Want to jump-start your sales process? Acquire the information and technology that'll make you a master of sales automation. But act fast. Doing nothing could be fatal

No matter what kind of business you run, your company's growth, even its survival, depends on your smart use of information technology. If you haven't done so already, you need to examine the way you sell and the way your customers like to buy. Then you need to figure out how computers can help you serve your customers better.

As hard as it is to have to invest time and money to figure out what equipment you need to buy and how to use it, you probably don't have much choice. If you don't think technology is here to stay, go to Sioux City, Iowa, and get an earful from Sioux Honey Association sales and marketing vice-president Jim Powell. For years the $50-million cooperative sold honey to major grocery chains, never bothering to invest in the electronic data interchange (EDI) technology that would let buyers bypass paperwork and place orders through their computers. But a few years ago the big chains got tough. Start using EDI, they told Powell, or pay an extra $25 to $50 in fees per order to cover the processing of paperwork.

EDI requires specialized software on each end. Whether he liked it or not (and he didn't), Powell would have to research the options, at a cost of several thousands of dollars. Finally, Sioux Honey decided on a program called Premenos, designed for the IBM System 36 mainframe computer, which the cooperative already owned. That program cost about $20,000. Sioux Honey also pays a few thousand dollars a year to an electronic-mail provider that uses phone lines to deliver the data to the grocery stores that sell Sioux Honey's Sue Bee honey. Add to that another $20,000 a year, which is what Powell spends in travel costs. That includes trips to seminars on EDI and visits to customers to ensure that their computers can talk to his.

It's not that Powell doesn't believe computers can help businesses operate more efficiently. It's just that the payback -- if there is one for the company -- is far smaller for Sioux Honey than it is for the multibillion-dollar food conglomerates against which it competes. "We do thousands of transactions with the grocery chains each year. The big guys do millions," Powell says. He wants retailers to cut him some slack, but he knows that's unlikely to happen. So he continues to shell out thousands of dollars each year for EDI upkeep.

"They asked us to use this technology, and we took it to heart," says Powell. "We had to find out what it was and how to use it."

But not every company's needs are the same. For another perspective, talk to Peter Mackins, general manager of Santa Barbara Stone Masonry Supplies, in Santa Barbara, Calif., a family-owned business that sells sand, gravel, granite, and other building materials to local contractors. Mackins hopes that the $30,000 he plans to invest in new technology will give him at least a fighting chance of getting back the revenues he has lost because of a local building slump and the rise of national chains like Home Depot. Since 1992 Santa Barbara's sales have slipped from $4 million to $2.5 million. Mackins's 12-year-old minicomputer isn't helping things any. Although it performs basic accounting functions, getting it to alert the user when the company is running low on sand, gravel, granite, or other building materials, or to flag accounts that are more than 60 days past due, is trickier. Mackins has to run a report -- which he paid a vendor $100 an hour to write -- and wait for the answer. Worse still, Mackins spends $5,000 a year in maintenance and modifications for the system. "I'd like to pitch the whole thing," he says. For a pricetag of $30,000, here's what he would want a new system to do:

· Deduct precise amounts from inventory at the point of sale and charge the customer accordingly. Contractors buy materials by odd measures, such as shovels, sacks, and scoops.

· Alert the user when inventory levels fall below a predetermined level. That way Santa Barbara could buy from the lowest-cost providers, instead of paying a premium for fast delivery at the time of demand. In spite of all the money Mackins has sunk into his computer system, he now relies on the yard personnel to let him know when stock is low.

· Check the status of a customer's account at the point of sale to extend credit accordingly.

· Automatically generate status reports for past-due accounts.

· Analyze customer buying patterns, including requests for products the store doesn't carry. That way the store can diversify its product lines accordingly.

· Run on Windows-based personal computers (several of which Mackins already owns) with an easy-to-use interface.

