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Automating a company’s sales and marketing is fraught with problems. Computerising existing procedures brings few particular benefits, while more complex systems can actually alter the sales process.

SBHD: Automating a company’s sales and marketing is fraught with problems. Computerising existing procedures brings few particular benefits, while more complex systems can actually alter the sales process.

When it comes to knowing how to automate the sales and marketing process, a trip round a specialist trade fair will soon demonstrate the bewildering plethora of options that greet the first-time buyer.

But you will need to know the real differences between the varied packages on display and whether it is worth spending a large proportion of the corporate budget on equipment when cheaper software will suffice.

The market for sales and marketing software is layered in four separate tiers. At the bottom end are the packages known as Personal Information Management Systems (PIMs). These effectively transfer information from pieces of paper such as diaries and card files to a computerised version of the same thing. Some extra abilities, such as scheduling and computerising expense claims, are added to the process. Such systems are standalone, and are not designed to be integrated.

Then there is contact management software. This runs from being a slightly more sophisticated version of the personal tools – with interfaces into other systems such as word processing and spreadsheets – to a networked contact system that is accessible to a range of sales and marketing staff. Some of the best-known contact management packages include Symantec’s ACT!, which can be scaled in this way, and AGV’s Goldmine system. Software costs between £200 and £300.

Beyond that are more complex systems that aim to manage the whole process of sales and marketing within an organisation or particular department. The individual user still sits at a PC – so there is a superficial similarity to the personal tools – but the top-end sales and marketing systems sit on top of their own database of information, providing the ability to pull down and manipulate information and share it across a whole network of staff.

Finally, at the top of the tree are executive information systems (EIS). These tend to overlap with the high-end sales and marketing software tools. They are aimed at senior managers, and pull in information from both internal and external sources to enable them to get an overview of the organisation’s present position, explore different “what-if” scenarios and further analyse existing data.

Antony Dale, head of IT in marketing practice at management consultancy Coopers & Lybrand, says the major difference between low and high-end software is deciding whether to opt for a personal effectiveness manager or a computerised tool that will manage overall sales resources. “At the high end, you are looking at the cost of selling and integrating interaction with customers right across an organisation – from in-house and mobile sales staff to national sales and account managers – in order to ensure that all your customer interaction is thoughtful, considered, and relevant,” he says.

The difference lies in having a single customer database, common to everyone who needs to access it. Individual sales staff can use this information in conjunction with their own contact records. And all updated records are copied back to the central database.

But Dale warns that: “It is a mistake to underestimate the difficulties. This type of automated tool needs an understanding of both the underlying network infrastructure and separate but related tools such as financial reporting. Implementing such a system will change the sales process. If it doesn’t do that, it isn’t worth investing in.”

Dale’s point is that simply putting existing procedures onto a computerised system won’t bring any particular benefits to the sales and marketing process. And tackling the technical and organisational implications of such a system, where an entire sales and marketing force may be tied in, is expensive.

Dale believes that anything less than £50,000 is not worth bothering with when it comes to a fully-fledged sales and marketing network. Buying the software is just the beginning. The real costs are training users and hiring consultants such as Coopers & Lybrand to tell you how to maximise the system’s potential.

But extra investment in a top-end system can be more worthwhile than simply making sales staff more efficient in the short term by computerising existing paper records. “It’s easy to get a return on your money with the simple packages. It’s load and go. But after two years, the sales staff are running around with customer records that are all the same,” says Dale.

What may be more alarming is that some experts believe only five per cent of information collected in such systems is ever analysed. So the next step is to consider an EIS, which brings in data sets and shapes what can be a raw mass of data into manageable, useful information.

The boundary between a top-end sales and marketing system and an EIS is blurred. Martin de Ville, business development director at IRI Software, which sells the Dataserver sales and marketing system and the Ex-press technology on which it is built, says an EIS is usually associated with senior managers looking at performance indicators, though it has been tied into the rest of the business to give access to managers below them.

“At that level, the system could be an EIS or a top-end sales and marketing system. It needs to tell those managers where markets are moving, whether they have enough sales people in the right place, which channels are most profitable, and so on. It depends on a wealth of data,” says de Ville.

Products such as Express provide a set of tools, which enable ad hoc market research. They also provide a reporter tool, which is a more structured approach, taking a user through a series of questions and pulling up the data from the underlying database. A single development copy of Express, with no applications, costs £2,500. If it is being put on top of existing applications the cost of tailoring it to a particular site can push up the price to about £50,000 for 30 or 40 users.

One company using IRI’s Dataserver product is Thresher. The system runs on a local area network incorporating about 25 users in the buying, marketing and strategic planning departments. Thresher strategic planning manager John Belchamber says the company needed to access data much more quickly than the existing paper-based system allowed.

The three departments get a weekly download of data from a central mainframe. “It enables us to analyse promotions and their effectiveness much more quickly, as well as confirming our demographic and brand segmentation policy,” says Belchamber.

John Goose, managing director of software company Tranzline – which sells an eponymous line of sales and marketing systems – says organisations need to consider the nature of sales and marketing carefully. “Sales and marketing are activities dispersed throughout all areas of an organisation. You need to build a system flexible enough to manage the whole process,” he says.

Flexibility, in computer terms, comes from buying a client/server system – one where the processing is split between a number of PCs on people’s desks and central host machines – running on top of one or several relational databases, from which data can be pulled up in a series of different ways using Standard Query Language (SQL).

Goose maintains that buying this type of system, which works out more expensive per user than a PC-based contact manager, works out cheaper in the end. “You can soon fritter away a lot of money on £300 packages. Our equivalent product is £595 for a fully client/server enabled system.”

He acknowledges that it can be difficult for customers to appreciate the differences between systems that may appear to do roughly the same thing. But says that for smaller organisations low-end software may be more appropriate. In larger organisations, however, Goose believes the extra functionality of the more expensive systems becomes a crucial part of running sales and marketing.

“It is about everyone, from the chief executive officer through to someone picking up a telephone call, understanding who is on the other end – whether that is a customer, a potential customer or whatever. We often see people who have bought the cheaper products and they work fine. They run into problems when they try to scale them up. People tell us the most valuable thing is the data in that system – and they need that data to be co-ordinated right across the organisation. Try to do that with a cheap system and it brings the network to its knees,” says Goose.

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