Info Surfing USA
I'm interested in setting up a business to do information research using on-line databases. How should I get started in this venture? And where can I get lists of accessible databases?

Bryan Fussell

Alexandria, La.

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Information brokers provide research and reports on a wide variety of topics -- they'll dig up technical info such as legal or medical data, perform market research, or survey the competition. For the price of a modern computer system, a fax, a modem, a copy machine, extra phone lines, and database subscriptions, anyone can "info surf."

Successful info brokers must be able to sell their sleuthing expertise to prospective clients, handle user-unfriendly databases, and price their service, says Sue Rugge, a pioneer info broker and the coauthor of the highly regarded Information Broker's Handbook (Tab, 800-262-4729, 1992, $29.95). The book covers everything from evaluating career prospects to getting paid what you're worth.

Databanks like Nexis, Lexis, and Dialog can be tricky to use and expensive to browse, Rugge notes, so it helps to practice before diving into the first assignment. Dialog's not-for-resale service, Knowledge Index, has incomplete listings that are great for trial runs. It's available on CompuServe (800-848-8199; $39.95 for the software, plus $8.95 per month). Dialog (800-334-2564) also offers training packages that include the service's $45 start-up fee.

Most databases charge an annual subscription fee and a per-use fee that info brokers pass on to clients. You'll find the names of databases, as well as what they contain, prices, and update information, in the Gale Directory of Databases (Gale, 800-347-4253, $280). It's available in libraries.

Directories are also good places to advertise. Brokers list themselves in annuals like The Burwell Directory of Information Brokers (Burwell, 713-537-9051, $59.50) or the one published by the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP; fax 516-266-6923). For membership fees of $125 a year for full-time researchers and $75 for those just exploring the business, the AIIP also offers a quarterly newsletter and an annual conference.

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Anyone Out There?
How do you get people to return customer-service surveys? Although we have put them on self-addressed stamped postcards and have limited them to five multiple-choice questions, our response rate's still only 3%. We can't afford a customer-service rep, so I'm calling customers myself. But I can't do that forever. What have others tried?

Bob Kochman


Mack/Isuzu Dealership


Keeping surveys short is the right idea, but to boost response rates, why not pass them out on your lot? Mac McConnell, owner of Artful Framer Gallery, in Plantation, Fla., earns a 100% response rate by handing customers a short survey to fill in while he rings up the sale. McConnell says incentives are key, and he offers a discount coupon to those who respond at the cash register.

And never underestimate the value of calling customers yourself. Direct contact can foster relationships, create goodwill, and garner honest feedback. McConnell follows up each sale with a phone call, saying only, "Hi, we want to make sure you're completely satisfied with our job." It pays off: McConnell reaps ample feedback and ferrets out unhappy customers he can later try to win over. "Customers don't come back because of price or convenience," he insists. "It's because of our relationship with them."

Carl Sewell, CEO of Sewell Village Cadillac, in Dallas, agrees; he offers a cordless way to gather information while building relationships. First, he hands customers a quick three-question survey while ringing up their repair bills. Then cashiers give patrons a longer, take-home survey and invite them to an upcoming focus group. More examples of Sewell's approach to pinpointing what customers really want are detailed in his book Customers for Life (Doubleday, 800-223-6834, 1990, $10).

One way to develop surveys is to brainstorm with associates. Michael Harris, CEO of Deck House, in Acton, Mass., a designer and builder of custom houses, met with his key department heads, who told him what type of feedback would be most helpful. (See "The Smart Customer Survey," Good Form, November 1992, [Article link].) Harris mails the survey around the time clients are moving into their new homes. The tactic upped his survey-response rate to about 50%.

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With the expected ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), next January, we think selling our business-consulting software in Mexico through local distributors can pay off. How have other developers found distributors in this market?

Keith Claxton

Director of Sales

Rothenberg Computer Systems

Santa Clara, Calif.

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Your hunch and timing are right on. The Department of Commerce's Office of Mexico, in Washington, D.C., lists computer software among the markets most likely to benefit from NAFTA. And as more Mexican businesses automate and more U.S companies open offices south of the border, demand for business-applications software should soar, with low-end software likely outselling more expensive products.