Santa Barbara's story reinforces the message that small businesses need to make good use of information technology to stay competitive. If you're willing to spend time figuring out how computers can help you serve your customers, as Mackins is, you'll be able to keep even the most demanding customers happy. If you're not, your competitors will be able to buy at lower cost, service more accounts with fewer people, match your latest discounts instantly, and get to new customers before you do.

By now you know that there's a plethora of new technologies out there that claim to help you sell more at a higher profit. Of course, getting there from here is not as simple as it sounds. But if, for instance, your salespeople work in the field, it pays to know that state-of-the-art notebook computers are not just status symbols for traveling executives. They are smaller, cheaper, and lighter than their full-size siblings, and they're as powerful as many of the mainframe computers running multibillion-dollar corporations. (See "The State-of-the-Art Notebook Computer," page 5.) And if, like most on-the-road salespeople, members of your sales force need to dial into headquarters to check a price in the database, you can equip your notebook with a credit-card-size fax-modem that doubles as a network card, the device your computer needs to work with the office local area network.

If your salespeople find that plugging into phone lines just isn't practical, then you'll need to look into wireless communications. Providers of such services use radio airwaves to connect your salespeople to the office computer from virtually anywhere. (See "Resources: Wireless Help," page 6.)

In the pages that follow, we'll show you -- through the eyes of small-business owners and managers -- what you need to know about those and other technologies, all of which can change the way you sell.

Knowledge Is Power
If you have intimate knowledge of how your salespeople sell, and of how and why your customers buy, you already hold the keys to using technology effectively. Sam Poole knew he had that knowledge, and he knew he had to figure out how to use it. When he joined Maxis as vice-president of sales, in August 1992, the software publisher was undergoing a major transition in the way it sold its computer simulation games. The plan, which Poole carried to completion the following year, was to break away from Broderbund, the huge software maker that had been responsible for the retail sales and distribution of Maxis's products, including SimCity, since Maxis's inception, in 1987.

From there Poole was starting from scratch. So he began by asking some basic questions. "Every company has to figure out, 'How much will I sell? What kind of information do I need to create forecasts? How can I get data on competitors' sales?" says Poole, who is now CEO of the $23.5-million Orinda, Calif., company.

Asking those questions enabled Poole to create a spreadsheet template in Microsoft Excel. In it he entered sales by customer, by month, and by SKU (stock-keeping unit). Maxis had always had some of that data, in the form of monthly computer printouts supplied by Broderbund. But those printouts were not, on their own, very useful. Poole's regional sales managers could use the Excel reports to understand exactly where a product was in its life cycle; which computer platforms were key to which Maxis products; and which sales channels were key to Maxis's success. "By proving how well our products are selling and by demonstrating how fast the market is growing, we can persuade distributors to buy our products," says Poole. The new system has made a phenomenal difference: the old reports counted sales; the new ones help generate them.

Today Poole's salespeople, newly immersed in the information-technology mind-set, create their own reports in Excel. The reports are based on data gathered from a wide array of sources, such as the Software Publishers Association (SPA), which for $300, the price of an annual membership, provides general information on the types of software categories and platforms sold at certain retail chains. The distributors on whom Maxis calls often have the printed SPA information sitting on their desks, says Poole. "But they wait for our analysis on what those numbers mean. It makes us the expert on the marketplace."

How Do You Sell?

Asking the right questions is where good sales-force automation begins. The first step is hunkering down with the top players from your company for a from-the-ground-up rethinking of how you sell. Why go to all that trouble? Because, says Barton Goldenberg, a consultant in sales and marketing automation based in Washington, D.C., virtually every part of a company affects every other part. (See "Ten Steps Toward Successful Sales Automation," page 5.)

Take Goldenberg's description of a failed automation effort at one computer-leasing company. Instead of taking a holistic look at its organization, the company built applications function by function -- one for sales, one for customer service, and so on. "They forgot that when salespeople go out to take an order, and it's thrown back at them when the delivery is late, customer service gets involved," Goldenberg says. The result: time wasted and customer goodwill lost. Plus, the company had wasted more than $100,000 on the new applications -- which it eventually scrapped.

