If you have seen a computer rep recently, you have heard this pitch: "A computer," says the rep, "can handle accounts receivable, accounts payable, general ledger, and inventory. In other words, it will free you up to do what you do best -- sell. "
Recently, however, a few companies have begun using computers in the selling process itself. The sophistication of these systems -- and their cost -- varies. Some are little more than advertising gimmicks; others provide information to customers that only an experienced salesperson could give. The most ambitious puts together in a few hours detailed financial proposals that previously took days to prepare.
Last year, Susanne Arnold, marketing director of the Enfield Square mall in Enfield, Conn., hatched the idea of using a computer for making gift suggestions to mall shoppers. "It was going to be an Atari Christmas," she says. "Everyone wanted computers and video games, and I wanted to use that concept in promoting our stores." The mall's Radio Shack outlet lent a computer in return for free publicity, and a local programmer wrote the software for $500.
"The actual program is easy to use," says its author, Steve McKeen. "The first 'menu' or list contains the categories of people for whom you would want to buy a gift -- for example, adult male, adult female, mother, father. After a customer chooses a category, the second menu -- the price-range listing -- appears on the screen." After typing in their responses, customers receive a printout with 12 gift suggestions and the stores where the items can be found. The suggestions changed every two days during the six-week Christmas season.
"We don't have exact statistics on increased traffic or sales as a result of the computer," says Arnold. "But there were huge lines waiting to use it, and we got a lot of free publicity in the papers, radio, and TV." The computer was put away after the season and taken out again last Mother's Day. The mall plans to use it again this Christmas.
More complex systems that work in much the same way as the mall's gift suggester are in the works for the retail outlets of some large manufacturers. These computerized displays have the razzle-dazzle of the mall machine but juggle many more bits of data to help a customer reach a buying decision.
Mannington Mills Inc., a manufacturer of vinyl flooring, based in Salem, N.J., has had its Compu-flor system out and running since May. It works like this: When customers walk into the ElPee Carpet Co. in Springfield, Mass. -- one of the more than 200 outlets that are now using the system -- they see a large colorful box enclosing two screens and a number of buttons. Around the box is a huge display of Mannington Mills's best-selling floor samples. The customer answers eight multiple-choice questions: room size, furniture style, pattern preference, kind of traffic, etc. The computer selects 5 to 10 style numbers, which the salesperson helps the customer read.
Says Albert Potvin, owner of ElPee Carpet: "People today want things fast. Even a good salesman can't find the right colors and patterns fast enough. Compu-flor is instantaneous. It makes a good salesman better." Other retailers agree. The system, claims Sid Gordon, owner of Dedham Floor Covering Inc., in Dedham, Mass., attracts customers, helps them find what they want more quickly, and makes it easier to close sales.
Robert Hennessey, manager of sales promotion for Mannington Mills, explains that Compu-flor was developed to give decorating assistance, particularly in choosing design and color. That is the toughest decision for a customer, he says. "The computer helps narrow the field of patterns. It also legitimizes the choice. When you see something on a computer, it seems more official."
Compu-flor, which includes computer and software, is leased to the flooring retailer as part of a total program. Besides the computer, it has a floor display, multimedia show, cooperative advertising, and "hot leads." The program costs $1,200 the first year and $600 each year thereafter. Hennessey hopes 800 to 1,000 retailers will participate by year-end.
The most sophisticated marriage of computers and sales may be in such service professions as financial planning, real estate, and insurance sales. The dazzle of the retail programs may be lacking, but a proposal can be prepared in less than three hours while competitors wade for days through rate books, interest projection charts, and tax-law books.
C. Jim Rice, president and founder of Marietta, Ga.-based Balanced Investment Planning Inc., was frustrated by the software available to help him in planning his clients' investment strategies. The system he used necessitated his tapping into an outside service's mainframe computer. This meant he couldn't store his clients' confidential financial profiles. And he had to figure each part of a proposal separately. "Sometimes I would have to do 60 different runs to produce one financial analysis," he says. "It could take me 40 to 50 hours."
So Rice hired his own programmers to develop a system that would cut the time for a complete financial analysis to less than three hours. First his clients fill out a 51-page survey of their financial situation including assets, liabilities, goals, and willingness to take risks. The questionnaire takes little more than an hour to complete. The information is keyed into Rice's Wang 2200 minicomputer. Rice can then use any or all of this data for a proposal.
Take the client who wants enough money to send his children to college someday. Rice simply hits a few keys on his computer; in minutes he has a printout telling how much his client must invest in a lump sum or in annual investments at various interest rates to pay the college bills. The computer automatically performs the calculations on the different investment vehicles, such as insurance, trusts, and income splitting, and shows the trade-offs for the client's situation. Once the questionnaire is completed, the calculations take only minutes.
In June, Rice began marketing his program through a new software company, Rice Systems Inc. He sells the program for $5,000 plus 50 cents for each sheet of analysis the program produces. So far, the system runs only on the Wang 2200, which costs from $10,000 to $15,000. The software will also do such other office management tasks as word processing, direct mail advertising, and accounts receivable and payable.
Almost immediately after going to market with his system Rice sold six of them. David Schum, president and owner of Dallas-based Dallas Pension Agency Inc., was an early customer. "I knew it was either automate or go out of business," he says. "I looked at personal computers, but they are just not powerful enough for what I wanted. They could project an interest rate, but a complete analysis had to be done in segments -- a different run for each interest rate projected on each different tax bracket. I might need five or six programs, reentering data five or six times. I would have to piece together information that I get on one run with Rice's program. To date I have done 103% of the business I did all of last year. I was able to sell more and different products and provide a service no one else in the area could provide."
The use of computers in selling is still in its infancy. In a few years it will probably be as common as push-button phones and will lose its competitive edge. But for now there are plenty of opportunities for those who want to keep that half-step ahead of their competition.