For Ywain Cheney, Fridays used to be dominated by manually uploading documents and photos to his company's intranet. He spent several hours updating the site to provide the sales department with the tools it needed.
Cheney, head of the art department at Paige Denim in Culver City, California, decided he needed to streamline the process while providing salespeople with access to resources -- from look books and line sheets to press materials -- on the go. He researched mobile applications that could do both. Six months later, the sales force has the tools it needs, Cheney said, using mobile devices in meetings to share pictures and product information with buyers and editors. He can update the app in real time, which frees his time on Fridays.
According to analysts, Cheney has been smart with his purchase. He didn't invest in a mobile app simply for the sake of having one, and instead bought one to solve a specific problem, one that the sales department finds valuable enough to use.
Not every company has a similar mobile sales force automation success story. Despite the promise of mobile technologies revolutionizing sales forces' operations, there can be roadblocks, which include sales teams finding them more of a burden than a benefit and companies investing for the wrong reasons.
"A lot of these organizations make it really complex, and the key is to keep it simple," said IT analyst Sanchit Gogia, founder and CEO of Greyhound Research. "You don't need all points of information [on a mobile device]. We tell our clients to think about, 'Who needs what on the ground? What is critical and what is not critical?'"
Mobile sales force automation: A failed promise?
The goal of mobile sales force automation is to give sales teams the tools and information they need to work on the go via devices like smartphones and tablets. The sales force can process orders, access customer information, monitor inventory and do other tasks without a desktop on-site.
Mobile is the next frontier in computing, according to Kraig Swensrud, a former Salesforce.com executive who left to found San Francisco-based GetFeedback, a mobile customer survey app, in 2012. Vendors had to shift their products and strategies when technology moved to the desktop, then the cloud, and now mobile.
When a salesperson communicates with customers, half the time it's about a mobile device, Swensrud said. However, many legacy vendors can't keep pace with the demand for mobile sales tools, he said, which has allowed new vendors to fill in the gaps.
"We've shifted to this bring-your-own-device world. ... The world of IT has shifted more in the last five years than it has in the last decade -- maybe the last 20 years," Swensrud said. "Legacy vendors are not moving fast enough."
Robert Desisto, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner Research, said the strategy of traditional sales force automation vendors has been simply to take their desktop product and offer it in a mobile version. "That doesn't solve the problem," he said.
When that happens, Desisto said, the sales force is unlikely to use the app because it is designed around the system's objectives, not the objectives of the sales team. Instead, apps need to be designed around specific tasks, such as inventory tracking or calling up a report.
Greyhound's Gogia said the problem is in how the technology is implemented. Organizations often have trouble selecting the right tools and deciding how to use them, he said.
A 2012 report by Accenture, a global IT consulting and outsourcing firm, makes a similar claim. Sales leaders and CIOs face three distinct challenges according to the report: a company strategy on how mobile tools will be used before sales reps create their own; keeping up with the rapidly changing pace of technology; and using mobile tools to promote the best possible experience for the sales rep and the customer, not just for the sake of using them.
Shiny new objects
The Accenture report describes a phenomenon known as shiny new object syndrome. Organizations get excited by new technology and jump in too quickly without adequately defining how the technology will provide value.
Further complicating the issue is the quick pace of technology innovation. Gogia said some companies are blinded by new options and buy apps before determining whether they will improve workflows and the customer experience. A company might buy six apps over a period of 18 months, only to realize they now have the complex task of managing six different apps from six different vendors -- all with different security issues.
"Most CEOs are busy comparing tools, and they completely forget, 'Why are we doing this in the first place?'" said Gogia, who advises clients to test mobile sales force automation tools on a few key sales people before deploying them to the entire team. "Keep it simple. Move slowly."
Paige Denim's Cheney, on the other hand, spent considerable time doing research before selecting two apps, he said. The Paige sales teams use an app called bigtincan to access the materials they need for client meetings and a secondary app called Joor to take notes and process orders from the road.
Simplicity was one of the most important features for Cheney when he was searching for apps, he said. He needed the apps to be easy for sales reps to use and easy for him to manage on the back end, he added.
Developing a mobile sales strategy
Despite the challenges, analysts and industry experts agree that mobile sales force automation can boost revenue and improve workflows -- if it's used properly.
Like Gartner's Desisto, Swensrud said apps need to be simple and task-driven. Apps that are simply mirror images of desktop CRM won't be effective. If a salesperson has to go through 10 clicks to get information, the app won't be used, he said. The key is to find apps that will be used because they benefit sales reps and customers, he added.
Desisto recommends that companies base their buying decisions on how the sales team operates on a daily basis. When sales reps walk out of their cars and into a meeting, what kind of tools and information do they need? Maybe it's a price approval type of application to quickly close deals or an inventory tracker to check product availability, he said. Maybe they need to have offline access to information when they're flying, he added.
"What I recommend as a best practice is to model a day in the life of a salesperson," Desisto said. "Understand how they use the devices all day. What types of capabilities do they need in certain circumstances?"
Greyhound's Gogia said buying decisions shouldn't reside solely with the IT department. Mobile sales force automation requires buy-in from top executives and the sales team. If sales reps have a problem using the technology, they have to communicate that to IT, he said. "The front office and back office really need to talk to each other," he said.