Using sales force automation tools to provide information in and out of the office

Sales force automation enables sales professionals in and out of the office to have relevant information at their fingertips

Sales force automation enables sales professionals in and out of the office to have relevant information at their fingertips

A sales rep visits a client, only to be informed that his nearest competitor has just cut its prices by a quarter, and is shown the door. When he returns to the office, the rep finds one memo saying his own company has cut prices by a third and another with details of a hot prospect. He phones the first client back, but she...

has already ordered from the rival. Then he phones the prospect, who has gone home.

Paul Bray

While the rep was out, another client phoned in to chase an outstanding order. One of the rep's colleagues hunted through his files, but by the time she'd found the information, the client had rung off. Sounds familiar? It needn't be. With an efficient sales force automation (SFA) system, sales professionals on the road and in the office can have relevant information at their fingertips. This can include customer records, details of products and services, stock availability and the status of orders, as well as more general data like sales analyses and market trends. Routine tasks can be automated, proper records kept, and orders and contracts input automatically into the relevant core systems. Freed from the administrative overheads, the sales people can spend more time doing what they do best: selling. When on the road or working from home, sales people can be kept informed about the latest price and product changes, be fed instructions and sales leads as soon as they are obtained and given access to a wide range of relevant information, such as news feeds and company intranets. In the office, SFA can be integrated with the company's telephone call centre, so that when a customer phones in, any call centre agent can appear to know them as well as the rep who deals with them regularly. Information can be shared within the sales team, and managers can easily generate reports and track performance. When tooling up for SFA, the best place to start is with the software. Standard tasks ( like storing customer contacts, scheduling meetings, writing letters, processing figures, sending and receiving faxes and emails ( can be done using standard PC software, often rolled into a single suite or integrated package. If basic functions are all your sales people need, then standard software is cheap to buy, simple to install and widely understood, as well as being compatible with most of the systems you want to run it on and interface to. But the do-it-yourself route has its drawbacks ( notably that it relies on the sales people themselves to manage the process, when their managers would probably rather they were selling. They must remember to record meetings and telephone conversations, write letters, make sure orders are processed, make follow-up calls or visits, and tell their colleagues what they have done. Even if they keep the information up-to-date on their own computer, they must still remember to synchronise it with their office machine if they are out on the road. The alternative is specialised SFA software. There are a number of SFA packages, most of which can be tailored to a company's individual needs ( either by the software vendor or its agents, or by the company's own people using tools provided within the package. Several enterprise resource planning packages (ERPs) now include SFA modules, some of which are as fully-featured as pure SFA packages. Contact management and scheduling still form the core of much SFA software, but these are usually more sophisticated than their vanilla, standalone equivalents. The contact manager ( essentially an address book ( stores not only names, job titles and contact details for individuals within customer firms, but a complete history of the sales person or sales team's dealings with the client, including written and emailed correspondence, and detailed notes of meetings and phone calls. Details of orders and quotations can also be stored and cross-referenced. When stored on a network, these detailed contact records mean that, if the regular sales person isn't there when a customer calls, colleague can access all the relevant information from their own computers. Scheduling includes basic diary entries, audible reminders and automatic timetabling of regular meetings. But it can also be dynamic, prompting the sales person to make follow-up calls if the customer does not place the expected order or reply to a quotation, or automatically sending out regular mailshots to fit in with customers' previous buying patterns. Automation may be extended to handling correspondence ( like those follow-up letters which begin "It was great to meet with you today" ( as well as preparing and sending quotations, running mailshots, and preparing management reports. All of this frees up the sales person to spend more time selling. All the data contained in the sales person's system e.g. on a portable computer ( can be automatically synchronised with the networked system back in the office, either by modem or wireless link, or by connecting the portable directly to the office network. This process is sometimes called "replication". Orders and contracts prepared during site visits or on the phone can also be fed directly into core accounting or order-processing systems. In the other direction, information like pricing updates and new leads can be automatically transmitted to the sales person's portable computer. Alternatively, it may be retrieved from a website or company intranet, then