article

Service Providers Window-shop for SFA Hosting

Posted: 12/2000

Service Providers Window-shop for SFA
Hosting

By Aldo Morri

Hosted sales automation is is attracting attention like a fleet of shiny 2001
model cars, but service providers aren’t exactly driving them off the lot,
preferring a "kick the tires" approach.

Further, many are hesitant to discuss their plans because, in some cases,
they haven’t found that perfect vehicle, and they certainly don’t want to tip
off the competition.

"What we are doing about improving SFA is not something we are yet
willing to discuss," says Amy Kweder, a spokesperson with carrier Adelphia
Business Solutions (www.adelphia-abs.com)
based in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Still some carriers are taking some test drives with hosted SFA, as well as a
lot of other ASP services.

Bernie Roemmele, CEO for CitX Corp. (www.citx.net)–a
Quakertown, Pa.-based ASP–says his company is working on a hosted SFA
implementation project with Sprint Communications, and that most other carriers
are evaluating the use of hosted SFA.

Like Sprint, many carriers already have tried to solve the SFA problem
internally, but with limited success.

"It is not their core competency," Roemmele says. "They would
rather have SFA hosted in an environment that they know is redundant and
reliable and maintained externally."

Assuming that critical data and information can be seamlessly transferred
between carriers’ current legacy systems, most carriers have very good reasons
to embrace hosted SFA along with other applications.

"ASP services, along with SFA, will be critical to the future of
carriers," says Kneko Burney, director of e-business infrastructure and
services at Cahners In-Stat Group (www.instat.com).
"Reducing customer churn is everything. Carriers will do anything to reduce
customer churn."

No More Shrink Wrapping?

As the needs of a typical sales force change, so does the functionality of a
particular application. And, as the actual sales force, dynamics or information
change, the application must be modified to keep the sales force competitive.

"You can’t do that in a shrink-wrapped application," says Roemmele,
unless the company allocates the necessary IT resources to develop an in-house
technical staff trained to complete modifications on the application.

This is how most carriers currently handle SFA. But it isn’t quite good
enough in the increasingly competitive marketplace.

As we all know, a shortage of competent technical personnel exists throughout
the industry. Like other businesses, carriers are finding that when they need to
modify an application or install software, they need to hire and train IT
people.

This ultimately presents companies with a dilemma. Eventually the new hires
cease to serve a day-to-day function. Companies must then decide whether to keep
these specialized people on their payrolls–with the chance they will be needed
in the future–or let them go.

The problem is, if these IT professionals move on, the companies must go
through the hire-apply-fire cycle again when they need to make a change to the
application.

So, it is not unusual to learn carriers are looking at hosted SFA and other
applications as a cost-effective and quicker way to transition and modify
applications.

Size Makes a Difference

Certain SFA applications fit the ASP model, but there are others that don’t.
Typically, businesses with large, geographically distributed sales forces that
need persistent connectivity to a particular application are prime candidates
for SFA on a hosted basis.

Telecom carriers should fit this model because sales forces–that can number
in the tens of thousands for some carriers–are in constant need of scheduling,
pricing and implementation information.

Group and individual scheduling is probably at the top of the list of sales
force requirements, particularly when that force is set up in such a way that
one person may be scheduling meetings for others.

There is a big need for this among those negotiating deals when on the road.

But hosted SFA is not just for enterprise businesses. It seems smaller
telecom players are more interested in ASP offerings–for the same reasons that
hosted applications are inviting to other small and medium-sized companies. Why
own when you can rent?

"ASPs tend to support companies that don’t have a lot of capital and
need to start out fast," says Don Ryan, vice president of consulting for
Sterling, Va.-based research firm, Current Analysis (www.currentanalysis.com).
"It makes a lot of sense that smaller carriers would use hosted SFAs."