Examining how you do what you do is the most critical step you will take in overhauling your sales effort. You can, of course, call in a hotshot consultant to do it all for you, but that will cost you a lot of money. Instead, we recommend that you assemble your own team made up of top players. Start by asking your team some straightforward questions about your company's sales process. Whose desk does the order sit on? Does that person take important action on the order or just rubber-stamp it? Do salespeople have to play phone tag to confirm prices or inventory? Do they waste time hunting for follow-up mailings or thank-you notes? That information gathering can be done using a questionnaire, or by following an order through the processing cycle, or by watching how a salesperson does his or her job.

It will make your sales staff consider the big picture, says Sateesh Lele, senior vice-president at Telogy Inc., which manufactures, distributes, and leases electronic test and measurement equipment that's used by telecommunications and computer companies. Lele and his team -- comprising representatives from sales and marketing; operations; customer service; research and development; and manufacturing -- followed the rethinking process with good results. One big win: they streamlined the order-fulfillment process and made on-time delivery a priority. That meant creating, for the first time, a daily report to track what had shipped the night before, and what had shipped late and how late it had been shipped.

Lele's sales-tracking system can not only slice and dice sales by customer, region, product line, distribution channel, or any other criteria under the sun; it also tells him about the customers that got away. "If a customer calls up and says, 'Got a widget?' and I say, 'No,' I've just lost a sale," says Lele. If the company never thought to track how often customers ask for widgets, it would never know there was an unmet demand. So Lele and his team created additional sales categories and added functions to track potential customers with its new client-server software. Among other things, Telogy found it hadn't been stocking enough of the 200 top items that generate the most revenue. As a result of its software improvements, the company has boosted sales by 15% while cutting inventory levels by 10%.

Measuring Payback

By now you're asking yourself, "How much does it cost to automate a sales force?" Sam Poole figures he spends a few hundred dollars a year in staff time to create Maxis's sell-through reports using Excel, a product the company already owned. To equip the field sales force with laptops, he spent $2,500 per person. But this year he plans to invest in a new, centralized server and software that allows his salespeople to share the information they create more effectively. He expects to spend from $500,000 to $700,000 to get the system up and running. Poole admits he has not measured the payback for his investment precisely, but the fact that his reports show an upward trend in sales is proof enough of the value of automation.

David L. Harris, president of $2-million Harris Group Inc., in Kingspoint, Tenn., has concrete evidence that his investment in technology is paying off. He remembers when it took a week with a hand-cranked calculator to put a set of what-if tax scenarios in front of prospective customers for his estate-planning services. Today he can show those scenarios to the customer in five minutes -- in convincing color graphics on his six-pound IBM ThinkPad computer. Harris estimates that he spends about $25,000 a year on technology, but that it earns him 20% to 30% in profits. That's due in large measure to a reduction in support staff. In 1975, when Harris had virtually no computers and a support staff of 12, the company generated only $49,000 in commissions. Today that number has grown to $500,000. The support staff has dropped to 2 people.

Harris's experience is proof that automation is neither painless nor cheap. Developing and maintaining computer systems takes time and money. Lele estimates that his massive systems overhaul, which linked a new sales system with all parts of the organization, cost $1 million. That included hardware, training, and staff time, as well as the specialized sales and customer-support software he bought from Aurum Software, in Santa Clara, Calif. Called TeleTrak and SalesTrak, the programs enable inside and outside salespeople to share tasks and information related to each actual or potential sale.

Lele admits that measuring payback for technology investments is not simple. Nonetheless, he has found an effective way to gauge the payoffs. Admittedly, it's hard to assign a number to "soft benefits," such as improved customer satisfaction. But bear in mind that investments in technology are like any other capital investment: you have to examine the individual case first and calculate the return on investment from there.

