Appealing Automation

By Selling Power Editors  •  February 2, 2010

“In many companies, the words ‘sales force automation’ often really mean ‘how do we force the salespeople to use the technology we invested in?'” says Pat Sullivan, president of SalesLogix, maker of SalesLogix sales automation software.

For many companies, the words ‘sales force automation’ often really mean ‘how do we force the salespeople to use the technology we invested in?'” says Pat Sullivan, president of SalesLogix, maker of SalesLogix sales automation software. Sullivan is also co-founder of Contact Software, the original creator of the ACT! contact management system, one of the most successful sales productivity tools on the market. “But for sales automation to be truly meaningful to the productivity of an organization,” Sullivan continues, “the sales reps themselves have to see the direct benefit the technology brings to their day-to-day way of doing business.”

Companies often make the mistake of investing in technology rather than in solutions. Horror stories abound of managers who purchased hundreds of laptops and copies of software for the field sales force only to find that, a year later, the laptops were already outdated and the software was rarely, if ever, being used. Says Sullivan, “If you don’t involve the salespeople and get them to buy into the project, even if it is something simple, you are certainly never going to make something complex work.”

Sullivan himself became an early convert to sales automation technology in the mid-1980s, when he sold PCs for a small computer dealer in Dallas. The operation was run “lean and mean” and he had no administrative help. Providing configurations and quotes to customers was a complicated process, as there were many different models and options offered. Turning a request for a proposal around in a short amount of time was a challenge. He became obsessed with finding a way to produce proposals faster, better and more accurately. His first attempt at what he calls “grass-roots automation” was writing templates in Lotus Symphony that would allow him to plug numbers into a model so that he could provide customers with quotes quickly.

More information, faster

One of Sullivan’s largest prospects was Frito-Lay. At the time, he was competing with Business Land, which was able to give much larger discounts than was the small dealer he was working for. The buyer asked him to put together a series of proposals that would show the various options based on quantity, configuration and models. Using his Lotus Symphony template, he was able to put the buyer’s request into his model and fax him back a proposal the same day. He got the order the next day, and Frito-Lay became his biggest customer. He was later told that the speed of his response earned him the account.

That was Sullivan’s first experience of realizing how beneficial automating the sales process could be to helping him earn his livelihood. He challenged himself to learn how to automate everything he did that was routine. He would sell during the day, and at night sit in front of the television with his kids and program. Sullivan focused on contact management – the process of contacting people on the phone or face-to-face, gathering and storing information in a useful way and having the system remind him when he was supposed to call them back, meet with them or provide them with additional information.

What’s in it for me?

Later, when the prototype evolved into ACT! he and his partner came up with the idea that if the salespeople who were selling computers and software in computer retail stores could see how ACT! could improve their own productivity, they most likely would recommend it to their customers. So they charged $50 a copy (instead of the $395 retail price) to any salesman working in a computer retail store, and watched their sales grow from $400,000 the first year to $20 million within 5 years.

Explains Sullivan, “One of the reasons why ACT! became so successful is that it was easy to use right out of the box. Salespeople could pick it up and start using it and, most important, recognize its benefits immediately. They knew that if they were more organized, they would be more productive. They would make two more sales calls a week or set up two more meetings. And they knew intuitively that that generates more sales and commissions.”

From individual to enterprise

In 1993, Sullivan sold ACT! to Symantec and took some time off. In 1995 he studied the market and found that there were two kinds of products. On the low end, there were contact managers like ACT! that salespeople really liked to use. On the high end was database technology that was being sold to CEOs and MIS directors as a technology rather than as a practical solution for a sales rep’s daily needs.

With SalesLogix, Sullivan believes he is combining the best of both worlds. “It is a product for people who have tried to use contact managers for sales automation and found them wanting. If the product is not built on good technology, you will eventually hit a wall. SalesLogix is the first affordable product that has the ease of use of a contact manager combined with scalable client-server technology that can grow with a company.

“There is a real need for medium and large sales forces to synchronize an individual rep’s data with the company’s back-end systems, and to be able to easily customize the software system to fit the way each company sells. These things just aren’t possible with a flat-file contact manager. We are using our experience of how to build a product that salespeople will enjoy using and will reap benefit from, and taking it further to provide the enterprise-wide information that management requires.

“It is still crucial, however, for the individual salesperson to like using the software and to see its immediate benefits. Many SFA projects fail because salespeople don’t like the software.”

Asked to share some insights on how sales force automation is changing professional selling, Sullivan advises:

“For salespeople to be as effective as they can be, they require automation in small steps. If I were a VP of sales, I would begin with a program that I could roll out in a couple of weeks and include only those functions that would give my salespeople highly productive tools. Then over the next few months I would add more functions as needed. With SalesLogix, you can turn off functions in the beginning and then deliver them in small bites as salespeople become more proficient. Overautomating or moving too fast will cause an SFA project to fail.”