Taking A Laptop On A Call

It's a jungle out there in the fast-changing telecommunications equipment market, and when Ascom Timeplex Inc. sends salespeople to call on customers, it arms them to the teeth with technology. Before a sales call, they fire up Apple PowerBook computers to review their prospects' previous contacts with Timeplex telemarketers. Dialing in to the company's worldwide data network, the PowerBook can retrieve the latest price lists, engineering and configuration notes, status reports on previous orders, and electronic mail from anywhere in the company. And when deals are struck, the laptops actually record each order, double-check them for errors, and send them electronically to Timeplex headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.

Timeplex' 200-plus salespeople may not know it, but they're at the forefront of a technology wave that's sweeping global business. As companies demand more work from fewer people, strive to differentiate commodity-like products, and keep hard-won customers, they're relying on computers to transform selling from a black art into a thoroughly engineered "business process."

It's about time. There are some 8 million people in the U.S. work force who are directly involved in sales, and it now costs $250 and up to send any one of them on a call. "The sales force is the single biggest marketing cost in major corporations," says Paula George Tompkins, chief executive of SoftAd Group, a Mill Valley (Calif.) designer of sales-automation systems. So, she says, there's a tremendous desire to improve the odds of a salesperson coming back with an order. As a result, sales-force automation tools and services have become a $1 billion market, on its way to $2.7 billion in 1997, says market researcher International Data Corp.

PAPER CHASE. Hype? Some, surely. This is sales, after all. But done correctly, investments in sales technology can pay off handsomely. Before "reengineering," sales reps at Timeplex would spend days getting quotes and proposals typed up and faxed to customers. "The salesperson was continually on the phone," says Peter Cammick, director of sales. Incoming orders triggered a paper chase that lasted as long as 10 days before manufacturing of a custom system could begin. Now, with laptop computers handling much of the process, price quotes are available in two hours, not two weeks. Orders have 25% fewer errors and take just four days to process.

Computers were long ago enlisted in the cause of sales, of course. Practically since the moment personal computers arrived, they have been helping manage contact lists and prepare personalized letters--a godsend for those Willy Lomans working out of their homes without a secretary. The first portable computers helped collect marketing intelligence from salespeople in the field and monitored each rep's activity. But many self-motivated reps, Cammick recalls, perceived a "leash" around their necks, not a tool that would help them make more money. Many millions were wasted on wrongheaded, superficial automation schemes.

Today, the entire sales process is being rethought, as companies, having pared costs, focus on boosting revenues as the key to better profitability. A major goal is making the sales force, often downsized itself, substantially more productive by better managing opportunity. Translation: Use information to help you pick your best shots, reduce the time it takes to close an order, increase the rate of successful closes, and, as Kenneth L. Dulaney, consultant Gartner Group Inc.'s vice-president for mobile business strategies, puts it, "get the price you asked for."

Says Roger L. Pigg, manager of sales automation at Deere Power Systems, a division of John Deere Co. based in Waterloo, Iowa: "We're trying to empower the salesperson with the collective intelligence of the organization." Deere Power, a maker of diesel engines and other heavy equipment, learned from a study by Digital Equipment Corp. consultants that its salespeople were spending too much time "mining for data." Before going on a sales call, they might spend a full day logging into various computer systems--including a very unfriendly mainframe--and calling different departments to gather information. Then, after visiting the customer, they spent still more time filling in forms and updating computer files.

All this "caused gaps in the sales process and allowed competitors to beat us to the deal," Pigg recalls. But new technology is closing those gaps. Departments that used to keep information to themselves now share it across a network. Most information relating to a customer is available with a single call into the net, Pigg says, driving pre-call prep time down to a half day or less. The mainframe is still there, but it is hidden behind the "prettier" faces of modern PC software. And updating customer files is now handled automatically. Pigg declines to spell out the financial benefits, saying only that the project was "financially justified" within company guidelines.

Pharmaceutical companies are probably the most advanced in sales automation--they're now on their third generation of systems. And no wonder, given the hit-and-run tactics their sales reps, called detailers, use. Their mission is not to get orders signed but rather to sway doctors' preferences when writing prescriptions. Detailers may wait an hour and then get just five minutes of a harried physician's time in which to make their pitch, hand over literature and a box of sample pills, and collect the doctor's signature. A good rep gets to call on only about six doctors a day. Success is measured by an increase in the drug's sales at local pharmacies.

Many drug companies are using sophisticated modeling techniques to increase the effectiveness of those few brief calls. Dendrite International Inc. supplies some 18,000 drug reps with a service that analyzes pharmacy sales data to determine the best doctors to call on with a particular new product. This is especially useful, says John E. Bailye, Dendrite's founder and chief executive, when, as is typical, reps have to choose from perhaps 900 doctors in their territory to pitch three different new products. Software due out next year, he says, will analyze each rep's travel-related expenses--a major variable cost--and calculate their productivity more accurately than ever before.

The next most intensive users of sales automation are industries dealing in technically complicated products such as computer gear and financial services. Laptops in the field can help deliver lots of detailed information, fresh from the home office's data banks, and even help customers actually see what they're about to buy. Massachusetts Financial Services Co. has developed PC software to help small community banks sell its range of mutual funds. It lets a bank officer generate a personalized and colorful financial analysis for each prospective customer--an alluring come-on, it's hoped, for first-timer investors.

"VIRTUAL OFFICES." CWC Inc. in Mankato, Minn., developed something analogous for an unidentified truckmaker. Sales rep and customer sit together and, using CWC's graphics-based program, build a truck on the computer screen by picking from a menu of hardware options and paint jobs. The program shows just what the rig will look like, keeps a running tally of the price, and can analyze different financing plans, too.

Perkin-Elmer Corp., a maker of analytic instruments, is going even further. It's shutting down sales facilities across the country, plowing the savings into research and development, and using a network of powerful color laptop computers to give its 200-plus North American sales reps "virtual offices." Working out of their homes, they now have access to more detailed information than ever before. For selling a line of infrared instruments, laptops help visually configure products that have some 10,000 possible variations. "It's really tough to keep up with what widgets go with which," says Michael H. Elliott, manager of sales and marketing systems. Computers, he says, can help turn sales reps into consultants. Fine--as long as the machines don't start asking for a cut of the commissions.

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