Every cent Telogy spent on its new system -- for software, hardware, training, support, staff time, and application development to get the old system to work effectively with the new one -- had to earn a 25% return on investment in real, quantifiable dollars. How did Telogy come up with that number? It began not with the technology but with cross-functional task forces that looked for time-consuming hassles and duplication of efforts. "The idea was, if we could do a job in x amount of time, it would mean x more in revenues," Lele says. "Such quantifiable business goals then serve as the yardstick against which you measure software packages."

For example: Telogy used to have telemarketers who generated demand and provided information to the customer. The telemarketers passed leads on to the outside sales force, who would serve as a "human face" and call on the customer, only to repeat much of the initial work. The outside salespeople would then refer the customer back to the telemarketers in order to complete the sale. "There was a lot of chitchat stuff, a lot of phone calls, and a lot of duplicate data entry," Lele says. The new system allows any sales or marketing person -- anyone inside, outside, or in telesales -- to work directly with customers, using whatever information is needed to close the sales.

The cost-justification process factored in the time saved by using laptop computers and faxes, which could confirm orders at the customer's site. "If you're generating 40% more sales and reducing your selling costs by even as little as 15%, the leverage is enormous," says Lele. Of course, not every piece of the automation project will meet the 25% return-on-investment requirement, Lele observes. Since most systems improve different operations across a company, he looks at the overall return versus the overall cost.

Changing Corporate Culture

The biggest hurdle in determining what kind of payoff you'll get for your investment isn't technological, it's cultural, says Lele. Salespeople bridle at being told to log orders they didn't take. Managers worry that lost sales stats will make them look bad. The big challenge for senior managers is to sell the concept, demonstrating that tracking lost sales can pay off for the sales force and the company.

Rethinking how you sell and how you work will of course change forever the way your sales managers interact with the people who work for them. At Opex Corp., a manufacturer of mail-opening and -extraction devices based in Moorestown, N.J., national sales manager Doug Wallace installed a sales-automation program called SNAP (from Sales Technologies, in Atlanta). His sales force of 18 people, who work out of home offices across the United States and Canada, had to begin filing call and status reports from their laptops. Wallace spent $50,000 for software and another $50,000 for PCs and notebook computers to run it on.

Each night, when Wallace downloads the sales reports from the PC-based server at headquarters, he has a complete picture of the sales activity that took place that day. (He tracks these steps in the selling process: the initial contact, information gathering, the interview, the presentation, follow-up, the close, installation, training, and a public-relations visit.) Wallace now knows whether or not his people are in front of the folks he wants them to be in front of.

Since Opex installed SNAP, it has been able to tighten its sales cycle from 125 days to 90 days. Wallace attributes the time saved largely to decreased paperwork. Rather than file detailed written reports every day, his salespeople simply update the database with new information that they send by modem to Wallace at headquarters.

Changing the way salespeople do their jobs can do more than just change corporate culture. The American Institute for Foreign Study Inc. (AIFS) found that sales automation can actually help turn around a company in trouble. Even better, AIFS's switch to automation was relatively quick, easy, and cheap.

AIFS, in Greenwich, Conn., is a $90-million 150-employee company in an unusual niche: it matches students around the world with work, cultural, and educational opportunities in other countries. In 1992 AIFS's au pair division was in a slump, with sales falling and competition heating up. AIFS had no inside salespeople and did virtually no tracking of potential customers. "Community counselors," or local subcontractors, did sales as well as local troubleshooting and coordination for the students and the host families.

Like Opex, AIFS turned to SNAP's sales-tracking package. It took only two days for AIFS managers to decide what new information they needed -- and for Sales Technologies to customize the package accordingly. To gear up for its sales-force automation, over the course of a year AIFS spent about $9,500 on software (including training and support) and about $37,000 on hardware, which included nine desktop computers, six notebooks, one laser-jet printer, and 12 modems.

AIFS first created a database of potential customers, including information such as the number of children each customer had, the type of child care each used, and where each had heard about AIFS. AIFS's inside salespeople now can do more effective follow-up and relationship building, leaving the local subcontractors to focus on speaking with prospective families and setting up the proper matches between foreign students and local families.

