How to Make CRM, SFA Applications Meaningful

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Not too long ago, sales force automation and customer contact management software promised to revolutionize sales management and turn a pursuit that usually was accompanied by functional fuzziness into a finely tuned operation that could be professionally and quantitatively managed, sort of like accounting. Continuously fed by real-time information provided by the software on leads, meetings, proposals and follow-ups, sales executives would be able to analyze and orchestrate the progress and movements of their far-flung networks from their office PCs as easily as a teen-ager sits behind a terminal and manipulates a video game.


Unfortunately, it hasn't quite worked out that way. The reality is that, all too often, the implementation of sales force automation, customer relationship management and customer contact management software falls short of expectations in the corporate setting. Simply put, they fail to win over the sales representative in the field. Thus, many millions of precious dollars have gone down corporate drains in pursuit of programs that didn't work for the managers and certainly did nothing for reps.


At least the recognition of this problem has begun to lead sales executives back to the heart of the matter: When it comes to omnibus management systems, what matters most in the sales game is the reaction of representatives in the field, not managers. In a discipline that depends on motivation, dedication, independence, a focus on results and, often, spurts of creativity and hyper-achievement by its practitioners, such overhauls must play well with them. And in that crucial arena, many companies have come up way short in selecting and deploying their SFA and CRM programs.


The reason is simple: Rank-and-file sales reps often perceive this software as making their jobs more difficult without offering much of a corresponding benefit. They're the ones who must generate and transmit the extra data to management. And then the information is often used by a manager to create tighter accountability and place greater demands on reps.


In the meantime, while almost all SFA and CRM systems provide useful features that help sales reps track, organize and access all the bits and pieces of information on customers and prospects, that's simply not enough for many reps. Most of them have long since been using contact managers such as Microsoft Outlook, Act and Janna on their own, and -- in the convenient confines of their own laptops and their own lead-tracking systems -- they work just fine.


So what's a manager to do? One answer lies in Internet-based information sources that offer data on customers and potential customers. It meets reps where their needs are. And when such programs are linked dynamically with a top-flight SFA or CRM program, they can create tremendous synergies that benefit sales managers, reps and, in turn, the entire corporate sales process. A new wellspring of reliable customer-intelligence information then feeds and enhances an SFA or CRM program and delivers decision-driving data to the people who need it, at whatever level they are, when they need it and where they need it.


What kinds of information are we talking about here? Boatloads, some of it sucked up from the Internet, but even more of it generated by the proprietary access enjoyed only by the data-compiling company. Even if this information otherwise were available to sales reps or their managers, the cost of pursuing and purchasing these thousands of resulting leads would be prohibitive. And in the meantime, as any sales rep worth his or her salt will tell you, the number of unqualified, dead-end leads they receive just seems to multiply. They get them from trade shows, Web sites, company tele-qualifying staffs that provide less-than-thorough screening -- from a wide variety of sources, and each futile lead simply adds to the rep's frustrations.


Let's say a rep has just moved to a new territory, metro Boston, and needs to understand as thoroughly and as quickly as possible where the prospects are in that market. He sells 401(k) administration programs to medium-size and large corporations in hi-tech and other manufacturing industries. So he grabs the Boston telephone book and begins his search looking for manufacturers in the area. Unfortunately, Yellow Pages typically are better search vehicles for consumers than business-to-business sales reps.


Though manufacturers may be categorized roughly by category of product, the listings provide only general phone numbers, without the name of a contact who can get you in the door. They don't indicate anything about the size of a company or number of employees. And they certainly don't give the rep the information that is most relevant to his task: whether a company has a 401(k) plan, how large it is, when it's up for renewal and so on. But that is exactly the kind of data available through these new services, and it turns many unqualified leads into highly qualified, top-priority leads or helps the rep eliminate them and stop wasting his time on wild-goose chases.


Just as important though, is the fact that these services don't provide just raw data -- they help reps convert a cornucopia of relevant information into something even better: workable intelligence. For one thing, they make it painlessly accessible via the Internet, providing every rep, as well as every manager, access to new leads -- and in batches as small as 10 or 15 at a time, making them more digestible and more efficiently handled than the occasional major dump of hundreds of new prospects that may come from the top of the rep's organization. So if a rep has just finished following up on the 11 leads from last week's trade show but has another two weeks until corporate marketing plans to send out a direct mail piece that can be expected to drum up more leads, the rep can gain secure access to one of this new breed of programs on the Net, pursue the 25 best leads that are presented and be confident that the intelligence on each one is completely fresh because it is continuously updated by the service.


Moreover, these programs present a win-win-win situation: Reps have a bigger quantity and much higher quality of leads; the rep's pursuit of those leads is continuously fed into a compatible SFA or CRM software program, benefiting managers who want to track performance and communicate with their reps in the field; and the corporation gains because both its sales managers and its sales reps are benefiting from and are motivated by the rewards of an integrated sales-management system that not only tracks performance but also enhances it.


These new programs aren't a panacea for what has ailed sales-management software. As long as sales reps, their managers and customers are human, no sales tracking and management system will ever offer that. But by equipping reps with the best and most up-to-date information possible on leads and by integrating their activities with the rest of the sales-management process, such programs can make a big difference in the field. And that's where marketplace battles are won and lost.
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