EFFICIENT EXECUTION OF HUM-drum tasks is what computer are good at -- and salespeople aren't. So shouldn't the two show a natural affinity for each other? Yet it's apparent they haven't. While corporate sales forces stubbornly remain holdouts against white-collar systematizing, computer systems that answer to a sales department's needs have been slow to come around as well.

The standoff may be about to end, however. The instruments central to the feat will come from the emergence of portable microcomputers called laptops. Light-weight, low-cost, and powerful, they will be carried about by salespeople wherever they travel, like transmitters in a school of whales. Via telephone hookups, the laptops will spew yesterday's expenses, today's sales, and tomorrow's appointments into the desktop computers of sales managers at headquarters, who will be able to keep constant vigil over once-elusive details.

But, judging from the consensus among five willingly frank sales managers rounded up by INC. to thrash out the conditions of surrender (see box below), chances are the party at one end or the other of the connection will be computer illiterate. That's no longer an excuse, however, since today's software links up with microcomputers at the touch of a couple of keys, and does most of the tasks salespeople presumably need done. INC. also examined several of these programs (see box, "A Product Sampler," page 64) to determine whether they indeed delivered their promised goods. And sure enough, taken as a whole, sales-managing microcomputer software does organize salespeople's time and effort: it sends out mass mailings, tracks leads and promotions, runs telemarketing operations, measures production, calculates commissions, and performs sundry other utilitarian tasks.

Now that the software can deliver, what would it take to get our managers to consider joining the Computer Revolution? Let's listen.

Only one of the five sales managers had had previous experience with computerizing sales data, and that was accomplished through consultants who had decided an expensive mini would provide enough power to do the job. The very first problem, Richard P. Fried warned the gathering, was to get agreement on what "the job" was.

FRIED: When we designed the system at my former company, we didn't include our rank-and-file salesmen in the decision. We used systems analysts who thought they knew what the salesmen wanted to see. But that didn't work. So then we formed a committee of eight salesmen, and these eight never could agree with one another, because each one of them had a different selling style.

Then why bother to ask them? was the response of INC.'s Wilson Harrell, moderator-provocateur of the roundtable, thus sparking a heated beginning.

INC.: I don't believe that committee decisions can run a sales organization. My concern is that once you ask a person for input, you're stuck if you don't follow it. As a sales manager, isn't it up to me to determine what my needs are and what my staff's needs are?

FRIED: For things like data elements and information flow, I found their participation to be very useful. But I agree, in terms of our sales targets or our close rate, that's strictly my responsibility. I'll determine that. And if the salespeople can't measure up, then I'll find some who can.

FERIS: Particularly for reps, do as much of the thinking as you can, because you cannot expect someone else to think as clearly about your product and your expectations and goals as you do.

INC.: The most tragic thing you could do is trust the judgment of your salespeople. Now I don't mean to say you should consider them crooks, but if you allow them to make decisions on what information they store and what information they don't, that's dead wrong.

FRIED: It is, analytically. But you're dealing with emotional human beings, and you're telling them, "I want you to change your life -- you have to enter data this way." Some will object: "I'm successful, I do my job; this would adversely affect me."

INC.: Then you wouldn't have done your job of telling them that it's good for them. Maybe the presentation has to be made in terms of what's good for them, not what's good for you.

FRIED: I would tell them, "It's going to bring you efficiency, you will be able to build a database so you won't forget anything." But somebody would be sure to object: "Jeez, are you telling me I'm forgetting that now?" Most of them are producers, and I would be reluctant to tamper with a good thing. As long as they produced, I would say, "Use it to the extent you feel comfortable." If they're not a producer, then I would say, "Try to use it because it will help you produce."

INC.: But telling them it's "so you won't forget anything" is still putting it negatively.

FRIED: Actually, I think they won't become more efficient. What I've found is that when you institute a computer system, everyone starts demanding, "I want it to answer this question, and this, and this, and this." When you take all those questions and put them together, it turns out you've got to capture a lot more data than you ever captured before. What happens is that more and more time gets sucked up just feeding the monster.

Possibly the entire concept of computerizing a sales force is an exercise in futility. Isn't it against the freewheeling nature of the sales persona to accept the discipline of the keyboard as a productivity tool, the panel asked? Some pointed to the selling personality's innate self-protectiveness, as well.

FRIED: Salespeople are idiosyncratic: "I like to do my calls this way, and this is the way I do the presentation, and here's how I do my follow-ups." Data systems don't fit. Most of these guys have trouble keying in the data -- that's the other thing. They're often computer illiterate, so you have to work around that. It's a tough fit, and very expensive.

FERIS: Salesmanship is intuitive; it's a personality kind of thing, with maybe a bit of hocus-pocus. I don't mean that derogatorily. I mean it in the sense that I'm not sure I can define what makes me a good salesman.

JENNINGS: It's a mystery to a lot of companies what sales is all about. It's an art form, almost.

FRIED: I had the experience of trying to convince a salesperson that bringing up a profile of the client on a computer screen would help him: it will keep your stuff neat and organized, you'll have instant recall, you can update it, and it will print out. The guy said, "I know what you want. You want to find out all my clients." Sales mentality! Salespeople like to be involved in selling situations, not with data recorders.

