Automation Revelation

In the 1980s, Pat Sullivan revolutionized the software industry with the development of a contact management software program-ACT! The program became a cash cow and Sullivan sold the company-and rights to ACT! software-to Symantec.

Three years ago, Sullivan founded SalesLogix Corp., of which he’s President and CEO. SalesLogix recently unveiled the next generation of contact management software, aimed at linking databases among entire organizations rather than just individual salespeople.

Sullivan visited Cleveland in May to speak at a conference hosted by Brunswick Integrated Computer Solutions Inc. SBN sat down with him to discuss the growing phenomenon known as sales-force automation.

Why should a business owner automate the sales force?

To sell more. It streamlines the process of selling. Today it seems that selling has become more complex. Companies are forecasting what’s going to happen in the next quarter, sometimes two quarters ahead. That’s driving them to find something to help manage that process.

In what ways can it help?

It allows a company to have a centralized location that’s kept up to date by its sales people. There’s one place to go to generate reports. A manager can look at the database and say, “Here’s a group of prospects where we could close.” They can also get to the information easier than having to track down 50 sales reps.

So does that then create a competitive advantage?

That depends on what you’re selling. If you’re selling something with little or no competition, then no, it doesn’t. But few companies today operate under those conditions. So it helps to create competition by improving efficiency. If your people are better prepared for sales calls, they can make more calls and close more often. Having information at your fingertips is, indeed, a competitive advantage.

But beyond those basics, you can also track opportunities. What are the deals that you’re currently working on? The software is advancing to the point where not long into the future other applications can be integrated-such as pulling up service history for a customer, sales history of what they’ve already bought and tying all that into what’s available in the warehouse to order. If you know all those details, it can make your salespeople that much more effective in the field.

But can’t that level of software become cost prohibitive to smaller firms?

If I’m a million-dollar company, my needs are smaller than a $50 million company. But even integrating the basics of sales automation into a company can increase productivity. And, most of these are scalable. You can start small and grow without having to change software. Small companies can benefit from sales-force automation.

You mentioned integrating several functions of a business’ operation-such as tapping into inventory and sales history records-how difficult will it be to integrate all those functions into one software package?

We can do it now, but it has to be customized. As of today, there’s no out-of-the-box software that allows for all those functions, but we’re working on it. The first thing that needs to be done is to tie in accounting software, and that’s close to being ready.

If everyone’s going to be able to access all this information from anywhere in the company, can’t that lead to problems?

It could be, but most of the packages have multi-levels of security built in. It would give access to the information, but only certain people could change specific information that’s relative to them. Security is very important because information is the intangible capital asset of most companies.

But think about it, you don’t have to bug the accounting department for a report. You can access the information and put it in your sales report to provide a forecast. You don’t need to manipulate that information in the system, you just need access to it.

But what about the amount of time it takes to keep that information updated? Isn’t there the concern that sales people will use it at first, then stop updating it?

Sales people will use software. What they won’t do is use something that slows them down. There’s a fine line there. If it requires too much time and effort, they won’t use it. But we found out with ACT that sales people will use something that’s easy to update and doesn’t take much time. They know what will generate useful information down the line and lead to greater sales. If they can manage their time properly, they’ll get a lot of out of it.

What about on-the-go capabilities of sales-force automation? Can’t the information get stale for a salesperson who isn’t in the office very often?

All of these programs have synchronization capabilities through telephones and networks. A salesperson can modem in to the server, load new information into it and then the server sends the update back to the laptop. There’s a trend toward wireless communication and sales people are always on the cutting edge. We know that if they can’t keep their information up-to-date then they won’t use sales automation software.

So is this the future of sales?

Well, it’s growing quickly. In some industries, sales people ask potential employers, “What tools will you provide me so I can sell?” That’s spurred on by the younger generation of sales people who have grown up with computers. It’s forcing employers to re-think how they operate their sales forces.

Think about it. If I’m a sales person I say to myself, “If I can make a couple more sales calls a week I’ll make more money. I have an edge on my competitors if I’ve got better resources than they do.”

What about the current methods? Will this technology make them outdated?

Every company sells something. They have to sell. If owners know they can make their sales force better and faster at a cheaper cost, then they’re foolish if they don’t automate. The pressures are tremendous to keep up with competitors. If they don’t, then they’ll be left behind.