Crossing the Pond: SFA Software Goes International

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Read any business news, and you know this is the era of global commerce. Companies of all kinds are opening offices in places that were unimaginably exotic to a previous generation. The Internet is everywhere. It's never been easier to be international, and more and more big companies are setting sail for distant ports.

Out there, success is found in leveraging the strengths that made the company successful in its home market. This means translating relevance and functionality to the global sales front. The information that drove sales initiatives at home needs to be pushed around the world, yet still communicated in an effective way.

Sales force automation technology is helping many global businesses bridge geographical and cultural oceans to compete more effectively in the new international marketplace.

Going abroad is nothing new for sales force automation vendors themselves. Many are already global companies; the passports of players like SAP, Baan, Siebel, Vantive and Pivotal are full of stamps from the many lands in which they sell and support products. Their customers include both global companies that want a single, proven platform worldwide that can be locally customized and local companies that see the advantage of leveraging world-class technology.

But can one SFA solution fit all? What works in Denver doesn't necessarily work in Dubai. Not only are there issues of technology, but any effective solution has to deal with the complexities of language, culture, currencies and a variety of other international differences. How can an SFA application be relevant in all these different markets? How can it be localized and supported across various geographical areas? How can the software vendor understand selling in these different places?

Travels with one U.S. vendor with a growing list of international deployments help explain the role SFA is playing on the global stage.

Based in Waltham, Mass., FirePond, Inc. is an SFA vendor with a user base of over 200,000 sales professionals and numerous Web users. The first clue to the company's international appeal lies in its history: Formerly known as CWC, it was an early developer of sales configuration software used mostly by transportation and farm equipment manufacturers. Its roster of clients includes multinational players like General Motors, IBM, Hitachi, Ingersoll-Rand, Volvo and Subaru.

Today, FirePond's core product is the FirePond Application Suite. The suite includes components for product configuration, product recommendations, pricing and quotation, financing, proposal generation and order management, among other features. It allows not only field sales and channel partners to improve the way they work, but it also can be leveraged to service Web customers in an e-business environment. FirePond's Application Suite is known for its adaptability as an industry-specific solution, such as a dealer system for vehicle sales.

Building Bridges
How SFA vendors structure themselves on the international playing field is just as important as the product they have to sell. Domestically, FirePond's organizational structure reflects the company's experience creating industry-specific solutions. In North America, the company's offices are vertically arranged around customer business segments such as Transportation in Detroit, or High Technology & Telecommunications in Oakland, Calif. Vice presidents for those divisions are responsible for developing professional services and presell resources specific to that industry.

Internationally, the goal is to stretch such industry-specific expertise horizontally across the world stage. A good product isn't enough. "On an international basis, you have to look at multiple things to be successful," says Steve Waters, FirePond's vice president of marketing. "One is you have to have significant infrastructure on a local level. You can't just say, `Yeah, we support Europe,' and then have one of your better sales reps fly over there three times a month and take your good people with him. And you can't have your implementation resources flying from the states all the time over there, because the time and expense get charged to the customer. Besides, your U.S. people don't know the local issues."

So like many international SFA vendors, FirePond maintains offices all over the world-in London, Paris, DYsseldorf, stockholm, Tokyo and Seoul. These offices are horizontal extensions rather than vertically focused operations. "Because Europe is so distributed in terms of geography and culture, we're more oriented to being regionally aligned there," Waters explains. This doesn't mean these European or Asian outposts are islands off on their own. Regional vice presidents in Europe are in charge of developing vertically focused capabilities. To coordinate a global approach to an account, they work closely with vertical owners in the states and are responsible for forwarding those vertical initiatives across all of Europe.

If, for example, FirePond were to have a relationship with an international division of one of its large U.S. automotive customers like GM, the job would have to be coordinated so that the total global account for GM was serviced in a consistent fashion with what was being done domestically. In that case, the European team selling the account would need to collaborate closely with the transportation business unit in Detroit. Depending on circumstances, FirePond could also dedicate additional implementation resources from the business unit in the states to the international project.

