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Thursday, August 3, 2006

On Selling and Sales

If you've already made the move from R&D to commercialisation, you're probably generating a host of information about your customers and prospects. But how effectively are you managing it?

Just as every business manager's wardrobe needs a minimum number of outfits for different occasions - from client dinners to casual weekend meetings - so certain business software applications are all but compulsory on a start-up's IT systems. Applications for fundamental tasks such as financials and payroll top the list, but one that doesn't always get a look in is the one that could ultimately make the most spectacular impact - sales management software.

Sales automation applications were around long before the much-hyped arrival of 'Customer Relationship Management' suites in the late 1990s, which were supposed to usher in an era of customer-friendly service and marketing. In fact, sales automation has existed for decades, although early incarnations tended to focus more on the administrative side of storing contacts and tracking interactions with customers. Until relatively recently, the business case also tended to be a little defensive - it was as much about keeping your business running if your top salesperson walked out with their contacts book as it was about selling more effectively.

Today, while those fundamentals are all still valid, the focus tends to fall on improving efficiency and information management. Sales management applications arm employees with information about a customer's preferences, purchasing history and previous interactions, all of which help during negotiations and closing. They also provide managers with a better insight into all levels of sales activity, from high-level meetings run by the CEO to pitches made by the most junior employee. That includes information about where prospects are in the sales cycle, how sales are doing against forecast, and what proportion of leads are being converted and by whom.

As well as helping companies monitor individual performance, over time this data can be pulled together to provide trend analysis to help with future sales and marketing activity - what kind of campaigns generate the most valuable leads, which vertical markets are proving most responsive and so forth. As such, for any business that's moved beyond R&D and early pilots and is starting to sell in volume, it's as much about business intelligence and performance management as it is about automating processes. Even if you only have a handful of people actively selling, this kind of trend analysis can bring powerful new insights, telling you not just what's been sold (which you probably already know) but how - what product or marketing campaign triggered the initial enquiry; what objections were raised and how they were overcome; whether pricing was a stumbling block and so forth.

The software industry has gone through something of a revolution over the last few years in providing this kind of capability at an affordable price. While specialists have long targeted smaller businesses, the leading midmarket and high-end software vendors have also shifted some of their attention to start-ups and small businesses, bringing new capability with them. They include the likes of Siebel, one of the top CRM vendors which was recently acquired by Oracle, as well as SAP, Microsoft and Sage. Users also enjoy different purchasing options, with the likes of and many other leading vendors offering a hosted service for users to 'rent' applications on a monthly basis. As a result, setting up doesn't have to be expensive - prices for hosted applications start as low as �45 per user per month.

Like any software project, of course, there are a number of challenges associated with implementing and running these applications. If the experiences of larger organisations are anything to go by, one of the most significant issues will be tying together customer-facing applications with software in the 'back-office', such as financials or warehousing. Many companies look to give salespeople read-only access to information about stock levels and delivery schedules, either from their PC or via a remote device, and this requires some integration work. Others have gone as far as to link their sales application to credit control, so that the system triggers an alert whenever a salesperson pulls up a record for an overdue customer. Not only does this prevent a salesperson wasting time with a customer who's on credit hold, it also adds valuable extra resource to the cash collection process.

In each case, it's useful for organizations to have thought through in advance how they want to link these applications together. Some will be content using pre-built integrations offered by packaged software vendors or building their own: others will prefer to have as much of their sales, marketing, service, engineering and other customer-related information in the same database, so that they can easily access it from one place.

By Keith Rodgers, Webster Buchanan Research