Should you automate your sales department? The question begs an answer as laptop-computer prices continue to fall, but stories of other companies' agonizing attempts to move from paper to PC can't be ignored, either.

According to George Colombo, author of Sales Force Automation (McGraw-Hill, 1994, $27.95), a little planning prevents disaster. In his experience, companies that successfully automated followed this advice:

Involve the sales force early. Give salespeople enough time to adjust. They're more likely to use the system if they've helped design it. They understand where automation can help their performance. Companies that let information-systems folks dictate the terms are often forced to start all over, Colombo writes.

Use prototypes and trial runs. Salespeople aren't computer experts, and they won't know what they want right off the bat. So consider giving them, say, an inexpensive contact-management package for a trial period. From that will flow suggestions for the custom-designed system.

Automate selectively, one function at a time. This is a process, not an event. Before rolling out the whole system, conduct test runs with salespeople who are already comfortable with computers.

Make the system easy to learn and use. Of utmost importance is the user interface that guides sales reps through the system. Also, the various screens should resemble the paper forms of your manual lead-tracking system.

Provide training and support. Make sure every salesperson knows how to use the system, and provide phone support for field reps. Colombo notes that CondÉ Nast, the magazine publisher, broke the ice for computer neophytes by introducing the system along with a game and a typing tutorial.