With some 600 sales-force-automation software titles to choose from, you'd be forgiven if you threw up your hands and grabbed the cheap one on the best-seller list.

But popularity doesn't make a program good. "Users are very disgusted with the vendors," says Ginger Kernachan, author of Beyond the Blue Sky: A Realistic Look at Sales Force Automation (Culpepper and Associates, Atlanta, 1994, 370 pages, $395).

Kernachan surveyed and compiled responses from 188 high-tech companies, 60% with sales of less than $30 million. If they are having trouble using sales-automation programs, you've got to pity your average low-tech Joe. "A lot of people called back to say, 'I hope this will shake things up," she reports.

Improvement is certainly in order. The overall satisfaction rating was even short of "neutral." In the survey, half the users of ACT -- a popular contact-management program that sells for about $200 -- said they planned to change systems. A contact-management program is not adequate for many users, and, the study suggests, the more comprehensive programs could use an exterminator to get rid of all their bugs.

In a related survey, Kernachan found that a damning number of sales-software vendors did not stand by their own when they were asked to name their favorite package. To be fair to the vendors, she gave them space to explain where customers often go wrong.

There's no such thing as a perfect system, though, and even folks who wrote their own in-house programs lived to regret it. But all agreed on the need to automate. Even though the group surveyed was perhaps skimpy, this report might help you choose among the "devils." Only a handful of users could vouch for certain systems. Still, there are helpful reviews and write-ups, with sample screen shots, of more than 40 of the leading programs. Familiar names, such as ACT and TeleMagic, get lots of ink, but such lesser-known, enticing titles as OverQuota, MFJ International's Lotus Notes-based program, earn coverage, too.

Some important advice: don't shop on price alone. Whether you're on your first or third go-around, you should go for the best semicustom solution you can afford. And take your time. Many companies allotted, regrettably, only 5 to 10 days to select their system.

If the picture is as black as Blue Sky paints, it should be easy to get a few buddies to split the cost of the report with you. For more information call 404-668-0616. Meanwhile, there are two free outtakes. For a quiz that tests your readiness to automate, call 800-221-0775; for an overview of programs for Windows, fax your name and address to 206-391-7982.

Sales automation: time and money spent*
Cost per Days spent on SystemSystem sales rep implementation

Goldmine $1,700 10

ACT 2,000 10

In-house 2,050 45

Snap 3,100 25

Brock 5,000 140

*Medians. Includes basic hardware.

Source: Culpepper and Associates, Atlanta, 1994.