Imagine Willy Loman, the central figure of Arthur Miller's classic Death of a Salesman, several times a day punching in his activities -- his contacts, sales calls, results, etc. -- on a little PalmPilot and then each night uploading the information to his personal computer and, ultimately, to his boss. Impossible, you say? Maybe, maybe not. A whole new breed of software called sales-force automation (SFA) promises to change the way the traditionally independent sales rep operates. But before that promise can be fulfilled, experts say, the technology must be fully accepted and embraced by those who are being asked to use it. "Automating the sales process has met with mixed success," says a former software marketing manager for an SFA software firm who is now with an enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) company. "These are organizational and cultural issues. If the software doesn't reflect the way salespeople do things," the implementation will be met with resistance, he says. He's not kidding. The main reason many field sales employees are successful in the first place is that they are entrepreneurial, independent men and women who use their initiative to make contacts, pursue potential customers, and make sales. In short, these are not always the easiest people to convince that they should do something a new way, including record all of their activities, especially if they perceive they're suddenly being asked to do it for management's sake. "Sales management looks to SFA to allow better control of remote and mobile salespeople and of the entire sales process," states a recent report by Peggy Wheeler of AMR Research Inc. in Boston. "When the balance shifts to management control and data collection from increasing sales-rep productivity, SFA risks resistance." Indeed, cultural issues -- what some consulting firms refer to as "change management" -- tend to loom large in the implementation of almost any major piece of business or enterprise software. Often companies fail to provide sufficient training or incentives for employees to not only make the shift, but also to commit themselves to it. Failure in this area often leads to failure of the software project itself. A good example of this is Apple Computer Inc. In the early 1990s, the personal-computer manufacturer embarked on a massive, ambitious effort to install SAP AG's R/3 ERP software to manage many of its business activities. But as anyone who has worked with SAP will tell you, the software requires companies to conform their business rules and methods to SAP's, rather than allowing companies to continue to do things their own way. Apple's people, many of whom tend to be creative types, resisted the change. Years went by, and millions were spent on the effort. Along the way, Apple executives grew weary and frustrated over the time and cost of the implementation. The company, which had been using Andersen Consulting to help with the implementation, switched consulting firms. But the project was in such sad shape the company decided to shelve it, taking a multimillion-dollar writeoff. Later, after the CIO left the company, and a new "acting" CEO, Steve Jobs, came aboard, Apple decided to resurrect the SAP effort. Under Jobs' marching orders, managers and employees finally embraced the new system. Today the company is using the software and reaping the benefits it originally expected to get out of the new SFA system. SFA is no different in this respect from ERP, except that, because salespeople tend to be more independent than the average employee, their buy-in tends to be even more critical. Sales reps must believe in the new system in order for it to work. "For a sales automation to be successful, the salesperson must believe it helps him or her to make quota," says AMR's Wheeler. The effectiveness of SFA depends on the number of sales reps that actually use the application. Of course, successful use requires commitment from all concerned. And there's the rub -- too often field salespeople perceive the new SFA systems to be more for management's benefit than their own and that they are, in effect, being watched. "Many sales reps report that using a traditional SFA system inhibits their performance because it prevents them from concentrating on their business by harnessing them to the home office," Wheeler reports. "By forcing sales reps to capture and to report each and every activity and by opening up these records to sales management, many reps feel that they are being monitored." Needless to say, Willy Loman would have had trouble with that.

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