Tips for sharing sales

You can't be a business, or in business, without customers. That's why contact management software, and its outgrowth, sales force automation (SFA) software, are such hot items -- they help you find and keep customers.

You can't be a business, or in business, without customers. That's why contact management software, and its outgrowth, sales force automation (SFA) software, are such hot items -- they help you find and keep customers.

Contact managers only keep track of customer details like names and phone numbers -- think glorified address book or grown-up personal information manager (PIM). SFA software starts with that, but then moves on to manage sales leads, track correspondence and communication with customers, and automate some of the steps in the sales process, like after-sale follow-ups or information requests. SFA software also lets you collect all this data into reports that, theoretically, can help you identify the best lead sources, produce sales forecasts, and evaluate your sales strategies.

Traditional SFA software requires a substantial capital investment, of which the software purchase price -- figure about $1,000 to equip five people in your company -- is just the beginning. To share this customer data among employees, a crucial part of any potential productivity you get from such software, your business needs to network its computers, and, in some cases, install a server. If cash is tight in your small business, you may not be able to justify these expenses.

You can still pursue better customer relations and computerize the sales process by turning to the small business owner's best tool: the Internet. The Net stands in for an expensive in-house network/server combination, and lets employees share a single collection of customer information through a browser.

Here are some sharing strategies that come without price tags.

Build a basic customer database
If you need to keep costs down and don't have a lot of customers, you might get by with a do-it-yourself customer database. Although far from an SFA-style solution, a customer database is a move in the right direction; it centralizes all customer info for everyone in the company, eliminating duplication.

To share a simple customer database, turn to the Web. Although you could build some work-arounds to share database files -- put a copy of the file on a sharing site such as Intranets.com, for instance -- these tactics are clumsy at best, and dangerous at worst. You don't want Robert making changes to his copy that don't show up in Julie's. Instead, you want a coherent database that includes all data. You also want this database to include information not typically stored in a computerized address book or PIM, like the amount of the customer's last order, and dates of the initial contact, first sale, and most recent contact.

My solution? Head to QuickBase and create a customer/contact manager that you can share with anyone armed with a browser. Since QuickBase lets you build up to three databases for free, you can share this important company resource without laying out any money. (For my take on QuickBase, check out my column from a few weeks ago.)

Once you begin to think bigger than a simplistic hand-crafted customer database, you should turn to professional software. When you want to share data without needing a network, you can move to Web-delivered software that you lease, rather than buy. It's my second strategy.

Go whole hog with an ASP
Several SFA application service providers (ASPs) deliver sales force-style software via the Internet. They may not be as customizable as their software-based competitors, but they have accessibility on their side, as well as low maintenance and low initial costs. I've checked out four SFA ASPs on the Web:

Prices range from $30 to $55 per month per user. Equipping three people in your company with a SFA ASP, then, will cost you $90 or more per month. For some small businesses, that's too big a bite out of the budget.

That's why I like Salesforce.com. The first five "seats" at Salesforce are free for a year. Those 12 months are plenty of time to evaluate the service; if you don't like what you see, or you don't think an SFA service like this is worth the money, you simply stop using it, and there's no harm done. However, you may discover that you're able to boost sales sufficiently to make the monthly fees a wise investment. After the first year, access to Salesforce costs $50 per month for five users, plus $50 per month per additional user.

SFA ASPs, Salesforce.com included, let you designate users and set their access privileges to insure that only those who are authorized can, for instance, add new data or run reports. Of course, since these services arrive via the Internet, all a user needs is a Web-connected computer and a browser. No network, no servers, and no IT department or consultants to keep all that up and running.