JENNINGS: A salesman guards his Rolodex more than anything else. It's his meal ticket.

INC.: But isn't it poor business practice for any company to let a salesperson decide what information about a given client he is willing to share? Because if it turns out he's dealing with only one person, you're living on a sword's edge if that person gets promoted, transferred, or fired. I'd want my salesperson dealing with the guy above him and under him as well, and if he can't deal with the guy above, I'd want him to get me involved.

DUNNE: In my old company, they decided to place personal computers in all the sales offices. The PCs sat there and gathered dust because no one wanted to bother with them. The salespeople said, "Give us the information from the home office, and we'll use it, but we're not going to take the time to sit down and punch those keys."

FRIED: Why would a salesperson fill out all those forms? They're already successful, presumably, otherwise they wouldn't work for you. Maybe they're used to jotting down notes and sticking them in a pocket.

INC.: Because it takes a lot less time to punch a computer than it does to write those notes.

Were the managers themselves operating well enough with pencil and paper? Not particularly, they confessed.

JENNINGS: At the company I'm leaving, we filled out call reports manually and mailed them weekly, along with expense reports. A salesperson's itinerary for the following week or two would not be in my hands until it was done and dispensed with. And with my being out of town and not sitting in a home office, by the time it got to me a lot of the information wasn't timely.

DUNNE: In my previous position, district sales managers used to appease the home office by sending in itineraries. When you followed up, you discovered they were never there. The reports were just made up.

FERIS: We have a computer system. The company that made it went out of business. The original software was selected by someone in our accounting department whose concept of sales data was very primitive.

DUNNE: In most sales organizations, it seems the farther away you are from the home office, the less information you get. Even if the home office generates it, you don't receive it for two weeks. It doesn't spread out fast enough.

FERIS: I don't have any systematized way of asking questions. I have to go strictly on gut. I have no way of following up leads and quotations. I can't expend 10 grand on a promotion and not have any idea how it comes out. Right now, leads that I generate through advertising are relayed to our reps for follow-up. I'd say some 90% of them are lost forever.

FRIED: In my previous job, we tracked leads zealously and tried to find out how many leads were qualified, how many were mailed, what were the sales per lead, the close rate, the yield rate, and all those different statistics. What I found out was that the cost of maintaining the data of tracking was prohibitive. Now, we buy our leads at so much per lead, then we give them to the salespeople.

But if the leads aren't entered into a computer and automatically tracked, how can you tell what the salesperson has been doing with them?

FRIED: The salesman can take those leads and flush them down the toilet. That's his perogative.

For the most part, the ability of a sales manager to receive day-to-day information proved appealing. Some, however, wondered what they would do with it.

JENNINGS: If you can actually get a handle on what your salespeople are doing from day to day, maybe it is a good control mechanism. Normally those things don't jump out at you until it's too late and it's already happened, and you can only slap someone's hand.

INC.: When a salesperson does an expense account only once a week, he forgets what happened. When he finally sits down to do it, he tries to get the numbers even, and he becomes creative.

JENNINGS: Our lead time, our sales cycle, is probably close to a year, so I may not see the benefits of what I do until this time next year. I cannot track people's day-to-day activity, it's insignificant. I'm not going to have time for those kinds of control mechanisms.

FRIED: If my salespeople don't complete all the data fields, what sanction do I impose? And how do I know that they are perceiving the sales interaction the way that I perceive it analytically? The quality of the files troubles me. You don't know who entered what -- was it the salesman who has the account now, or was the account reassigned, or was it some other salesman who was here and left? I try not to become dependent on the data itself. I use it, but it's sort of secondary.

JENNINGS: I'm not so sure this data is going to make me more effective as a sales manager. I manage salespeople and sales situations. I don't want to be managing numbers and expense reports. You have to know about them, and you're the one who signs them, but I don't get turned on doing that stuff. I get turned on getting involved with a meaty sales call, getting involved with a customer face-to-face with a good sales rep, helping that good sales rep develop skills.

Perhaps these managers previously had sensed the advantage of sales management systems, but some admitted ignorance of how to get started. And it wasn't just the sales manager; often his boss, too, was in the dark.

JENNINGS: CEOs who come from a non-sales environment will never buy into it, because they think if you just throw bodies at a product, you're going to increase sales automatically. I'm leaving a company that is extremely high-tech oriented, yet putting a computer in a salesman's hands is not even on the drawing board as a concept in a five-year plan. They give you all the negatives: the expense of buying each person a computer, who's going to control the computers, what about breakdowns? If I went to management with the concept, they'd say, "Why do we need it? We have something that works, and it's been working for 25 years."

FERIS: How do you find out about it? "Look at some of the programs that are available," a computer-nut friend told me. I said, "I don't even know where to start looking." So he hands me some magazines. Just what I need!

