This post might be a little outdated for some of you, but I know that there are many small marketing research agencies out there that are still maintaining their client and prospect lists in Excel.  I know because I’ve been there, I’ve lived it, and I’ve talked to some of you who are still living it.  Right now many of you are clicking off this page because you already have a sales management system and the rest of you are asking, “Why mess with my iron clad Excel system if it’s not broken?”

Because I’m here to tell you that if you are maintaining client and prospect lists in Excel, your system is broken.  Or maybe I should say that you aren’t getting everything that you can out of your client and prospect system, which is hurting your sales.  Hmmm…that’s a bold statement for a researcher with no real evidence to back it up, but you actually have the evidence deep down in that place you don’t like to talk about at parties because “you can’t handle the truth.” Sorry, needed a little movie reference there. Anyway, you know your system is broken when you get that uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach every time you think, “when was the last time we followed-up with X prospect?”  “Why did we lose that last proposal from Y?” “How many dollars do we currently have out in proposals and which are closest to closing?”

If you don’t know the answers to these questions with a simple click of the mouse, then your system is broken. How do you fix it?

Well, there are many different solutions for lead and client tracking, but the only one that I’ve personally implemented is SalesForce; so that is what I will review today.

Some people look at SalesForce and are immediately overwhelmed because it can grow to be as big and complex as the largest company needs it to be. However, it can also be compact and powerful for those that don’t need an expansive solution. The key is that it can be customized to meet your needs.

The impetus for my company first investigating SalesForce was the ongoing frustration and communication breakdowns between the sales team and management. It’s very difficult as a manager to keep your finger on the pulse of your sales organization using just spreadsheets and verbal or typed updates. In addition, every time there is turnover on the sales team (and we all know that happens frequently), you risk losing contacts, knowledge, notes, follow-ups, etc. SalesForce allowed us to maintain continuity and improve tracking/communication.

There are two primary challenges with SalesForce, one is the cost and the other is the learning curve.

Let’s start with cost. SalesForce charges by the seat so it’s very important that those who you are going to provide with seats actually use the tool. We started off by just giving SalesForce seats to our sales team and then slowly expanded from there. The good news is that there are reports within SalesForce that allow you to see who is actually using it, which helps you manage the licenses (or seats) that you are paying for.

The second challenge – the learning curve – is actually more complex. Unfortunately, you have two learning curves to deal with – first, you need someone who can learn the ins-and-outs of setting up SalesForce so that it can be customized to meet your needs. You can, of course, pay an outside firm to do this for you (or I guess you could call me), but many smaller companies don’t have the resources to invest in that solution. However, finding someone inside your organization who is going to “own” SalesForce is also challenging because the learning process takes time, and I’m assuming you don’t have many people on staff who are sitting around twittering their thumbs (as a side note, I always thought the expression was “twittling their thumbs,” but twittling doesn’t seem to be a word). My company was just lucky enough to have me (if I do say so myself), and I primarily learned SalesForce and set up our system at night when I was bored. That certainly didn’t make for a perfectly designed system, but it was probably better than the out-of-the-box setup that you initially get. Plus, SalesForce has a million tools to help you get set up, assuming you can find a sucker great employee to take on the challenge.

The second learning curve is users, and it’s tough. We were basically asking people to completely shift how they worked. We were asking them to work “IN SalesForce,” not work and then add notes to SalesForce later.  It’s a subtle but important difference because when you are using Excel spreadsheets and email, nothing is linked. You work in Outlook or Word, and then later tell someone what you did. By working “IN SalesForce,” you are creating a web of contacts, communications, reminders, etc.  However, that web of goodness only works if you are constantly living in it, not just popping in to see what new threads are happening every day or two. Using this philosophy, someone who doesn’t log in for two weeks is essentially NOT doing much more than they were doing in Excel. It’s a fundamental shift in how your sales team works. Consequently, you also have to shift how management searches for information (ie. stop walking down the hall and bugging Johnny for an update because it’s right there in SalesForce for you to read). So, maybe that’s a whole different learning curve.

Now that I’ve made this whole challenge sound difficult, I can tell you from experience that it’s not as bad as it may seem.  The team at SalesForce is extremely responsive and helpful. The learning tools that they provide are comprehensive, and the payoff in improved customer relationships is well worth the investment.  Plus, once you are able to implement the basics, you can start tracking more specialized types of information such as customer satisfaction scores, digital marketing campaigns, project suppliers, etc.

Just as an FYI…No, I don’t get paid by SalesForce.  No, I’m not interested in starting a business setting up SalesForce system.  And no, I don’t get commission if you buy one (although that would be nice).  However, if you think that your company may be interested in setting up SalesForce, give me a call, and I’ll be happy to tell you about my experience…free of charge.