Putting sales information on-line sounds great, but where do you start? There are hundreds of sales-automation software titles available. The first thing you should do is identify the problem at hand. Is it pricing? Tracking sales reps' activity?

Qualifying thousands of new sales leads was the challenge facing NSS, a $10-million Bedford, N.H., software company selling to banks. Michael Baker, head of sales and marketing at NSS, began shopping for sales-automation software in 1986, when sales were $5 million and climbing.

"We were growing rapidly, and it was hard to determine how we should divide up the prospects," he explains. "We wanted to realign sales territories each year, which salespeople never want to do. But as sales manager I wanted to see more leads get closed. We needed an ongoing way to rank and qualify leads."

In 1986 the company's four salespeople each handled upwards of 50 ongoing accounts and carried around notes on hundreds more prospects -- information that often the sales rep alone possessed. NSS had been using a generic database program to track customers and prospects; that solution sufficed for the company's start-up years but offered little flexibility as NSS grew and needed to customize the database to include more specific information on the best prospects.

The sales-automation software Baker chose, after evaluating about eight packages, gave NSS the framework to gather more detailed data on prospects and to sort and print the information by, for example, sales rep and state.

The new software gave NSS a way to rank prospects on four levels: an "A" prospect is defined as a person who can make a buying decision within the year; "B" within two years, on down. Sales automation has made tweaking territories less of an issue, claims Baker, because there's companywide agreement on how leads are ranked and why. "The information to rank prospects gives us greater control to manage sales." In fact, NSS weathered a growth "spurt" of 1,523% from 1985 to 1989. Today its 10 salespeople use the software, loaded on laptop computers, daily. "All managers including the CEO use the information to help us form our business plan." -- Susan Greco

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Before You Automate . . .
Michael Baker, sales-and-marketing vice-president at NSS, uses SNAP software Version 5.0, from Sales Technologies, in Manchester, N.H. A single version that runs on IBM PCs and compatibles sells for $1,200. For more information and a free 16-page booklet of tips on "How to Get, Keep, and Grow Satisfied Customers," call Sales Technologies at 603-623-5877 or fax a request to 603-623-5562.

Is there a downside to sales automation? Baker doesn't think so, but cautions that "it's a constant struggle" to keep the sales database up-to-date. Before you make the investment, make sure the software is easy to use and will deliver a companywide payback. "If the information you're automating is going to be used only by the sales department," he says, "it's hard to justify the cost of sales-automation software." -- Susan Greco

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