Field-Sales Automation Finally Practical

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Unlike off-line field-sales-automation solutions that generally have been better at getting marketing and salespeople fired than managing leads, Internet field-sales automation is functional, valuable and inexpensive.

Traditionally, field-sales automation attempts to automate the field-sales forces by managing lead information between sales representatives and management. The concept is simple:

* Leads are loaded into a central database.

* Salespeople download leads to their laptops (or receive paper output from central).

* Salespeople contact the lead and make note of the results.

* Contact results are uploaded to the central system (or a lead sheet is returned to central).

* Marketing reports, sales pipeline and other management reports are run from the central system.

Of course, the field-sales-automation flow chart is easier to understand than implement and the concept has basic flaws:

* The paper-based lead cycle allows for only one iteration while the selling process can take multiple contacts.

* For electronic solutions, all users in the field and the central office must have the same revision of the software and, for some systems, must have similar hardware.

* Customer service and other people in the central office are constantly making changes and additions to the central database as contacts are made.

* Direct marketing programs create response contacts that can update a lead.

* Field people are talking to individuals different from those supplied in the lead and do not give this information to the central system.

* Management reports cause managers to unleash terror and destruction on the sales force.

* After one thrashing, smart salespeople learn to hedge the truth or just lie to the central system to ensure survival.

None of these flaws are business threatening, but after a decade of trying to implement field-sales automation, most companies have found field-sales automation to be disappointing. These expensive and aggravating systems are little more than electronic versions of paper-based lead-management systems that didn't work originally. The only real difference between the two is that the lies are delivered more quickly on an electronic system.

The shortcomings in field-sales automation can be boiled down to two words: asynchronous information. For whatever reason, data in the central system doesn't match information in the field rep's system. When the field uploads to the central system, a gatekeeper must review all records that don't match and decide which information is correct. If the gatekeeper decides the central information is correct, the information is synchronous for the moment. That is, until either the salesperson or someone in the central location makes a change.

Asynchronous field-sales-automation information provides management with faulty market information, delivers direct marketing communications to the wrong people, leaves customers unsupported by customer service and creates situations where the field salesperson seems to be making contact with a different set of prospects and customers than the company. The results are exasperating.

The reason for asynchronous field-sales-automation information is that all the people are using information maintained on their own systems that are, theoretically, periodically plugged together for synchronization. Doesn't work, never has, never will.

Information maintained in two locations then re-joined requires a translator, data integrity person or gatekeeper to validate or sanitize differences. A new function is spawned called database quality manager. A function with the power to change information, with no responsibility or accountability for outcomes.

Enter the Internet. Online field-sales automation using a common information resource is synchronous. Each user -- manufacturer, distributor, sales, customer service, fulfillment, telesales, telemarketing and senior management -- is working from the same database. Changes can be made by anyone with password access to the customer record. All changes, additions to discussions, proposals, comments, contact dates, assignment and action steps can be seen by all people on the team. This reduces communications (telephone, fax and electronic) among lead generators, sales people, intermediaries, managers and sales managers responsible for lead follow-up.

Each team member can be notified via e-mail about each change, update or comment added/made to the record. They also can respond to the e-mail and the response becomes a permanent part of the record. Real-time updates keep everyone informed and management can generate all of the reports desired any time without calling for all leads to be returned.

The Internet field-sales automation server is just that, a server of the information to all approved users regardless of location. Anyone approved can gain access to lead information using a laptop, PC, UNIX workstation or Mac by connecting to the Internet. Training time generally is less than 30 minutes. (Note: Connectivity issues are the stumbling blocks to Internet field-sales automation. This can be addressed letting a connectivity company like AOL provide customer service/help desk.)

With everyone cooking in the same pot, the stew can be quite interesting. It becomes rich with information and comments, salty with heretofore uncollected input, enriched with the vitamins of collective wisdom and palatable and tasty with results through real-time communications. The need for a database sanitizer, translators and multiple data-processing headaches disappears. The paper chase ends. Management attention moves to behavior away from the information chase. Reduction of chaos factors in sales and marketing allow for more time to be spent on productive selling and program implementation.

The primary benefits of Internet field-sales automation are reduced cycle time for leads to convert to sales, better-informed sales and support teams and, most important, more satisfied leads and customers. Your decision.

Tracy Emerick is principal of Taurus Direct Marketing, Hampton, NH, a direct marketing agency and consultancy, and president of Receptive Marketing Inc., which provides Internet site development.

Tracy Emerick

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