JENNINGS: Part of it is generational. I would guess there are not many national sales managers who grew up in the computer generation. Guys my age are making the decisions -- or not making the decisions -- on computers. I admit I'm astonished at how little these systems cost. Here we are paying our people big commissions and salaries. Instead of answering machines being one of the main things you think of, maybe computers should be.

Even if the sales staff could be convinced to go along, three remained arguments as to the value of collecting quantities of data with day-to-day frequency.

INC.: One advantage is they'll update their calendars and keep on track. And you won't have to say a word. The salesperson can't let you see that he doesn't have an appointment next week, so he gets on the phone and makes appointments. Even if all that happens is you get your call frequency up, it may be worth it. But there will be side benefits, too. Forcing them to put down all that information might also force them to close. Some salespeople do not close well.

Ah, but give the salesperson a portable laptop computer, and the sales pitch could be boltered from without. Research compiled by the sales manager could be loaded into the salesperson's portable and taken to the client's premises. It would be like flip charts, only more detailed and sophisticated.

DUNNE: If you're a small company but you want to be as competitive as a large company, you can do it with the information you bring to a buyer's office.

FERIS: How many TV ads have I seen where two guys in the upstairs bedroom put together a report? It's true. But they can give the impression of being a big business.

Since software that emphasizes telemarketing rolls a text across the screen with apparent effect, why shouldn't a sales manager arm any salesperson with the same foolproof script to recite?

JENNINGS: I can't fathom how it would be a good idea to put a person on the phone who just has a pleasant voice and expect him to read a computer terminal and know the proper thing to say. We're dealing with cardiologists and cardiopulmonary techicians. Their time is much too valuable to say, "Well, Doctor, now that you understand the importance of our product. . . ." They guy will just hang up.

FERIS: It's an interesting thought. When I was out traveling, a new rep insisted I tell him all about selling our products. I have three minutes to talk to the guy, and he wants me to teach him how to sell! I could theoretically create a script: how to talk to an architect, how to talk to an interior designer, how to talk to an engineer.

INC.: Absolutely. Not only could you, but you should. Take the insurance industry, for instance; it has been doing it for years.

Proposal to arm each salesperson with a laptop was greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and doubt. The dubious viewpoint saw such links as monitoring day-by-day expenses and itineraries as Big Brotherism.

FRIED: That's where asking them to help with the planning overcomes resistance, because initially they suspect it is a control mechanism, a hidden way that we're going to be looking over their shoulders. Selling is so damn difficult as it is, with the rejections they have to face, that you want to do everything possible to bolster their ability to go out there and face the next rejection.

FERIS: If you're trying to establish an image of a company on the upswing, I don't think that I would want to tell my salespeople that we're looking at expenses that closely.

FRIED: That's when it isn't a sales aid. Why don't you just net out all the expenses and then pay the commission off the net? That's what I propose to do, and I think that would be pretty effective.

DUNNE: You mean they'd have to watch every buck they spend?

FRIED: No. Essentially, I'm saying, if you want to spend money to make money, then go for it.

INC.: If you give them lump sums out of which they have to pay their own expenses, some salespeople will spend no money on anybody, ever. And if you've allocated a budget for promoting a customer, wouldn't you want to know whether it was spent effectively? Maybe it never gets spent on them, and the salesperson never asks for it, so it ends up going to the bottom line. You may think that's a good thing, but it hurts business.

FRIED: You have to work both sides of the street. I've got an ascending commission structure as sales volume goes up.

INC.: Companies seldom analyze expense accounts. Suppose you could see all expense items for an individual client for the past three months. The total pops up on your screen: $475. How much have we sold that client? Nothing. If the salesperson knows that's what you're capable of analyzing, you won't see that name on his expense account again unless you also see some sales.

FERIS: One thing that would be lovely in terms of managing expense accounts would be to know how to allocate a particular expense. It would give you a truer picture of results per project. The expenses would be logged against sales promotion, so that at some future point if we get the job, I will have the ability to go backward and allocate them as part of the expenses of that project.

One positive element of the traveling laptop is its ability to get data back to central in a hurry -- and to keep salespeople busy.

DUNNE: A lot of times we're not in the stores seeing what's going on as far as our products go. Out-of-stocks are extremely costly for a small company. After maybe three retail calls, you'd punch in that there's no "X" product in any of the stores. The computer would be hooked up to the distributor as well as to the home office, and alert them. Immediate feedback is where you can get something out of it. We don't have the sophisticated distributor network that big companies have. When you go in to make a pitch or when you want to get something on display, you always hear, "But your service isn't up to the same level as this other company's." A laptop could cure that.

INC.: You don't want salespeople in your office -- you want them out making calls. But half the time a salesperson could be working, he is at a hotel. Suppose you give him a laptop -- he takes his office to the hotel room with him.

JENNINGS: Sitting in a hotel room is an extremely inefficient situation. You can't get anything done. You're not tied back to the home office. The only thing you can do is talk on the telephone.

INC.: A laptop is like built-in communication with a secretary. Press a button, and letter number one, two, or three goes out.

Well then, in the end, how do you sell a salesperson on the idea?

JENNINGS: Put a set of games in his computer. That will make the salesperson really want to use it.