Your step-by-step guide to selecting a sales force automation solution

29th Jul 2013

The latest generation of sales force automation tools have gone “high definition” – helping reps to sell to customers and collaborate with partners, and finally banishing SFA’s reputation as little more than a management tool to keep staff in line.

With vendors supercharging their SFA offerings with mobile applications, social functionality and simple access to sales-related data, these tools have never offered reps a greater competitive advantage than they do now.

But the software selection process can often be fraught with challenges. The vendors will the heftiest marketing clout - and therefore the highest visibility - aren’t necessarily the best fit for your organisation. So how do you cut through the sales spin to identify the best SFA solution for your firm?

Before you start the process of sifting through the solutions on offer, and speaking to the vendors, it is important that you’re crystal clear about a number of key factors that will influence your requirements. These include:

  • Your purchase timeline
  • The number of users
  • Your implementation timeline
  • The amount time and resources you have available for training
  • The biggest pain points you’d like to address

“This final point is extremely important,” says Ashley Verrill, managing editor at Software Advice. “Knowing what issues you want to overcome will help determine which features are most important to you, which of course will dictate which products best fit your needs. Our analysts talk to hundreds of SFA buyers each year, and the most common pain points include the need to reduce costs per sale, increase accountability, more accurately forecast sales, and improve client retention rates. If you already have a pretty good idea of the features you want, be sure to prioritise each in a list and identify each as being a ‘must have’ or ‘nice to have’.”

Jim Dickie, managing partner at CSO Insights agrees that sales leaders should firstly give proper consideration to their pain points before beginning the research process – particularly as technology investment may not be the answer to your problems.

“Is technology always the answer? No,” he emphasises. “It’s important you really understand the problem before you start deciding how you’re going to fix it. And once you’ve done that there are four things to look at – people, process, knowledge and technology. It may be that the specific problem you have is going to be better served by focusing on process or people than technology. So you have to make your bets wisely. You have a set number of dollars you can spend to optimise your sales performance and you have to move those dollars around as you see the real problems that need to be solved.”

Cloud or on-premise?

A further important consideration is whether or not you want to house the software on your own servers, or ones owned by the software company. This will dictate whether you should consider on-premise or Cloud-based software.

“Many companies are moving to Cloud-based solutions because they typically have a lower cost of entry, and updates are delivered instantly, among other benefits,” says Verrill. “But on-premise versions are still popular among companies that already own their own data servers and would rather pay more upfront and avoid the monthly subscription fees, which are common with Cloud-based software.”

The costs associated with Cloud solutions versus on-premise solutions will also be important to take into consideration when creating your budget.

“You need to ask yourself, whether you’re ready to pay a high upfront cost, but minimal investments afterwards (except for maintenance, training and upgrades), or if you’d prefer to pay month-to-month for the subscription, typically priced by the number of people that will use the system,” adds Verrill.

When it comes to identifying the specific functionality that your organisation requires of a tool, it is worth considering your buyer type. This will determine whether you need more specialised features than contact management, leads management, workforce automation and reporting.

SFA buyers typically fall into one of four categories:

  • Direct sellers, or organisations that sell through direct field representatives, telesales teams, or both
  • Channel sellers, or buyers that work for organisations that  sell through channel partners
  • Enterprise buyers, or buyers in very large organizations that might sell direct and through channel partners
  • Small business buyers, or those companies that just want to move beyond storing contact and interactions in their email inboxes and shared spreadsheets

“Buyers in the channel and enterprise categories might want specialised tools for sending and tracking leads across different organisations within the same company, or from the organisation to a selling partner,” says Verrill. “They likely also will need to integrate with other enterprise management systems; such as payroll, accounting and so on. That’s not to say small business or direct sellers wouldn’t also want to consider integrations. Email integration, for example, is extremely important for every type of buyer.”

Software functionality

As you begin to examine the spec of the different solutions, best-selling author and sales authority Sean McPheat agrees that the issue of integration should be one of the main items on your agenda.

“You’re obviously going to have lots of data in your legacy systems or other systems in your company, so you are going to want to know how to integrate the data you have currently got within the SFA system that you are going to purchase, and you’ll want to know how easy it is to do that.”

And McPheat adds that there are several other matters that you must bear in mind as you examine the capabilities of different solutions.

“Flexibility is important because you want the system to be able to be customised and shaped around how you sell,” he explains. “You need to think about what you sell and how you sell it first of all, and then make sure that whatever system you choose has flexibility to be tweaked. And going off the back of that is the configuration of it as well – it has to be easily modified and updated without relying on technicians to do the programming.”

And there are other things to keep in mind, he says. “The reporting capability of it is going to be one of the big keys in user adoption – you don’t want the system to be just keeping score, you want to be using the data so you can make better informed decisions. So while there is going to be some standard reports that are already there, you also need to be able to create your own reports, so you need to examine the level of customisation of reporting that you can create as well.”

He continues: “And another important factor is scalablity. It is OK if you have got 10 sales people today, but if you are going to have 100 in a year’s time, you need to know you can scale up. Can you scale up and pay as you go or are there going to be ranges – 20-50 licenses – or can you add them as and when?”

Probing questions

When it comes to opening a discussion with the vendors themselves to dig deeper into the tools on offer, Dickie has the following advice to help identify the most appropriate system.

“It is a good idea to talk to the vendor and say ‘show me people like me’. That could be a variety of things – show me people in my industry that are utilising your technology to sell, for instance; or show me people that have long sell cycles like me and how they’re using it to sell; or show me people that just sell with a telesales group that are your customers, because that’s what we’re doing, and show me how you sell. That really helps you understand where the expertise is within these companies. And this is important because you want a system that works for you, rather than you working for the system. You want to find something that really fits into the way that you’re selling today – you don’t’ want to have to retrain your sales guys.”

He continues: “Ask the vendor to show you something that makes sales people more effective. Put the burden on the solution provider - how am I going to sell more at the same price, or sell the same amount at a higher price, or do everything at a lower cost of sale? Get them to bring something else to the table besides wanting to tell you about their IT architecture, because for VP of sales it is all about top line and bottom line, you don’t want to hear the IT pitch. You want them to tell you how they’re going to help you hit your 2013 number and position you to grown even more in 2014.”

Finally, Patrick Stakenas, research director at Gartner, believes that given the influence of social, mobile, Big Data and the Cloud on the SFA marketplace, sales leaders would be wise to investigate how well these IT mega-trends are supported by vendor offerings.

“From a Cloud perspective, there are several factors that you should consider,” he explains. “You should look at their business model – is the vendor committed to SaaS or Cloud? You need to look at who their customer base is – that is a validation that their SaaS model works. You should look at how configurable the SaaS vendor is – is the product configuring/customising, because if you’re doing the customising you want to avoid it, you want to make sure you are doing configuration in the Cloud. You should also make sure that there is a tremendous amount of testing in your environment, that integration should be expected with these Cloud applications, that you’re going to want to tie it to you back-end systems. And you also want to check that the platform and architecture are sound, because it’s important that what they’re built on is compatible potentially with the integration aspects of your back-end systems.”

From there, Stakenas recommends examining the mobile capabilities of the solution.

He continues: “Look at how you’re going to use the Cloud as a mechanism to get it to the tablet or smartphone, and then how you are going to move data. From an evaluation standpoint, look at these key things as they relate to SaaS and then how you are going to manage the hardware or devices, because unless you are going to buy the devices like businesses used to five or ten years ago with Blackberries (which most organisations don’t want to do anymore), you are going to need an open environment where you can bring your own device.”

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