Sales and marketing departments are finally converting in droves to the latest technology.

Automation is a word strangely redolent of the Seventies. This was the decade that saw whole departments of people being replaced by machines. Accounting, payroll, stock control were all automated by mainframes. The only human beings left were white-coated technicians.

Two decades on it is easy to assume that everything which can be done by computer is being done. But this is far from the truth. Two of the most human-intensive departments in any business are only now having IT introduced. Sales and marketing both require skills that are carbon, rather than silicon-based. Even so, technology does have much to offer – the marketing database in particular has become the latest must-have in business.

All of this is in line with the mantra that if you can measure it, you can manage it. And what IT delivers particularly well is measurability. This is one reason why many companies are now waking up to the fact that they need to bring their sales and marketing systems together. What is the point of stimulating demand if you cannot connect that with a sales effect?

Eighty-one per cent of sales and marketing directors in large organisations feel there is a gap between the promise of their technology and what it actually delivers, according to research by Interactive Information Services, which organises the annual Softworld exhibition. Not surprisingly then, the research, carried out last year, predicted there would be a 67 per cent increase in the use of integrated sales and marketing systems this year.

Shell Oil (the business-to-business division of Shell) is one company which has taken the decision to integrate sales and marketing systems. Following a trial during 1996, it has placed orders for GoldMine software which will link laptops to a central mainframe. “From January 1 next year, all members of the salesforce will have them,” says Chris Harrop, communications and services manager at Shell Oil.

For his company, this was not a question of automation. “We didn’t manage without it. When I joined in January 1996, there was nothing here,” he says. Requests for sales infor-mation and leads had to go through the IT department. Now, sales people will simply log on every night and download relevant information on prospects and customer enquiries, while uploading their sales reports.

“It takes about five clicks of the mouse to complete a selection. It has to be simple,” says Harrop. Training was a key issue, and it led to a delay in the full roll-out of the system. “Summer is the selling season. Pulling them off the road at potentially the busiest time of the year would not be a smart thing to do,” he says.

But integrating sales and marketing efforts has been smart. The test project paid for itself within six months, and as a result Shell Oil’s marketing is now performing better. “Our mailings in the past were to about 10,000 people. That has gone down to 4,000, but the level of response has gone up threefold,” reports Harrop.

This illustrates the central motivation for uniting sales and marketing systems. Information is often possessed by one side which could significantly help the other. But without an automated way of sharing it, both are working in the dark. Marketing will be less cost-effective, because it does not know enough about customers, while sales efforts can be wasted by talking to prospects who have already rejected a mailed or phoned offer.

For a pressure group, for example, maximising fundraising revenues is probably even more critical than increasing profits is for a commercial organisation. Yet the same problem of information residing in separate systems is often to be found. Strategic Data Management (SDM) worked for one such group which had three systems – a static, name and address file of supporters; a transactional file showing when donations were received and in what form; and a marketing history database.

SDM built a fundraising system which unites that information and has made its solicitation programme more efficient. “The pressure group can now very accurately target who is likely to upgrade from an annual donation, for example, to a standing order or direct debit,” says director Paul Robinson.

Receiving regular monthly transfers of money is both less costly to the pressure group and also allows it to forecast its revenue more accurately. At any one time, only a small percentage of its supporters is likely to be an active donor. So when appeals have to be made to help support campaigning on specific issues, “they can target the type of people who’ve responded to something in the past. People are responsive to different types of appeal – they may support lobbying on the environment but not direct action, for example”, says Robinson.

In the case of his client, the transition to an integrated database was not the result of a carefully thought out strategy. “It was originally held at Centre File, (NatWest’s computer bureau which was offered to third parties for their own commercial use) but NatWest decided to focus on banking and closed it,” says Robinson. With three months to go, a solution had to be found which would migrate the information from an outsourced mainframe onto an in-house system.

Choosing off-the-shelf packages where possible helped. But Robin- © son says training was even more critical. “The need to provide support is much underestimated by software companies. It is easy to run away and develop things, but you need to provide ample support for users. If they have nobody to turn to when things go wrong, they will be in trouble,” he says.

While sharing information between departments is commonly recognised as a worthy goal, not everybody believes that the correct solution is a single, shared system. Despite the vogue for data warehouses which centralise all information within a company, this might lead to a solution that is not the best for all users.

“There is a bit of a bandwagon at the moment towards very full integration,” says Doug Green, sales and marketing manager at Cube Software. “The ideal goal of complete integration may be taking it a bit far. People sacrifice the ideal functionality for the sake of complete integration. But they can run side by side.”

His company provided a solution for Kraft Jacobs Suchard when it wanted to replace a multi-main- frame and spreadsheet system for sales forecasting. It introduced a PC network based on Oracle Express on which users access data through Cube’s Procast. Ease-of-use was vital to Kraft because forecasting is just one of the tasks carried out by national account sales and marketing staff.

What Procast provided was a central forecasting database with sophisticated seasonal analysis and forecast modelling facilities for each business unit, while the majority of sales and marketing users can use a simpler interface. At SDM, Robinson says delivering a system in a form people are comfortable with is critical. “Our clients often want Excel spreadsheets. People do not have the time to learn new software, so if they know Microsoft, give them the data in that form,” he says.

The sheer scale of the information held in large organisations should not be underestimated. While having a single pool into which all data is fed and from which it is extracted sounds logical, there are many barriers to achieving that. Often the ongoing operational requirements of doing business means it is not possible to move lock, stock and barrel.

As David Allen, director of Acxiom, points out: “A retail bank might have 30 systems covering transaction processing, insurance, savings, investments, and so on, plus a wide range of contact channels, from branches to independent financial advisers or even the Internet. Putting into the middle of that a customer relationship management facility is a logical step.”

Unless there is some way of sewing all of these areas together, there is a chance that opportunities will be missed. “In very large institutions, with something like a mortgage application, they will process it then throw the rest of that data away, because it came in through a transactional processing system,” he says.

Holding on to such vital data from sales activities does not have to be done with an integrated system, however.

Noetica provides software to call centres which sits on top of the operating system and allows dynamic feeds to and from external databases. “If one of your telephone agents has added information on an action they performed on a customer, everyone else will be informed.

“If you have 100 agents on the phone, it can be difficult to keep track unless that happens automatically,” says technical director Danny Singer.

Likewise those agents can have the scripts they follow revised by the system live and online as it pulls up data on the person they are talking to.

Twenty years ago, that kind of activity would have been impossible, not least because processing speeds were much slower. Nowadays, however, this is becoming the benchmark.

Which is why the use of integrated sales and marketing systems in UK companies is now in the high seventies – at 77 per cent.

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