Problems with SFA Alternatives

Updated: April 21, 2008


There were sales professionals long before there was SFA (Sales Force Automation), or even computers. Over the years, sales staffs have found numerous tools that made their jobs easier.

Like most professionals, salespeople are creatures of habit. They've always used non-SFA tools and are not interested in learning something new. Since their job performance isn't suffering, they believe, why should they give up what they know for SFA?

There are many reasons. And one of a manager's jobs when introducing an SFA solution is to show sales staff why they should adopt this new methodology.




There are two sets of problems with the alternatives to SFA. The first affects the person using them and the second impacts the business as a whole. While supervisors should be more concerned with issues affecting the entire company, focusing on individual users' problems is easier to address.

The goal is to convince the sales force to move from traditional tools to an integrated SFA approach that benefits the entire enterprise. Generally, managers need to emphasize the advantages an individual salesperson will enjoy to persuade staff.

This isn't an easy sell. Salespeople tend to be highly results-oriented and much less interested in methodology. When most of them find something that works, they stick with it. Often they cling to it tenaciously, convinced it is superior to any other possible solution.

Furthermore, some of the problems with traditional tools are not immediately obvious. A manager's job is to expose these issues and show staff SFA's benefits.

Memory and Notes on Paper

Relying on memory and notes is probably the most common - and worst - sales-staff tool. Employees try to remember all their tasks, product information, schedules and other details. And what they can't remember they write down.

While everyone relies on memory to a certain extent, salespeople should not build their careers on this technique. Even the most conservative sales reps supplement memory and notes with other approaches.

With memory, performance varies with external factors. If an employee is having an especially bad, busy or distracting day, information is likely to slip through the cracks. Sales representatives can forget even the most important things, like meetings with customers.

Taking notes on paper is better, but papers can get lost or disorganized. Sales reps end up constantly digging through stacks of paper and waste valuable time trying to find what they need.

Paper is also hard to correlate. If a salesperson has notes on scheduled meetings on his or her desk calendar, a pocket notebook and a couple of miscellaneous scraps of paper, his or her chances of avoiding a scheduling conflict are not good. However, his or her chances of blowing a client appointment are quite good.


Personal Organizers

Personal organizers are an attempt to organize paper. They're a big step up from notes scribbled on napkins, but that's about all that can be said for them.

Personal organizers still have all of paper's drawbacks. They can't help sales staff by automatically entering repetitive information, or by automatically copying data to or from the office computer. They also can't handle email, reorganize contact information for easy searching or give users multiple views of data.

Personal organizers additionally can't perform calculations like discounts or order extensions. Some of the bigger ones contain calculators - usually with very small displays - but that's not nearly as convenient as an SFA application that automatically calculates data.

Personal organizers also get lost. People leave them in coffee shops, clients' offices or taxis. Sales reps may eventually recover their notebooks, but the organizers could be damaged or missing personal information.

And lugging a personal organizer around is clumsy. Women can often stash them in their purses, but even that means carrying a large purse and digging through it at inconvenient moments, like in front of clients.



In the days before SFA, a popular solution among technically sophisticated salespeople was to use a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Office Excel to organize information, including sales data. A fair number of sales staff still use such spreadsheets to manage their jobs.

Spreadsheets make use of a computer's power, which puts them far beyond paper methods. Information can be stored and transformed into schedules and reports; fed into projections; used to run "what if" scenarios; and can be generally manipulated in many ways. Users can write an entire CRM application in Excel spreadsheets; there are some CRM products available which are written in Excel.

Although some salespeople use programs like Quattro Pro and the spreadsheet offered by , Excel is the standard option. Whether you like Excel or not, it's hard to deny that it's a powerful piece of software.

Managers would probably be astonished at how proficient some of their sales staff is with spreadsheets. They'd likely also be appalled at the amount of time some of salespeople spend using them. Far more time than the results warrant, in fact. There's always the temptation to add one more column, another formula, a little more color or to pretty a spreadsheet up a little more.

Accuracy is another problem. Spreadsheets performing even moderately complex tasks need a surprising amount of debugging and error checking before users can rely on them. And many of the errors aren't at all obvious.

Then there are the various technical limitations. Spreadsheets are designed to manipulate numbers, not to manage free-form data like client notes, emails and the like. Many of them have limits on how much information you can enter into a single cell. Users can work around this, but it's inconvenient.

Perhaps the most significant spreadsheet problem is getting the necessary information entered. Unlike SFA, which can automatically provide data from the rest of the enterprise, a spreadsheet has to have all that information entered by the person using it. There are some limited ways around this with some kinds of information, but for the most part, data entry is a pain.

Finally, spreadsheets' data can be lost, as with all the other software-based alternatives. All that painstakingly entered information is usually stored in one place and if something happens to that computer, it's either gone for good or will take a lot of work to recover. Disk failures are a fact of life, as are laptop thefts. Both leave the people relying on spreadsheets without their information.

Of course, the IT staff can store the files on a central server, but they're not likely to do that if managers are trying to encourage sales reps to use SFA.


Database Managers

Database managers are less common than spreadsheets, but some salespeople, especially in the technical fields, will use them in lieu of SFA.

A database is an extremely powerful tool. In fact, SFA and CRM applications have extensive, carefully designed databases as central components.

Designing an effective database is much harder than it looks. This is true even for something as simple as a prospect list. Generally, the more experience one has with designing and maintaining databases, the less enthusiastic one is about writing a database application from scratch.

And again, there's the problem of lack of information integration. It's not easy to acquire information on factors like inventories and meetings, let alone get it into a database in a useful form. Sometimes such data entry is impossible because of security concerns.


Contact Managers

Contact managers, or PIMs (personal information managers) are probably the most common software alternative to SFA tools. They also come closest to substituting for SFA.

Contact managers like Microsoft Office Outlook keep addresses, track appointments, hold notes, dial phone numbers and do several other jobs. In fact, many SFA tools use Outlook to present certain kinds of information to the user.

That's not surprising, considering that several SFA-software programs started as glorified contact managers. However, the reason contact managers evolved into SFA suites is that contact managers have serious limitations. At best, they're a half-measure and are less convenient, less extensive and less secure than a true SFA solution.

From a supervisor's standpoint, the biggest problem with contact managers is lack of integration. It's hard to share information with contact managers and they don't automatically provide the information about salespeople that supervisors need.

For the sales force, the biggest problem with contact managers compared to true SFA is that they're inconvenient and limited. That lack of integration cuts both ways.

With a comprehensive SFA suite, the salesperson will have to use some of the features, such as inventory tracking and meeting scheduling. Those who insist on using contact managers are therefore going to have to learn at least some of the features of the SFA product anyway.


The Bottom Line


Of course, a poorly-implemented SFA system can easily be worse than any of the alternatives. To be truly convincing in weaning staff away from their alternatives, managers must demonstrate that the SFA software is a superior product.

If most or all of your staff insist in continuing to use their alternative tools, you need reexamine how you've implemented SFA.

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