Easing the Pain of SFA Data Entry

Updated: April 28, 2008


No one chooses a sales career because they like paperwork.

Paperwork is the biggest complaint and the biggest stumbling block to successful SFA (sales force automation). Much of the data SFA applications gather doesn't directly benefit the sales staff. It's used by marketing, the sales manager and other parts of the organization. But in most cases, the sales and customer-service staff are the ones who have to collect and enter it.
Data entry is a fact of life in CRM and SFA applications - but too much extra work will impair adoption and threaten the usefulness of your investment. However, by careful design, choosing the right technologies and knowing what information to collect, you can reduce the workload so it doesn't sabotage your SFA efforts.


The SFA data-entry problem breaks down into two parts: what information you collect and how you collect it. Once you've decided what information you need to have, you must to design a system that will let your staff gather that information as painlessly and quickly as possible.

The First Component: Information

Information is power, or at least opportunity. But information costs time and effort. You need to weigh that cost against the potential utility of the information.
There is a very natural tendency to try to collect massive amounts of information when designing an SFA application, because it may come in handy some day. But is it likely enough to be helpful to make it worth collecting, validating, safeguarding and preserving that information?

"Because we can" is a poor reason to have your sales force to collect a piece of information. Generally, you're better off taking the time to sharply focus your information needs rather than using a scattershot approach to grab everything you can.

In general, SFA data comes in three categories. The first is data which is only collected once, is updated rarely and seldom repeated in the screens and forms. This includes information like the configuration of the customer's equipment, which is needed for reference but not usually included in the work flow. The second is data which doesn't change often but which is used constantly in the work flow. Customer address and shipping information falls into this category. The third category is data which is collected frequently, such as the items being ordered or notes on a sales call. Your rep will spend most of his or her time in the SFA application working with this data.

The Second Component: Designing Data Entry Processes

Data entry is one of the most customizable parts of any SFA or CRM application. You can create an infinite variety of screens, data fields, note boxes, buttons and other features. The trick is to use that customization to make life as easy as possible for your sales force while gathering the necessary information.

This takes work up front. You need to spend the time and effort in the design phase to get the most efficient processes backed up with well-designed data entry.
One common mistake is to leave data-entry design in the hands of IT staff. This usually results in a layout which is quite logical - and frequently a real pain in the neck for the people who have to use the application.

Remember, your purpose is not to gather the information in a logical sequence, but to gather it efficiently - which is sometimes quite a different thing.
Consider a paper order form, for example. This is a fair example of logical sequence. It starts with the customer information at the top, follows through with the items, prices and extensions, on down to subtotals, discounts, shipping costs, taxes, the total cost and delivery information.

If you translate that into a set of CRM screens, you would present the customer-information screen first. This is logical, but it's often not efficient. Customer information seldom changes and after the first sale it is probably pre-entered. Where the salesperson wants to go first is to the details of the order - the screen with items and quantities. If need be, the salesperson can flip back to the customer-information screen.

In other words, the application should be set up to gather the information in the order that is most convenient for the sales force and the customers, no matter how illogical it may look.
The best source of information on what's efficient is the sales staff. Don't try to design CRM data entry without a lot of input from sales, customer service and the other groups that will actually be doing the job.

Also, remember the time it takes to change between screens or move between fields. A lag of even a couple of seconds in the middle of the process is annoying and distracting. Try to minimize such lag. This is especially important for jobs that are done while interacting with the customer. Ideally, the customer shouldn't perceive any lag as the sales person works with him or her.

What your data entry process comes down to is simplicity. Your SFA approach should emphasize single data entry. Information should be entered once into the system and then replicated when needed. For example, staff should never have to enter basic customer information like name and address more than once.

Intelligently chosen defaults are one of the best work savers in data entry. Defaults are especially important in ensuring the data entered is clean and consistent. Information like telephone numbers, states and dates need to be entered in a standard format if the data is to be reused successfully. The best way to get that consistency is to default to it. For example, if you use a drop-down menu to enter the state into the address field, you can make sure everyone uses the same abbreviation. Likewise, your application should accept phone numbers in just one format.

SFA software also allows you to set up macros — predefined sequences of commands — which can be executed with a couple of keystrokes. In most applications, macros — and their smarter cousins, scripts — can be used to handle even extremely complex repetitive tasks with a minimum of effort.

Plan on working with your IT people, your managers and your sales and customer-service staff to leverage macros and scripts to get these jobs done as painlessly as possible. In general, you and your managers will design the processes; the IT staff will develop the scripts and macros to implement them to the maximum extent possible; and the sales force and customer-service reps, who will use the result, will advise you every step of the way.

Don't limit yourself to traditional data-entry tools, however. Data doesn't have to be typed into a computer to be useful. Other data-entry methods, such as speech-to-text or bar codes, may be available to speed up the process and ease the workload on your people.

Speech-to-text can be especially valuable for outside sales forces because it allows them to enter elaborate chunks of data such as sales notes with minimum typing.
Bar codes are especially handy for data like stock numbers. A simple reader plugged into the keyboard and a printed list of SKUs (stock-keeping units) with accompanying bar codes can speed up data entry and reduce typing errors.

The Bottom Line

Data entry isn't enjoyable, but it's a necessary evil for most organizations today. In order to keep employee morale high and maximize efficiency, companies should ensure that their data-entry processes are as streamlined and easy-to-follow as possible. With tips such as those described above, your company's data entry system will be as productive as possible, which will lead to better results in your sales, customer service and marketing departments.

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