they work together. "Our philosophy is that by integrating all those pieces, not just focusing on one, you can better serve the customer," he says.

Help Desk Informs Sales

Like vendors, customers may enter the CRM arena by automating a single area, such as field sales, but later broaden their scope.

Push, in Santa Barbara, Calif., is an ASP; it hosts software developed by other firms. Push became a customer of SalesLogix in 1999. Before choosing SalesLogix, Push executives examined many CRM packages. But at the time, they weren't thinking about functions beyond sales automation, says Dayna Birkley, vice president of business development at Push.

Since the company had just changed the focus of its business and was only starting to acquire customers, SFA was the top priority. "When we bought it, we didn't even have our customer support desk yet," Birkley says. When Push finally launched its help desk, SalesLogix's customer support module became "super important."

Customer support data also helps the sales process at Push. While renegotiating a contract, for example, a sales rep can find out how often that customer's employees are calling the help desk. If the volume is heavy, "perhaps it's because they're not getting the training they need. That raises my cost, and as a result, obviously I need to raise my prices. That's invaluable information," Birkley says.

Grown-Up CRM

When EDS, the global provider of IT and business management services, implemented Invensys CRM in its sales organizations, officials there knew they wanted to tie together sales and marketing data. They didn't think about integrating customer service activities as well. But that's all changed, says Michael Petersen, technical delivery manager for sales productivity and automation in EDS's global sales organization in Plano, Texas.

"Our implementation of Invensys showed us what we've been missing--big time. We've begun to receive benefits from being able to see globally how a service offering is selling, to what kind of client, in what kind of industry and where." The software also helps EDS measure sales activity and coordinate activities among sales reps calling on clients.

Sharing data throughout its sales organization has paid off so well, EDS now plans to link all data pertaining to each of its clients through a common identifier to be used in its service excellence application, its sales and marketing activities and its financial systems. By default, EDS will achieve this by integrating separate applications, rather than applying Invensys CRM in all three areas. The company has developed its own service excellence dashboard, and it uses SAP's ERP software in the financial area.

Attaching More Tools

NetCom Solutions International, a network services provider in Chantilly, Va., also got its feet wet in CRM by implementing software with a strong sales orientation. The company chose Salesnet, which promotes the concept of sales process management (SPM)--identifying a sales organization's best practices and then building them into its software as standards for all reps to follow.

Salesnet recently took its first step beyond pure SFA when it purchased LeadMinder, a vendor of software for marketing and lead prospecting. "We're becoming closer to what has traditionally been called CRM," Mike Doyle, Salesnet's chairman and CEO, but the company's emphasis is still largely on SFA.

That tight focus was fine with NetCom when it chose the system. As a new company, "we did not want to put out a lot of investment money up front, because we were dealing with our training and a learning curve; we have to get people embracing this type of technology," says Andrea Gilbertson, sales process coordinator at NetCom.

But now that the company is reaping benefits from SFA, it's looking at other portions of the CRM spectrum. "Our plan in the future is to enlarge the concept and attach various integrated tools that would work with Salesnet," Gilbertson says. These solutions will come from other companies.

How Sweet is a Suite?

Keith Raffel, founder and chairman of UpShot in Mountain View, Calif., doesn't care whether the industry calls his Web-based system SFA or CRM. "We're a software company." UpShot's product offers "aspects of marketing, customer support, etc.," but for full-blown applications, he recommends that customers locate vendors that offer the best products in each area.

"There's no company that offers the best of breed in five different applications areas," Raffel says. Chances are, none of the modules in a broad CRM suite will be the best available for that function, he says. "We focus all our attention on one application and solution. If we had the same number of engineers focusing on three, I promise you none of the applications would be best of breed."

Aberdeen Group's Pombriant disagrees that a CRM suite can't deliver a series of excellent applications. "Assuming that one or many are going to be mediocre is the same logical fallacy as assuming that they're all going to be great," he says. "Given enough time and unlimited resources, you could buy best of breed and hire some high-priced consulting firm to put it all together for you." But few users have that luxury.

Define Your Needs

An accurate self-diagnosis can help a company identify its most pressing needs and keep those in mind as it evaluates vendors, Pombriant says. Gil Cargill, vice president of sales and marketing at Salesnet, agrees that a company should analyze its needs and develop a strategy before choosing a CRM solution. "I believe that these suites have been assembled because the technology exists to allow them to be assembled. But I don't believe very many of them ever get fully implemented." Implementations fail because companies don't define, document and manage their business processes before bringing in technology, he says.

"At the end of the day, it's important that each aspect of a technology application to sales and marketing be examined as both a stand-alone and as part of the whole," Cargill says. "When you do that, it becomes relatively clear where you'll get the bang for your buck."

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