For potential customers based abroad, the appeal of international SFA software would be the technology to push their own business processes and industry knowledge across borders. They may already have their own highly developed and region-specific sales processes, and would be less interested in adopting SFA strategies and tactics from an outside market like the U.S. Says Waters, "We have a lot of accounts that are vertically seasoned in Europe. They don't require that much interaction with the transportation group in the states."

Down Home SFA
Before anyone can even consider a transplanted SFA application, it has to suit up in the local team colors. A good SFA application without the professional services for translation, localization, implementation and support is like a wallet full of the wrong currency. The software might make things easy somewhere else, but without being supported locally, it's nothing.

To customize applications to local selling techniques requires a commitment. Waters explains: "First of all, you need to have a significant, cross-functional infrastructure locally. Out of that comes knowledge of language, currency, culture and selling processes that are specific to local regions. The way people sell in the U.S. is different from the way people sell in France. The way that the technology is implemented may be significantly different in France. You are using the same infrastructure, but it is presented to the end user in a different way." So a global solution has to have rich functionality and even greater flexibility.

Understanding as early as possible a customer's environment, its sales culture and how it sells is important to creating a workable solution. "Early in the process, we will sit down with top sales reps and sales and marketing executives and figure out what really differentiates a particular company from its competitors in a particular region or on a global level. Then we will take what we deem to be that company's best practices, and we will map it to our technology up front.

With a solution like FirePond's that can be adapted for use both as a front-end interface for field reps and channel partners, and also directly by e-business customers, the interface takes on more importance. Traditional SFA applications for managing leads or getting product and pricing information typically were used away from the consumer's eye. Says Waters, "The whole point is to influence a customer's decision to buy your products. If you have software that, from competitor to competitor, looks exactly the same, you've lost any competitive advantage. So the whole focus is how you bring that company's specific buying and selling processes and specific brand identity to life in the context of all [the software's] functionality. That is what interactive design people do as a core competency of ours and have been for many years."

FirePond Interactive, another division of the company, helps users brand the interface and provides design services. This interactive design division is not just stateside, but deployed on a global basis. "Our interactive design group is about a 50-person organization now, and a good percentage of those are located in Europe. We have cross-cultural resources over there that can drive out, from not only a cultural perspective but from a language perspective and a visualization perspective, solutions that are specific to a particular geography. The interactive design piece is really focused on differentiating the application from the perspective of the end customer."

Emigration and Naturalization
Interactive design is just one component of FirePond's international Professional Services organization. Integration and implementation experts compose the other. Implementation is an obvious concern when it comes to rolling out an SFA application onto foreign soil. No matter how good the methodologies are that have been developed, if they can't be deployed, the solution is drained of any power. The same is true if there is no customer support or internationalized training materials, both verbal instruction and documentation.

Earlier in FirePond's 16-year history, the company focused not on software, but on implementation services. This background is a valuable resource when one considers the prospect of getting various systems across a wide geography to work together. Currently, FirePond has more than one hundred certified consultants throughout the world who specialize in helping integrate its solutions. FirePond also partners with system integrators, often working with companies that specialize in a vertical market. In the U.S., for example, FirePond has established relationships with system integrators like Ernst & Young, IBM and Cap Gemini to provide implementation services aligned to the automotive industry.

Like domestic CRM and SFA applications, how well they integrate with back-office systems is critically important. A lofty but increasingly achievable goal for many companies is to provide build-to-order solutions. This can only be achieved by establishing links between the front-end interface and what happens throughout the enterprise. For corporations spread internationally, integration issues can be complicated, but are especially important.

The reality is, however, that most companies that are already abroad went international well before all of their systems were integrated. Even today, they often deploy systems regionally in a decentralized way. According to Waters, "What happens today is people buy little pieces of technology on a regional basis, and they try to stitch together their own solution to try to help them with their specific business needs. They say, `For e-business, we're going to buy a commerce server,' or `We're going to hire an interactive agency in Belgium to go build us a Web site.' In several countries, you may end up with a hundred vendors on your global e-business/front-office application initiative."

The complications that can create may be behind an emerging shift in momentum. "A trend we're seeing with large companies is they are saying, `Let's try to make a global decision and then manage unique regional differences with the tools our chosen platform provides us.'"

