Sales-force automation (SFA), a term and a process that began to creep into businesses in the late 1980s, still means many different things to different people. "Too many things," says Mark Cofano, an SFA consultant at Intersect Solutions, in Bellevue, Wash. He estimates that 90% of all initial attempts at SFA fail to achieve one or more of their goals. Many small companies are getting better results by taking things one step at a time instead of trying to tackle the entire beast at once. Some examples:

Reminding customers you exist. "Our sales cycle involves drip marketing," says Jeff Martine, president of Telepress, a $3-million printing company in Issaquah, Wash. For Telepress, wooing customers can take years, as most are bound to two- or three-year contracts with other vendors. Until recently, one employee kept track of all correspondence with prospects, using a manila-folder filing system and a calendar crammed with penciled-in reminders for appointments. When the company decided to expand its market beyond Washington, it realized the antiquated system could never work. Now Telepress keeps tabs on more than 300 prospects, using a $1,500 software package designed to track correspondence and "remind" the user when to take certain actions. A scheduling function automatically sets dates for follow-up letters and phone calls. (The product used: WinSales, from WinSales Inc., in Bellevue, Wash.)

Accommodating customers. As more of its clients opted for using electronic mail rather than the phone, talent agency Wolgemuth & Hyatt realized it needed to accommodate them and find a way to track the correspondence automatically. Two years ago the $1-million agency in Brentwood, Tenn., traded in its old contact-management system for a system that came Internet ready. The new system's E-mail feature and its ability to automate functions like contract writing resulted in the company's revenues doubling within a year. "With all the details taken care of, we were able to handle twice as many customers," notes cofounder Mike Hyatt. The system automatically logs E-mail messages into a database under the appropriate customer file . Wolgemuth & Hyatt will use it to update data over the Internet; the company will save money by having sales reps log on for information rather than phone in. (The product used: GoldMine, from GoldMine Software, in Pacific Palisades, Calif.)

Tapping in remote reps. Qiagen, a Chatsworth, Calif., biotech company, has a 40-person sales force spread over the United States and Canada. Headquarters used to share information with sales reps via phone and overnight delivery. With no formal structure in place, reps were often in the dark on new sales leads in their areas. To rectify the problem, Qiagen invested $1,500 per user in an SFA program and gave each of its reps laptops. Now reps dial in via modem to the company for weekly updates. Hot leads no longer fall through the cracks, and Qiagen no longer pays a fortune to Federal Express. (The product used: Marketrieve Plus, from Marketrieve, in Londonderry, N.H.) -- Sarah Schafer

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