Sales force automation tools are not getting left behind as everything goes Internet.

First there were contact managers. They let users track and organize personal and business contacts into a database for activity scheduling and calendar management. They were low-cost, easy-to-use and required a simple "out-of-the-box" implementation.

Then came sales force automation products, which were an extension of the calendar management, mail-merge and reporting capabilities of the contact managers. These products were moderately priced, reasonably easy to implement, could be customized and usually had a relational database structure. As this last group of sophisticated hardware and software evolved, the mobile office came into its own.

The term "mobile office" means different things to different people. For some it's just a cellular phone; for others it entails the full range of office amenities in mobile form, including not only a phone but also a laptop with modem, fax, copier and color printer. But over and above the physical office accoutrements, having a mobile office today means having mobile information--information that is as complete and accessible on the road as it is back in the home office. It means having ready access to not only product databases and critical sales data, but also to customers, other members of the sale team and sales managers.

To provide this kind of broad-based connectivity, many of today's sales force automation tools are browser-based and Web-enabled, with all the power of the Internetbehind them. These tools let geographically dispersed sales teams collaborate, share sales information and at the same time allow management to check progress and problems. They help reps manage sales information to ensure that complex sales orders are submitted correctly.

Technology enhancements are driving the proliferation of Web-enabled, sales force automation tools, including improvements in notebook technology, the emergence of smart handheld devices, expanded use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and high-speed Internet access. More companies are turning to Web-based customer support systems that integrate messaging, Internet processing, traditional telephony, call centers and customer management software. They are linking these to back-end databases, information-management applications, data warehouses and software for automated marketing campaigns-all through a common Web-browser interface. They are also linking up with their sales force.

Web-enabled sales force automation programs allow sales representatives to use the Internet to securely access sales information from anywhere in the world, as well as provide instant information for sales management. Corporate information no longer has to reside on a laptop nor must it be accessed within a corporate network. Once a Web-enabled information system is in place, outside sales team members can reach company applications through the Web and view and update any information to which management has allowed access. It can be shared outside the corporate firewall with other sales team members, resellers and partners for a consistent and integrated sale process.

One of the keys to the success of Web-enabled sales force automation tools has been easy and immediate access to data via a Web browser that could either be run on notebook computers and, more recently, on handheld computers. Integration of these handheld systems allows companies to achieve many of the same advantages of the Web-based client hardware, yet do not require users to lug around bulky laptop computers. In fact, many sales force automation software vendors are finding that providing integration with PDAs (personal digital assistants) is becoming as important as providing email and Internet integration within contact management products.

These two trends--Web/Internet integration and PDA synchronization--suggest contact management software is changing forever. Any salesperson who is serious about making the sale will no longer be able to get by on those early versions of ACT! or Goldmine if they really want to beat the competition. Web and intranet integration with sales force automation tools provide a path to more efficient use of a salesperson's time and to much better customer service. These tools are the natural next step in sales force automation, given the current trend toward everything Internet. If an electrical distributor has a well-equipped, connected sales force, they will have an immediate advantage over one that is disconnected and "out of touch."