The results: after falling in 1992, new business from AIFS's au pair program rose by 60% in 1993 and is up another 20% this year, says senior vice-president of marketing Bill Gertz. Other AIFS services that received the SNAP treatment are "up by 10% to 20%, right across the board," says Mike DiMauro, manager of database marketing.

At Opex, Wallace says, his people are more productive because the system leaves them nothing to hide behind. That makes them want to show the boss that they're on top of things. "Some salespeople say Big Brother is watching," says Wallace. "But we are looking anyway; you are always accountable."

Jennifer deJong is a freelance writer in Boston who writes frequently on business and technology. Robert L. Scheier is a senior editor at PC Week.


1. Do a structured analysis of how you already work. Follow an employee or a purchase order around and see where things get bogged down. Brainstorm with your best people from across the business.

2. Automate only what can be improved by automation. Computers are no cure for poor sales management, ineffective sales techniques, or weak strategy. They can even make a bad situation worse more quickly.

3. If you don't have it already, get support from top management by providing a well-documented return on investment that includes strategic benefits and cost justification. Your companywide computing costs will go up in the first year, but so will quantifiable benefits such as sales, and the amount of time your salespeople spend with customers rather than paperwork.

4. Buy and deploy your technology carefully. If you use a consultant or a systems integrator, don't let that person dazzle you with technology.

5. Get the users of the system on board. Make sure the system works the way they really need it to.

6. Do rapid rounds of prototyping. Let software developers tweak versions of each new application with users looking over their shoulders. If your users want to turn into computer gurus, make sure they know what they're doing. Those users-turned-gurus may turn out to be the core of your in-house computer staff.

7. Train, train, train -- both in the technology and in new work habits. Training in new work habits can cost one and a half to two times as much as the technology does.

8. Do some back patting and provide motivation. Keep reinforcing the reasons the system is good for everyone. One motivational tool: make sure people get three useful pieces of information whenever they log on.

9. Administrate the system. Doing so means making sure the data in it are accurate and relevant to your business. A technology-savvy user might become a part-time database administrator.

10. Keep measuring the impact the system is having on your company, and keep communicating that impact to management so it will stay committed. Build on your initial successes for the next project.

Source: Based on a methodology recommended by Barton Goldenberg, president of Information Systems Marketing Inc., in Washington, D.C. Adapted by Robert L. Scheier


Apple, IBM, Compaq, Toshiba, and NEC dominate the notebook market, though literally dozens of players offer similar machines. In the IBM-compatible segment, the state-of-the-art notebook is based on the 486 chip (the unit's microprocessor, or "brain"). Machines based on the more powerful Pentium chip (currently Intel's fastest microprocessor) are beginning to appear and will become commonplace by spring 1995. Also keep an eye out for notebooks based on the new PowerPC chip, the product of an IBM-Apple-Motorola venture. The PowerPC chip is designed to run both Apple- and IBM-compatible software. Other features to expect in top-of-the-line notebooks: built-in pointing devices; color screens; weights of less than eight pounds, with some units weighing as little as four pounds; battery life of at least three to eight hours; and larger hard disks (of 300 megabytes or more). Coming soon: notebooks with larger, clearer screens and CD-ROM drives.

Each of the vendors listed below offers more than one model; models are available at various price points and with different sets of features.

Manufacturer: Apple, Cupertino, CA

Product name: PowerBook 540c

Weight: 7.3 pounds

Battery life: 3 to 6 hours

Phone: 800-538-9696

Manufacturer: Compaq, Houston, TX

Product name: Contura Aero 4/25

Weight: 3.5 pounds

Battery life: 6 hours

Phone: 800-345-1518

Manufacturer: IBM, Somers, NY

Product name: ThinkPad 755C

Weight: 7.4 pounds

Battery life: 3 to 8 hours

Phone: 800-772-2227

Manufacturer: NEC, Boxborough, MA

Product name: Versa E Series DX4/75

Weight: 6.6 pounds

Battery life: 3 hours

Phone: 800-632-4636

Manufacturer: Toshiba, Irvine, CA

Product name: Portege T3400CT

Weight: 5.4 pounds

Battery life: 3 to 6 hours

Phone: 800-344-3445


How to Get Help with Sales Automation
There are literally hundreds of sales-automation software packages out there -- and there are just as many sales-automation-related consulting firms, publications, seminars, and conferences. What follows is a list of resources to help you in your sales-automation process.