For multinational companies, extending a domestic SFA solution from one market to another means leveraging an application globally rather than employing just local solutions. This offers not only fewer integration headaches and easier maintenance, but potential cost savings and faster rollout. All touch points can tie into a central relational database that could even handle different languages, currencies and other regional variables.

FirePond's Application Suite is built around the notion of such a central process server. "The process server is, if you want to think about it, like the central nervous system that fires events to different areas of the organization. So you have the ability to provide highly interactive selling functionality on an unassisted buying e-commerce site, and you have the ability to deploy the same functionality to a salesperson selling directly or to a channel partner who is selling to an end customer. So when things happen on your Web site, or on your salesperson's laptop when he is selling to a customer, you should automatically be populating that application."

The power of integrating globally on a single proven platform is likely the primary benefit of deploying one application suite throughout an international enterprise. After all, the original IT solution itself should have evolved around a company's domestic strengths. Those core competencies are not likely to change in a new market, so why reinvent the technology around them just because it's Spain or Venezuela? Instead, there are benefits to sticking with what works while adapting it to the new environment.

In other words, the real appeal to global SFA customers is the possibility of extending the solutions they have at home. They can get 80 percent of the business process functionality they need right out of the box. Region-specific customization, while it is critically important to branding, differentiation and providing first-class customer service, represents just 20 percent of the total solution. So for international SFA, the winners around the world will be industry-proven products that have ample flexibility for managing that 20 percent very easily and very effectively.

Web-based SFA applications are well suited to the era of globalization because they allow companies to dynamically link their resources and databases to just about any corner of the globe. The Internet transcends national boundaries and works in a variety of technological platforms and languages. No other system extends the reach of the enterprise more thoroughly or quickly. And Web deployment puts companies closer to more customers now than ever before.

Companies can go global without many of the complexities of implementation and maintenance found with traditional client/server tools just by deploying Internet-based assets. Web-based tools can be deployed on every desktop throughout an enterprise simultaneously, no matter if that desktop is in Brazil or Finland. Browser-based interfaces provide a ready and recognizable look, which adds familiarity to the user and may cut down training time. Scalability is hardly an issue. Nor are changes to the system since applications can be updated automatically or by users just downloading the necessary applets as business processes evolve.

SFA In Japan

SFA is a buzzword in Japan. And if you hold an e-business seminar there, you can just about count on it attracting hundreds of curious note-takers. According to Sosaburo Shinzo, president of FirePond Japan, "Japanese companies are always very enthusiastic about picking up ideas. Ten years ago there was a big boom of so-called SIS (strategic information systems), and then the last four or five years, ERP, and a couple of years ago supply-chain management. `Sales force automation' as a term was introduced, I believe, two years ago, and everyone thought SFA was great software and just what they needed."

Sensing this opportunity, FirePond took the plunge into the Japanese market in June of 1998. Prior to that the company had a small outpost office mainly coordinating liaisons between headquarters staff and potential customers in Japan. In January, the company released its "international" version of its application suite- -in English. That same month, it hired Shinzo.

Given the differences in language and culture, one might expect the development of a Japanese version of FirePond's Application Suite to require a large staff or a lot of time. Actually, it took about a month. "Fortunately, I have one consultant working in the states who frequently visits Japan," says Shinzo. "I have also a very good person on staff here in Japan. These two guys actually did all of the translation of the application."

A key to this rapid turnaround is the fact that the applications were originally enabled to handle double-byte character sets. The Japanese language, because of the kanji characters and its three alphabets, requires more bytes per character. If an application were written that did not accommodate this extra need, translation would require more intensive rewriting of the underlying computer code. As it is, the Japanese version of double-byte enabled software can basically run in English in the background, but displayed text and data storage are in Japanese. "Print," for example, still sends jobs to a printer, but the print button on the screen displays the Japanese word for print, which it gets from a relational database.

"Because our software is originally double-byte enabled, the only portion we need to do is translation and testing. It's not really technically difficult," Shinzo explains. Altogether, localization of the technology required two months.

