If the thought of using a free, online sales force automation (SFA) tool to help your sales staff seems appealing, take a step back. What questions should you ask yourself and the SFA tool vendor when investigating a solution for your company’s sales team?

Even vendors whose service truly is free may end up charging you at some point for added functionality or additional users. Most also impose limits on the amount of free storage offered.

You should also be clear about a specific company’s revenue model before becoming heavily dependant on an application.
In the first installment of this two-part series, Hurwitz analyst Sharon Ward looked at three online sales force automation tools: salesforce.com, Sales.Oracle.com, and UpShot.com. This week, Ward suggests questions you should ask before committing your sales team to an online SFA tool.
And while some companies are adopting the idea of online SFAs as a kind of “Trojan horse” to whet your appetite for the rest of their application suite, others are offering the service free to a small number of users, gambling that your sales force will grow.

Here are a few factors to keep in mind when you’re charged with weighing online SFA services.

Most of the services let you easily sign up on their Web site, but all require a licensing agreement. It will clearly define the limits of what is included at no charge, as well as what you must or may have to pay for. Also be certain you can live with the terms described in the license agreement and budget for potential increases.

For example, at salesforce.com, a 30-user license can cost about $15,600 the first year, excluding implementation. Increasing the user level to 50 the following year brings the bill up to about $27,000.

Maintenance and upgrades
Most of these applications take care of all system maintenance for you. From backups to new releases, the onus will be on the provider. Research the provider’s backup policy and check that new features and new releases are introduced with a tutorial or other help for users. Otherwise, be prepared for frequent phone calls from confused users.

Users need to satisfy themselves that their information will be secure in the vendor’s environment. Ask if customers are sharing a single database. If they are, what steps have been taken to ensure that each company’s information remains segregated?

Can information be accessed with standard tools, such as report writers or export utilities? If so, it can probably be accessed by unauthorized users. Most vendors will provide you with a report writer that is custom designed for the application’s security or a suite of reports that follow the internal security schema to prevent this problem.

Are the firewalls and data-center access rules in place at least as secure as those in your own facility? Oracle, for example, included “Virtual Private Database” capability—which is included in its underlying 9i database—to address concerns over multiple companies using the same database to store information. By embedding security codes in each row of information in the table, Oracle ensures that information is secure. Users have the ability to specifically grant or deny access to any information by user or role code. They also have strict access control in their data centers and “industrial-strength” firewalls in place.

Dot bombs
Consider the vendor’s viability. Salesforce.com has been around for a while, and Sales.Oracle.com is backed by the power of Oracle. The long-term viability of both can be assumed.

However, a strong vendor doesn’t make the product a sure thing. Consider Siebel’s recent decision to discontinue Sales.com on June 30. A solid vendor doesn’t guarantee longevity.

And while you may not lose a significant monetary investment if the chosen vendor folds, you may lose a lot of time, which is just as important.

Once you’re satisfied that you understand the costs, technical requirements, and risks, how can you possibly decide whom to choose? With little to lose and a potential great deal to gain, you may want to just go ahead and open an account and test drive one or two of these systems to decide which most closely matches your company’s needs.
Are you a Sales.com user who now must find another vendor? Are you using one of the services that we’ve mentioned here? Tell us about your experiences. Start a discussion below or send us an e-mail.