Information Systems Marketing Inc. (202-363-8996), a consulting firm that specializes in sales and marketing automation. The company also publishes The User Guide to Sales, Customer Service, and Marketing Automation, which covers the pros and cons of off-the-shelf sales software packages and provides extensive practical advice.

Sales Automation Association (313-278-5655), an organization that provides information on seminars, guides, and consulting services.

Sales & Marketing Executives International (800-999-1414), an organization that provides information on local chapters and conferences.

Power Selling (800-765-7615), a conference sponsored by Sales and Marketing Management magazine.

Mobile World (508-470-3880), a conference sponsored by Digital Consulting Inc.

Wireless Help

If you're convinced that wireless communications are just what you need to automate your sales force effectively, you don't have to go it alone. Below are some major communications providers and consultants who specialize in helping companies set up wireless communications.

Communications providers:

ARDIS Wireless Network (a joint venture between IBM and Motorola)

Lincolnshire, Ill.

800-662-5328, extension 900

RAM Mobile Data

Woodbridge, N.J.


RadioMail Corp.

San Mateo, Calif.



Global Data Inc.

Rich Tegge

Clearwater, Fla.


ACT Inc.

Veronica Williams

South Orange, N.J.


Wireless Computing Associates

Bill Freza

Yardley, Pa.



Palmtops on Wheels

In July 1993 Vicki Whiteford was visiting a friend in San Francisco who showed her a palmtop computer. "I'd never seen one before," she says. "I went out and bought five."

Whiteford is the CEO of $1-million All-Ways Courier Inc., a Los Angeles courier service that warehouses and delivers parts for major computer and appliance companies. Her drivers carry the one-pound Hewlett Packard 95LX computer with them on their routes so they can communicate with headquarters: they can announce their location, get an assignment, and press a key preprogrammed for a quick response.

Radio Mail, the wireless electronic-mail service with which the HP palmtops are equipped, makes all that possible. Radio Mail provides All-Ways with the software and the Ericsson GE Mobidem radio-modem (twice the length of a cigarette pack), which together let drivers send and receive text messages over the airways. Whiteford can keep her customers -- repair people who service appliances and computers in homes and offices -- apprised of delivery times.

In 1993, at $1,000 for each unit, Whiteford bought 5 of the HP 95LX palmtops. Less than a year later, the price of the palmtop dropped by 50%, so she bought 10 more for the price of the original 5. She pays Radio Mail $89 a month per unit for the wireless electronic-mail service it provides. But the savings are clear. Her 15 drivers, equipped with wireless units, complete about 45 more jobs per day, at an average profit of $30 per job. Cellular-phone bills have dropped by hundreds of dollars a month. And Whiteford has been able to double the size of the business without adding a second dispatcher.

-- J.dJ.

The Big Fax Payback

Ron Becht, director of product marketing at Hello Direct, a $30-million San Jose, Calif., company that sells headsets and other telecommunications equipment, knows that his customers want to be armed with information before they're ready to make a buying decision. So the company has established a fax-back system to get product data out to interested customers.

Since April 1994 Hello Direct has been using Fast Fax, a PC-based fax-back system from V*Channel, a systems integrator in Santa Clara, Calif., to fax information automatically to customers, who punch in their requests using a touch-tone phone. The software interprets the requests and faxes out the information.

Costs for such systems have dropped dramatically, especially over the last year. Hello Direct paid $10,000 for a system that can handle 2,000 requests a day. Annual operating costs add up to another $3,000.

In its first three months, the system sent out more than 3,100 documents, with about 200 callers opting to leave their names and addresses on the system's voic