SFA Culture Shock
Shinzo is an engineer with a track record in sales and management at Fujitsu and SSA Japan. He speaks English fluently and seems to be among that cadre of international Japanese businessmen who are at home in Japan, but who are progressive about adopting Western ways, or at least technology. He's the kind of person who makes a good SFA ambassador. For SFA applications to travel internationally, the issue is not just technology, but a concept of sales culture itself.

Shinzo explains that in Japan, the concept is not widely understood and faces resistance from traditional approaches to IT. "When I spoke with prospective clients, and they knew I was a sales force automation vendor, their first question was, `What is sales force automation?'"

The issue is further confused in Japan by the fact that several Japanese computer manufacturers, like Fujitsu and Hitachi, have developed their own versions of "sales force automation" software. But according to Shinzo, these were not what we know as SFA applications. "All of them are related to the sales administration and management system for the management level to keep the sales force working." He also notes that even after a couple of years of marketing these products, these vendors were never able to sell the systems to any major clients. Even proven international SFA vendors have trouble in the market.

It's not that SFA applications aren't adaptable to Japan. "The thing in Japan is that many companies have so-called `custom' systems to support sales," Shinzo explains. "A very good example is like a quotation system for their products." Usually such systems are incorporated into the back-office system so sales can use it in conjunction with the order entry system. "They don't look at it that way. It's the same thing that happens with manufacturing systems, accounting systems and everywhere. Divisionally optimized systems have been developed in different ways."

According to Shinzo, lack of strategic vision at the executive level in many Japanese corporations has kept different application pieces from being integrated. "I think it is still true that executives in Japanese large corporations really don't understand the power of IT. What I see is that the executive level is very concerned about those things. But IT itself is some sacred area, and executives instantly listen to technical division managers' opinions."

Typically, these managers want to develop their own systems- -quotation systems, configuration software or presentation material, for example. "There is no integration whatsoever happening in that area," Shinzo says. "Executives let them do that, and they don't really care if it influences the business or not. It's a big worry for me as a Japanese person whether we can grow in the future.

"What we are introducing now is a different concept of what the sales force really needs- -some tools to really help their selling. We offer a total solution for sales like interactive selling systems covering from the beginning of the sales cycle to the end of the sales cycle. So whenever I meet customers, after 15 or 30 minutes, they clearly understand quite a different story and the different things we have been doing. It's clear then what they need to do to grow their business."

Generally, they didn't realize there was technology out there to do those things. But since old ways die very slowly, what often happens is that customers opt to stick to their current system, or the one they are developing and hope to use. Then they want to integrate FirePond's application suite. So on a practical level, even though the software has been translated and readied for the market, the challenge for the SFA vendor in those situations is really the integration with all of the custom-developed software and the data sharing.

FirePond Japan has some large customers already, including a successful implementation for Hitachi Construction Machinery. As an interesting dynamic, some Japanese companies using FirePond software in the U.S. are now planning to implement the solution back in Japan too. And while right now the company doesn't have American or European companies as prospects in Japan, Shinzo fully expects greater globalization to bring them to him for its solution.

"The Japanese market is the education stage," he says. "I was talking with a consultant and he said if they have an e-business seminar, hundreds of people show up. But if you look at individual cases, they are all looking to see who goes first- -`I'd like to see some deployment; then I'll be a follower.'"

This is very often the pattern in Japan. Culturally, taking risk, or otherwise going outside standard channels, can make someone appear prideful. Few people want to stick their necks out to champion novel causes or even new software. This is partly why Japanese companies tend to develop their own custom systems. It may not be evident in the pink and green hair of Tokyo's youths, but the Japanese adage goes: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. So it is rarely until there is consensus that things move quickly. Shinzo says: "still for marketplace innovators, we have to be very patient and give lots of information to the marketplace. This is not only for us, but for the sake of those Japanese corporations' growth in the future."

But Shinzo is hopeful about the SFA in Japan. "The good news I'm seeing when I meet with middle management, especially people in their 40s, is they're really smart and understand the business point of view. As those people get more power within the organization, Japanese companies will really change. A big issue for us, for any vendor, is that we need to go to executives who really understand IT power, and then go down through the organization to look at the broader view of software deployment."

- -D.C.
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