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Oracle re-tools SFA with users in mind

Criticized for marketing sales force automation software that was too complex and expensive, Oracle is introducing a new, more streamlined version of its applications set.

Oracle Corp. introduced a new version of its sales force automation applications set today, touting new functionality and a more streamlined approach, as it attempts to address a pain point in its CRM portfolio.

Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle has been criticized for marketing sales force automation (SFA) software that was too expensive to implement because it was packaged as a number of different modules. The vendor also fell prey to industrywide complaints that SFA applications cannot deliver short-term return on investment (ROI) and that they fail to provide adequate incentives for salespeople to readily adopt the tools.

With the launch of the latest iteration of Oracle Sales, officials said they hope to shift the company's reputation in the space by offering tools that focus directly on SFA end-user needs, as opposed to existing applications centered primarily on sales force management.

"We know that sales is an area of CRM that is being viewed with skepticism by users based on a lack of ability to produce measurable results in the short term," said Robb Eklund, vice president of CRM marketing at Oracle. "Our new focus is on delivering tools that fundamentally impact the way salespeople do business, not merely providing sales force management and tracking capabilities."

The most significant step forward in the latest iteration of the sales package is the introduction of Oracle Proposals, a system designed to automate the process of creating sales offers and agreements. By giving users a system that allows them to electronically generate and track sales proposals, Oracle officials feel they've added a critical piece of functionality that can help change perceptions of SFA's usefulness. Among the features built into the proposal application are document generation, including the ability to personalize offers based on account data garnered from across a CRM system; delivery via print and e-mail; and document tracking.

Calling the system "life cycle proposal management," Oracle officials believe the offering could save some salespeople as much as 90% of the time they spend generating and following up on proposals.

Eklund said that Oracle has also upgraded overall functionality in a number of the existing pieces of its SFA product group, including field sales, telesales, telephony integration and offline sales capabilities.

Analysts appear to back Oracle's user-oriented SFA strategy as a means to improve its overall position in the market. Scott Nelson, a research director at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., said the release should help quell criticism that Oracle's sales offering remains too broad, as customers look for more tactical SFA benefits, such as those promised by the proposal automation system.

"Adoption remains the number one challenge with SFA, so vendors need to offer functionality that truly benefits users in doing their jobs," Nelson said. "Proposal generation is a common pain point for sales users, so this seems a logical area to address."

Kelly Ferguson, principal analyst at Sterling, Va.-based Current Analysis, agreed the new package appears to be a step in the right direction and sends the right marketing message. Ferguson said it is important for software makers to shift the perception of SFA tools away from "Big Brother" systems used primarily to track performance into applications that help end users drive real sales.

"If you want to address adoption, the best way to do that is by handing users something that helps them save time or generate income; it's that simple," she said. "A sales force isn't like a call center. The best salespeople in any organization are often mavericks, so trying to control behavior isn't going to work very well, while delivering tools that help drive revenue will."

Eklund said Oracle already has a number of existing CRM users upgrading to the new sales offering, including test and measurement technology provider National Instruments Corp., in Austin, Texas.

Oracle officials could not provide a price estimate for the new sales package, saying the cost structure for the company's products varies according to the number of end users in a deployment and the overall implementation complexity.

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