The first thing to note is in the title. Tools can only really provide support to a planned, organised environment, where the important is distinguishable from background noise. Tools for tools’ sake are less likely to deliver benefit and may even increase overhead. Before considering tools, you need to decide what challenges you are intending to resolve, what existing processes they need to support, and what level of improvement you are expecting to achieve. From that position you have a more objective measure for comparison.
By their very nature, computer applications have the capability to process larger volumes of input, more quickly than their human equivalent. Equally they can produce a larger volume of results at a faster pace. Harnessed appropriately, they can free existing staff to address their brain power to some of those wish-list tasks.
Some things to watch out for:
- Features and functions; many applications are advertised as “flexible”, but the key aspect to consider is whether that flexibility is configurable or customisable. Why the difference? Configurable tends to be the simplest, take a car as an illustration. When you buy a new car you configure the set options to suit your needs: alloy wheels, metallic paint, satnav. Once you get it home you may consider customising it; mega sound system, noisy pipes – how many of these customisations will be supported by the standard warranty, maintenance or insurance policy without additional cost? With software customisations, the question is what impact do they have on patches, upgrades or new releases? The ultimate question is whether your personalised system is robust and maintainable?
- Integration with existing sources of data; many tools incorporate their own mini-contact management system. Whilst you can import and export data, this doesn’t exactly help with seamless interfaces and non-duplication of information. However, dependent on the purpose of the tool, some information may need to earn its right of passage to another application, e.g. through qualification. In all events, the users must not feel confused as to where their real data exists or they will become less committed to maintaining it.
- Pricing; there are several aspects to consider here dependent on your budgetary perspective.
- Pricing bands may not conveniently map to your current requirement or growth predictions. Dependent on the pricing structure, the outlay could affect either operating or capital expenditure.
- Total cost of acquisition (TCA) may be increased by such as the need for expert installation, initial user training, or possibly even upgrade of associated applications and hardware.
- Total cost of ownership (TCO) may be a more important factor than the price tag. TCO should take into account the resource required for installation, configuration, maintenance, support, training, operation, data processing, back-ups, licencing & renewal, data transmission and other oft overlooked aspects.
Whichever perspective of outlay you focus on, it should be balanced or even outweighed by the benefits to be accrued, not all of which can be measured monetarily.
- Usability; does the application work for you or do you work for it? Is it intuitive or frustrating? It’s great throwing all that data into an application, but does it provide you with useful analysis that you can access easily? Is any value (advantage or lack of disadvantage) obtained by those entering the data, or does it feel like it’s all for someone else’s benefit (all pain but no gain)? This last being a common cause of poor uptake of CRM systems by sales people.
I have not named any tools below, as each potential application of a tool needs specific requirements analysis and a wider trawl of competitive offerings. However, if any of the descriptions pique your interest, feel free to contact us for initial suggestions.
Some recent examples I have been having a look at:
Website visitor tracking; great at helping you identify exactly the company who has had a look at your website, which keywords they used to find you and which pages they have accessed, even though they’ve not actually contacted you. What an opportunity to make that sales call knowing they are probably in buying mode, and with an idea of the issues they may be experiencing or solutions they are seeking. We are told that latest buying behaviour indicates 60% of the buying process is done through on-line research, so you could gain a positive advantage over your competitors by your interactions in that research phase. Sounds great? Well the other side of the coin is that the traffic needs to interact with your website in the first place not just look at the landing page and they need to have come via a company network (fixed IP address), so all those mobile devices which are now the rage probably also mask their identity – so don’t be surprised if only 20% of visitors are identifiable.
“Marketing automation”; more a question of corralling the multitude of channels for market interaction and instilling some organisation to spot and respond to potential leads. Such a tool might filter internet traffic for specific conditions and then trigger a custom workflow to initiate appropriate action, such as if a keyword is used in a LinkedIn status update or a tweet comes from a focus segment, you might be alerted to follow-up. Potentially a great boon, but it may only return true value if you have a strategy already in place and a definition of where you want to hunt and how you want to react/respond.
Field reporting; when you’re running from meeting to meeting covering your territory, wouldn’t it be better if the reporting didn’t consume more time than the meetings and you felt the reports actually made your life easier as well as keeping your boss happy. In many environments, the results of a meeting produce a finite set of outcomes requiring a finite set of next actions. Capturing these results in the most efficient manner leaves your field personnel more time to focus on the human interaction with your customers and less chance for results and actions to pass their due date or be forgotten altogether.
Bid support; tools which help you to quantify progress of an opportunity, plan a strategy and ensure all key bases are covered before a proposal is issued will not only increase the value of your proposals to your customers, but will also flag those opportunities which are not making good use of your resources or are no longer viable. Such tools are best targeted at a sales cycle which may require multiple touches with the customer, require customisation of the proposal, or is typically in part a competitive tendering exercise. Whether a particular tool will assist you will depend on how you address the critical success factors of your bid/proposal preparation process. If the process is not currently formalised, addressing that aspect alone could return benefits without the aid of additional tools.
Collaborative environments; if you have ever considered the lost opportunity cost of a meeting ( e.g. man hours x charge rate, plus venue cost, plus travel time x charge rate, plus travel cost, plus cost of delay whilst synchronising diaries, etc.) and then tried to value the benefit achieved through holding that meeting, the value achieved is no easy sum. If however you can facilitate collaboration on the move, thus reducing the occasions when physical face to face meetings are required, you could speed decisions, avoid extended interruptions to activity flow and potentially have better records of the decision basis and action plan. Sounds wonderful? Is it a natural extension of our “always accessible” existence due to the mobile phone and such devices?
Learning environments & learning support; from simulations enabling safe experimentation with strategy, to a library of subject matter with the management oversight/administration function to aid targeted personnel development in key non-technical skills. These types of tool may be an adjunct to daily business routines, but may boost morale. They will typically enhance the delivery of learning experiences through flexibility in access, timing and medium, but they can also aid team building through the results of collaboration, enabling recognition of individuals’ expertise.
There is a plethora of tools available to help “automate” your systems and processes, but at the end of the day, it’s the view of the end-user which will dictate their success. If the tools can smooth their day-to-day administration, aid in winning business, and free more time for customer interaction, they’ll probably be actively used. If on the other hand, they have a myriad of authentications to go through, have disjoint or duplicate data, and nobody notices whether they’ve been used accurately or not, then they will become a fashion fad.