Insiders say the best way to get qualified names of distributors is by joining the 900 global software sellers and specialists in the Software Publishers Association (SPA; 202-452-1600; annual fees start at $700).

Bob Davies, CEO of Software Business Technology, in Sausalito, Calif., says even the smallest "distributor wanted" ad placed in Spanish-language versions of U.S. trade magazines and in Mexican computer journals can yield dramatic results. Since it's not unusual to find key Mexican distributors headquartered in other Latin American cities, see the SPA's International Resource Guide (Latin America volume, $200) for country-by-country distributor profiles and lists of marketing advisers.

Above all, look for distributors whose corporate mission is in sync with yours; the more forward-thinking they are, the better. Don't go for those who are diversifying into software that has very different applications from yours, warns Randy Newell, sales director at DataEase International, in Trumbull, Conn. "That's begging for trouble."

Exporters base a distributor's worth on a handful of criteria: the number of end-users it can reach in a given business cycle, the type of value-added services it provides (such as cooperative advertising or Spanish-language technical-support services), and the quality of its trade references. It's also important to know how much of the distributor's "mind share" you'll get; the number of products each distributor's salesperson handles will hint at that. Once you've drawn up your shortlist of candidates, visit those that insist on hard numbers that show increasing U.S. demand for your product.

Before you commit to a marketing strategy, listen to Comdex's Latin America Conference cassettes (702-733-5217, $75) for a rigorous introduction to marketing throughout that region. Also, see Lawrence Tuller's Doing Business in Latin America and the Caribbean (AMACOM, 800-538-4761, 1993, $29.95) for tough-to-find details on political red tape, labor pools, and tax issues.

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Other People's Time
As our consulting firm grows, we're finding it hard to keep tabs on employees who frequently visit clients. We want a real-time system that readily tracks how well reps stick to a daily schedule of appointments so managers can help them better manage their time. We use pagers, but phone contact isn't enough.

Matthew Mikell

Marketing Analyst


Naperville, Ill.

Is there a problem with the results your field employees are turning in? If so, why aren't they getting desirable results? Have you hired the best people in the first place? Are you setting unrealistic goals? And are your managers expert time managers? "If they can't manage their own time, how are they supposed to manage reps' time?" asks Merrill Douglass, cofounder of the Time Management Center, in Marietta, Ga. His book Manage Your Time, Your Work, Yourself (AMACOM, 800-538-4761, 1993, $15.95) will help you start thinking about what tracking systems might work for you. "It boils down to the manager's personality," Douglass says. If you're anxious for blow-by-blow feedback, take a tip from Marilyn Ounjian, CEO of Careers USA, in Philadelphia. She keeps tabs on reps by having them supplement phoned-in updates with hard copy that managers can critique. (See "The Daily Sales Report," Good Form, January 1991, [Article link].) Her 50 sales reps update a one-pager listing the basics of each site visit -- the client's name and phone number, the rep's time in and out, and what was accomplished. It works, notes Ounjian, because it's filled out and faxed back to branches within 30 seconds.

If such micromanagement doesn't appeal to you, you could design a similar report, provided "it makes managers facilitators, not just trackers," says Douglass. Chuck Piola, executive vice-president at NCO Financial Systems, in Blue Bell, Pa., did just that, opting for a weekly report that asks only for stops made, deals closed, and interesting "road stories." Piola maintains that if you hope to keep good people -- and you're fair -- quotas and commissions should manage their time for them.

Another tactic is applied by Gary Dewey, sales director at Bohdan Associates, in Gaithersburg, Md., who coaches reps to allow the client to dictate the length of meetings. His 70 reps, rigged with notebook computers with electronic mail, set a day's agenda a few days in advance, knowing they'll stay at each appointment as long as they have to. But when they finish up early, says Dewey, "they know that means 'Time to make a cold call.' " Dewey recommends Time Systems' intense time-management workshop (800-441-6600, about $180 per person) for you and your force. Its experts examine your business from the top down to find and fix weak communication links. Time Systems also offers publications and monthly workshops throughout the United States and Canada. And if you decide you still need a real-time tracking system, the National Association of Professional Organizers (602-322-9753) can refer you to local office-organization experts who can help. n

-- Reported by Karen E. Carney and Phaedra Hise.