synchronised with the data on the portable. If so, good security precautions, such as encryption and firewalls, are essential. Synchronised data allows teams of sales people, in the office and on the road, to share information with each other. Often workflow, workgroup and document management applications are included in the SFA software to facilitate this. Ideally, all information should be available from one screen, so consider linking together your customer management, accounts, product and stock systems. Managers can obtain reports by territory, product line or sales person, monitor sales people's activity and productivity, and produce marketing plans, sales forecasts and even plan specialist activities like telemarketing campaigns. Analytical reports can be produced, on anything from lead generation and sales projections to customer satisfaction and this year's most popular colour. These usually give a far more detailed picture than paper-based or non-integrated alternatives, and often bring the biggest business benefits from SFA. If you think SFA software is overkill but still want some of the features described above, some can be implemented using standalone packages. Emailing, faxing and Web access are widely available; many standard PC databases, contact managers and diary programs have replication features; and remote access software allows data to be dropped into or uploaded from an office PC via a modem or Internet connection. Basic security functions like backup and anti-virus protection should also not be forgotten, especially for field sales people who keep all their key information in a portable computer. A computer is actually a more secure place to keep business information than a briefcase full of papers ( but only if frequent backups copies are taken. Another application beloved by sales people is presentation graphics software. Once predominantly used for creating 35mm slides and overhead projection transparencies, presentation software can now be used for actually showing the presentation, either on a good-quality colour notebook PC, or by linking the portable PC to a large monitor or projection device. The presentation may be loaded on the PC's hard disk, or stored on a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM, which can be reproduced and distributed to an entire field sales force. The hardware required depends first and foremost on the software selected. In the office, a standard setup of networked PCs and good-quality printers ( perhaps including colour for customer correspondence ( is the norm. For field sales forces, the major choice ( if the software allows it ( is between a notebook (or laptop) computer and a smaller device. Smaller machines may be keyboard-based HPCs (handheld PCs), palmtop computers with touch-sensitive screens, or integrated communications devices combining a handheld computer with a mobile phone or a radio modem. Notebook computers offer full desktop compatibility and power, with excellent colour screens, high-capacity storage and touch-type keyboards. But they tend to be expensive, and their batteries only last a few hours between charges. Smaller devices are inconvenient for large-scale data input such as report writing and useless for showing customer presentations. And because they rely on different operating systems, such as Windows CE, Palm and Symbian, they require special versions of desktop software. But they are much cheaper than notebooks, their batteries last for days or weeks, and their small size makes them easier to carry and less obtrusive to use. Field sales automation has therefore become one of the major uses of handheld computers. Almost any portable computer can communicate with the salesperson's base office, either via a landline modem, or by connecting it to a mobile phone. Integrated communicators combine both functions anyway. Available technologies include fax, Internet email, direct connection to the office system, and SMS (short message service) via a mobile phone network. For outlying areas and blackspots where conventional mobile phones are unreliable, satellite phone networks can fill the gap, though these are currently expensive to use. When on the road, data can be exchanged directly with customers' own computers via cable or infrared links (although the risk of viruses may make this inadvisable). For those who prefer old-fashioned paper, light, cheap, portable inkjet printers are plentiful; their output quality is similar to a desktop printer, and most can now print in colour. Paper documents can be input via a portable scanner. Of course, dishing out portable computers to all your sales people is not the end of the story, and quite a few businesses have come a cropper under this assumption. The acclimatisation period can be longer than expected, especially for reps on the road who have no-one to ask directly for help. Open access to email and news feeds can easily overwhelm people with unnecessary detail, particularly when they are out of the office and time is precious. And too many SFA systems have been implemented without asking the users what would really be useful to them. Comprehensive training is therefore essential, and some experts recommend this should be ongoing, with periodic refreshers to ensure staff are using the system to its full potential. Good support is also a must, and will probably include a telephone helpdesk, Web-based support, and where possible access to a live engineer. Pilot schemes are useful to prove the concepts before they are implemented. Finally, as with any new IT project, the backing of top managers is essential, otherwise no-one will take SFA seriously.

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