In fact, while they are not talking openly about it, smaller and medium-sized
carriers are probably more interested than large carriers in transferring
quickly to hosted SFA. Smaller carriers are more anxious to implement this kind
of solution because it becomes a cost issue, allowing them to stay lean and
compete with their larger peers, according to Ryan.

Typically, the major selling point to adopt hosting SFA for a small carrier
comes in its pocketbook. While hosted SFA systems for enterprises start scaling
from 2,000 up to 10,000 simultaneous users, some ASPs have developed similar
systems for companies that have from 100 to 500 salespeople, with scalable
modules that can be added.

"Small carrier salespeople are much more in need of having all of the
latest cost information available immediately at their fingertips, which is why
SFA makes more sense in this context," says Cahners’ Burney.

Larger carriers are more apprehensive. Although they are looking at hosted
SFA closely, the consensus is that it will take longer for them to actually make
the transition for their day-to-day operations.

"Large carrier salespeople focus mostly on large enterprise
accounts," Burney says. "This is more of a relationship game that
doesn’t take a lot of real-time, immediate information."

Keep It Simple, Reliable

The ASP industry is finding that the adoption rate for a new system is more
important than how many people can use it. Perhaps that is why it is an industry
that is bursting.

During the past two years, few industries have received as much hype as ASPs.
A recent Phillips Group-InfoTech (www.phillips-infotech.com)
survey showed the demand in the United States for network hosted applications
will increase twelvefold by 2004, and ASPs will generate as much as $13 billion
in revenue by then.

Dataquest Inc. (www.dataquest.com) is
even more optimistic. The research firm predicts the ASP market, which was only
worth $1 billion in 1999, will increase to more than $25 billion in 2004.

Of course, how quickly a company can integrate a new system into its
business, and then how quickly it can train its employees, has to be a factor in
choosing which way to go.

A lot of the success of SFA is based on the simple elegance of the web-based
front end.

A lot of the "bells and whistles" that are jammed into
shrink-wrapped packages are typically not imbedded on the hosted SFA packages.
This is done purposefully to allow the user to make the transition quickly and
not become confused by unneeded functions and features.

This is the beauty of an ASP–and perhaps a reason for the industry’s huge
success. You can get it up quickly to make your sales force productive. Later,
you can add more functions as needed.

Virtual Sales

The newest iteration of ASP is the virtual ASP (VASP), which is finding ways
to bring new features and services to the SFA marketplace.

An innovative feature handles customer calls when the agent is in the field.
Rather than the traditional way of mapping a customer through an internal
message system or voice mail, VASPs actually work to bring the call directly
into the SFA system and that client’s sales contact. A touch-tone telephone
interfaces with the application on the ASP platform.

In other words, a kind of touch-tone browser enables anyone to pick up a
touch-tone telephone and parse it to either a website or a web-based application
to send or receive data. Customers automatically can schedule a meeting or
describe their needs to the salesperson by e-mail, directly on a website or via
the telephone.

It is likely that SFA clients are concerned with fault tolerance. Carriers
that host SFA applications internally find that important functions, such as
scheduling, cannot be done when the network goes down. However, with a VASP
model, even if servers go down, it doesn’t take the sales force out of the loop.

Along with better reliability, the sales force wants to be in physical
control of its data. Solutions must deploy equipment on the customer’s facility,
yet offer services such as connectivity, data backup facilities, application
backup facilities, upgrades and remote support. The idea, as in the traditional
ASP model, is that the customer doesn’t have to hire the IT resources to
maintain the server.

ASPs are solving this problem by deploying applications in a distributed
model that gives clients significantly more reliable 24-hour uptime to their
applications. With a VASP solution, not only does the ASP install the hardware
locally for the customer, but backup and servers are distributed across the
ASP’s own architecture in different physical locations.

"Under this architecture, users are virtually guaranteed that they can
still get to applications in the case of a hacker attack or other disruption by
going through an alternative network connection," says CitX’s Roemmele.

Aldo Morri is a free-lance writer based in New York. He can be reached at amorri@aol.com.


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