Inside salespeople, who traditionally have been responsible for taking orders, can now focus more and more on generating sales, because of a variety of new systems that allow buyers to place orders electronically.

* At Cameron & Barkley Co., an employee-owned distributor of electrical and industrial supplies headquartered in Charleston, S.C., an IBM 4341 computer is hooked up with the company's 20 branches, which are, in turn, connected with more than 200 terminals in over 30 states at customer locations. With a terminal, each customer can access C&B's computer through phone lines, to check stock, get prices, place orders, and check the status of those orders. The cost of leasing and maintaining the terminals -- assumed by C&B for its best customers -- keeps falling, from $150 a month in 1980 to $65 a month in '83. In some cases, C&B's computer is linked up with a customer's computer, which is programmed to check inventory, enter orders at the right time, and process billing automatically, thus ending the need for a person to get involved in the process.

* In 1981 Larry Shay, president of Midwest Safety Products, a $3 million distributor of gloves and safety equipment in Grand Rapids, Mich., was able to offer an electronic order-entry system to his customers even though he didn't own a computer. Shay subscribed to a computer timesharing company, Industrial Network Systems (INS), that did it for him. Now, Midwest Safety will negotiate a contract every two years with its eight key customers that also subscribe to INS Each contract specifies the products and the prices at which they will be bought from Midwest over the next two years. That data is stored in INS's main computer in Toledo. The customer simply enters its order in its terminal, rented from INS, which is transmitted through phone lines to Shay's printer.

"When we receive an order on our printer," says Shay, "we can count on it being accurate, because the computer won't accept anything that isn't specified in the contract." For Shay, order processing has been vastly simplified: Each printed order serves as an invoice, as well as the shipping, sales, and accounting copy. For his customers, INS's service eliminates the lengthy requisition process, since prices and items have been prenegotiated, and allows them to communicate, through a single terminal, with all of their distributors that are INS subscribers. Delivery time is less than 24 hours.

In addition to an initial fee of $500 that Shay's company paid to join INS in 1981, the company also pays a fixed monthly fee of $100 (the cost for new subscribers is $250) to cover the rental of a phone modem and printer, plus a variable monthly cost -- usually around $225 -- depending on the number of transactions. Costs vary among distributors, depending on the number of sales regions covered and the number of industrial accounts on-line.

* In Roanoke, Va., Sands Woody, president of Woody Distributors, believes that a talking computer -- an order-processing system that responds to callers in a natural-sounding human voice -- will be a cost-effective way for his $10 million floor-covering distributorship to process orders. Last spring, Woody purchased a voice response system, the VCT Series 2000, from Voice Computer Technologies Corp. in Arlington, Va. The microcomputer, says VCT, can handle two to eight orders simultaneously over an ordinary touch-tone telephone, 24 hours a day. "We're not open Saturdays, but our customers are," notes Woody. He hopes not only to eliminate the need for a new-customer service representative as a result of the new system, but also to free up current order-takers so they can make more outgoing sales calls.

VCT's voice response system costs $25,000 to $47,000, depending on the number of incoming calls it can handle. The computer prompts the caller to enter orders by pressing appropriate buttons on a touch-tone phone. Various contingencies are accounted for. For example, if an item is not in stock, the computer can be programmed to suggest an alternative. If that substitute is unacceptable, the recording will ask the caller if he or she would like to speak with a salesperson. According to VCT, its new "box," introduced last June, can also check and automatically update inventories if the VCT is connected with the company's computer.