SFA 15 Years Later: Now Every Rep’s Best Friend


CRM Analyst,

Sales force automation (SFA) systems hit the market in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until Siebel’s release in the mid-90s that they gained a foothold in the enterprise. Despite its increasing ubiquity, however, SFA quickly developed a bad reputation among sales reps, many of whom suspiciously viewed SFA tools as a way for management to track their every move. They were also frustrated by the kludgy user interfaces, slow data entry processes, and long ramp-up times.

Fast-forward about 15 years, and now most sales organizations are singing the praises of SFA. What changed? As it turns out, quite a bit. I see four innovations that transformed SFA into a sales rep’s best friend.

Four Tipping Points for SFA

  1. SaaS made implementation cheaper and faster - Traditional client/server SFA systems had a very high total cost of ownership (TCO) and a long, sometimes unsuccessful deployment process that required a high degree of involvement and investment by internal IT departments. When Salesforce.com came onto the scene in 1999, they changed the TCO equation and implementation process for SFA. All of a sudden, there was no on-premise hardware or software to install, no reason for IT to get involved, and sales management could even customize the software—albeit within limits—on their own. Best of all, up-front and ongoing software fees were now a small fraction of what an enterprise-scale SFA application cost. The net effect of this sea change was that sales teams were able to get up and running faster, with less disruption to the rest of the company, and dramatically lower investments in time and capital.
  2. The Cloud made SFA more accessible – In the 1990s, entering sales activity was a laborious process. The road warrior sales rep had to get out his bulky laptop, log on to the company server over a slow and unreliable dial-up connection, enter notes into a prospect’s record, and then sync it all back with the server. Ouch. Today, cloud-based SFA systems are accessible from anywhere, on any device—including smartphones and tablets—and high-speed Internet has become commonplace. In addition, because the application is accessible through a familiar Web browser, there’s no proprietary client software to master and no fussy VPN tunnel to set up. This gives the sales rep a much higher level of freedom and flexibility, and removes a key obstacle to wider adoption.
  3. Analytics and marketing automation turned SFA data into gold – It wasn’t that long ago that sales force automation was primarily a glorified contact management system with some extra data tracking capabilities. Now, with the addition of sophisticated analytics and integration with third-party systems, SFA systems have become an invaluable tool that is finally helping sales teams do their jobs better. Reps can create detailed dashboards and reports to help them do things like forecast their quarterly pipelines, prioritize new opportunities, and track progress toward quotas. And because SFA can integrate with marketing automation systems, sales and marketing teams can jointly use the data these systems compile to plan and execute more effective campaigns to help reps secure more leads and push prospects through the sales funnel.
  4. Process improvement compressed sales cycles – One of the original promises of SFA was that it would help companies improve their sales processes by, well, actually defining a sales process. This promise was rarely delivered on due to sales rep resistance and the trouble it took to modify the processes that were essentially hard-coded into early SFA applications. Newer SFA applications make process mapping and process improvement much easier. And the best practices built in to SFA systems today—based on years of learning what works and what doesn’t for most companies—help companies continuously improve their processes. The focus on sales process that newer SFA tools encourage has yielded tangible benefits for sales teams, ranging from reduced sales cycles to higher win rates.

These four developments have drastically changed the value proposition of SFA software, but the tide is still turning. We didn’t even hit on social media, which is a huge trend that some predict will have an even bigger impact on the enterprise than the cloud. What will that impact look like for SFA? We might have to wait another 15 years to find out.

Special thanks to Laura Patterson, CEO of Vision Edge Marketing for her expertise.

Thumbnail created by Aiden Jones.

  • Chris Bucholtz

    One thing you left out, Lauren: the economy forced sales people to become more productive. As sales teams shrank and under-performers were weeded out, it forced sales pros to realize that they needed help. Their careers depended on it.  I did a series of sales-focused webinars on this during 2009-2010 and we polled the attendees on this, and it was amazing how rapidly the percentages changed every 3 to 4 weeks – not just the percentage of sales pros using SFA, but the percentage of sales pros who found SFA were positively affecting their numbers. The jumps were startling. 

  • http://www.lattice-engines.com/ Andrew Somosi



    Thank you for exploring this topic. I agree that CRM/SFA
    applications have improved over the past 15 years. A key question, however, is whether these improvements directly translate into a benefit for
    reps, or do they simply benefit their managers? I addressed these questions
    in my response blog post: http://www.lattice-engines.com/blog/is-sfa-crm-every-reps-best-friend/ 

    Would appreciate your thoughts.



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