Ask most salespeople to name their rules of thumb, and "know the customer" is likely to be somewhere near the top of the list. That often means collecting reams of news clippings, keeping copious notes on clients' personal lives, and combing websites for information that could shed light on a customer's needs--or simply provide an excuse for a friendly phone call.

You've probably heard of RSS, or really simple syndication. From a sales perspective, the technology has two main applications. First, it allows websites to "broadcast" content to a self-selected group of people. Visitors to an online store, for example, can sign up for an RSS feed and receive notifications about special promotions and new products every time the site is updated. On the flip side, businesses can also use RSS to gather up-to-the-minute intelligence on everyone from clients to competitors.

For example, the software has changed the way client representatives at Peoria, Ill.-based Marquette Group keep tabs on customers. Before, each rep at the advertising firm spent about 10 hours a week searching the Internet for relevant information. In an effort to streamline the process, Marquette subscribed to a Web-based news clipping service, but found it sluggish. Also, because of the price, $550 a month, all nine reps had to share a single account, which was a big hassle.

So when Dale Granda, the firm's vice president of sales and marketing, first read about new RSS software called AdSpark last fall, he signed up quickly. The Web-based application--sold by Client Dynamics in Irvine, Calif.--helps Granda's account executives create supercharged dossiers on their clients. The program imports client information from Marquette's customer relationship management software. Account representatives also enter search terms manually--the name of a contact's favorite sports team, say. Then, they spend an hour a day scanning headlines culled from 6,000 local, national, and international news sites.

Sometimes the juicy tidbits spark ideas for new ads. They also give reps a good reason to call clients, who are now contacted four times a month instead of two. "It strengthens our relationships with clients on a professional level, as well as a personal level," Granda says. The software has cut research time in half. And, instead of sharing one account, each rep has a subscription, for $99 a month per person.

The technology can also provide insights into the competition--some business software companies, including San Mateo, Calif.-based NetSuite, are even incorporating it into CRM applications--so think twice about what information you disclose on your company's site. Salespeople at Corporate Toners, an online toner cartridge store in Canoga Park, Calif., copy feeds containing pricing information from their rivals' websites and paste them into their NetSuite dashboards. Each time an interested buyer calls, sales reps check out the latest prices being offered by rivals and offer a better deal. That has improved Corporate Toners' conversion rate on sales calls by 40%, says COO and co-founder Kapil Juneja. Juneja, for his part, is debating whether to add RSS feeds to the Corporate Toners website. If he does, he plans to be careful about how much he reveals.

Resources

Resources Sign up for a free Web-based news reader account at newsgator.com. To learn more about business software that incorporates RSS technology, visit netsuite.com or clientdynamics.com, both of which offer online demonstrations.