Sales Force Automation vendors have always oversold the benefits to be gained from their systems and the buyers have never come to terms with the real needs of the sales force or what can reasonably be expected from it.
Thus, we need to recognize that technology by itself will not solve these problems. Having said that, and as exemplified by the iPhone introduction by Apple, our ability to tackle them can be greatly simplified by such newer technologies.
Note: Photo is the copyright of Apple, Inc.
Now, don't get too excited by the title of this posting, since I can't point you to the SFA vendor who can deliver their system on this platform. I will bet, however, that it won't be long until this is a reality.
According to the Apple web site, "iPhone combines three products — a revolutionary mobile phone, a wide-screen iPod with touch controls, and a breakthrough Internet communications device with desktop-class email, web browsing, maps, and searching — into one small and lightweight handheld device."
An immediate benefit, based just on this short description, is that sales professionals can stop lugging around a laptop, PDA and cell phone. The laptop can stay at home, the PDA can be retired and the cell phone replaced by the iPhone. Again, this will not happen overnight for both external (e.g. only Cingular/ATT carry the iPhone, SFA vendors have not adopted the device) and internal reasons (e.g. changes to the existing SFA infrastructure have not been made.)
The wide-screen iPod features mean that sales and education aides can be delivered to both reps and health-care professionals using audio and video files. While the screen is still pretty small, it should be quite sufficient for personal viewing. Then, since the device includes the Mac operating system, it should also be able to receive and send data via the cellular network and leverage standard Internet functions. For example, a sales rep should be able to easily search and find appropriate videos, audio files and/or presentations on demand as dictated by the needs of the physician being visited.
More importantly, the device can be used as a two way communication device. In other words, sales reps will be able to receive up-to-date (potentially real-time) information on the physician being visited and also send back data for follow-up (e.g. samples or information request) or database updating and analysis (e.g. visit particulars and territory performance.)
Initially, companies will be tempted to determine how existing SFA functions can be migrated to the iPhone (or similar) platform. While this is important, it is possibly more valuable to focus on newer capabilities. My own feeling is that the changing technology landscape allows each company to re-evaluate how SFA should be done. Start with a clean slate, formulate a strategy and design for the future, and then introduce the "existing features/functions" migration question in that context.
While it's exiting to play with new gadgets, the gadgets themselves are not a good enough reason to change direction.
P.S. - Don't forget to go to the iPhone web site and check out its features. It's fun and will let you start thinking ahead about the future of SFA.