Mobile sales-force apps ratchet up reaction time

New forms of mobile sales-force automation and customer relationship management applications can boost efficiency of on-the-road sales teams.

By Howard Baldwin

When e-mail arrives on Mercedes salesman Owen Taback's RIM BlackBerry handheld computer, he knows that he's in a race against time.

The e-mail could have been generated from any number of places—traditional e-mail, the dealership's Web site, even a third-party Web site such as—but it's most likely from a potential customer who's also contacting BMW, Jaguar, and other luxury dealerships. The faster Taback responds, the more likely he'll land the sale.

"Time is mission-critical with an Internet consumer," says Taback, who works at Roslyn, N.Y.'s, Mercedes dealership, Rallye Motors. "They rate you against other salespeople in terms of how quickly you get back to them. If someone's made inquiries at 8:00 P.M. and I answer them at 9:15 PM, while everybody else takes until 4:00 PM. the next day, I stand out in the crowd."

Taback is part of a growing force of salespeople who—because they're not tied to a desk during the normal workday—are relying on handheld computers to increase their efficiency and productivity. Whether they're independent sales representatives, car salesmen like Taback, or even internal sales reps for manufacturers, they're using devices from Hewlett-Packard, Palm, Handspring, and Research In Motion (RIM) to reduce response time, replace paper-based forms, and channel information deeper into the enterprise. The result? Their efficiency increases—sometimes by 100 percent—and the sales cycles shorten.

"People are looking at mobile capabilities to get the productivity that never materialized out of traditional sales-force automation (SFA) and customer relationship management (CRM) applications," says Dennis Gaughan, research director for the enabling technologies group at AMR Research. "The mobile applications [using handhelds] are geared toward making it easier for the reps on the road."

Increased productivity
In addition to increasing his response time, Rallye Motors' Taback insists that his productivity has improved. Using Aether Systems' StarLeads lead-tracking software, he gets leads channeled to his BlackBerry. "It's fantastic for handling the volume," says Taback, who once processed an unheard-of 200 leads in one month. "It makes the impossible possible."

The same productivity applies to manufacturers' sales reps, the independent salespeople who deal with retailers. Greentree Sales, a 20-year-old manufacturers' rep firm, serves both small lumberyards and big-box retail stores Home Depot and Lowe's with items such as doors and windows. According to Greentree president Vincent Valentino, company reps used to generate paper-based reports on product displays, inventory (both on the floor and in storage racks), returns, and special-order status. With 1,000 service calls per month, the paper became overwhelming.

Using handhelds from Palm initially (they're switching to Compaq iPaqs) and custom-developed software, "we can now collect information on how many bays and end caps a manufacturer has, and by looking at the sales data, we can calculate sales per square foot at each store," said Valentino. "That gives us a benchmark to target where we're not selling as strongly." The software also has a signature-capture function so that in-store employees can sign off on any transactions or discussions they've had with Greentree reps. Valentino says that function serves two purposes. First, it provides a comfort level for the manufacturer that its reps are doing their jobs. Second, if the retailer complains that it hasn't seen a Greentree sales rep recently, the company can show the retailer who met with one of its rep and on what date.

Information collected by sales reps can also be channeled up the supply chain. In a pilot project, golf equipment manufacturer TaylorMade deployed handhelds from Symbol Technologies running the Pocket PC OS and i2 Technologies' i2 Mobile Solution—ruggedized and equipped with bar-code scanners—to 10 percent of its sales force in order to integrate inventory information into its i2 supply-chain software. Cutting the time it takes to do inventory from 90 minutes to 20 minutes is like doubling the number of sales reps, says Rob McClellan, TaylorMade's global e-marketing manager.

More importantly, though, the company can now better track not just its customers' demand but end-of-line consumer demand as well. "Now, every 30 days you know what was shipped, what was returned, and the sell-through by SKU," says McClellan. If the sell-through rates are good, TaylorMade can initiate a verbal conversation with the retailer about gaining more shelf space than competitors. "Even if the sell-through rate isn't good," he adds, "it forces us to have a conversation about how to improve sell-through. We're trying to demonstrate that we can bring more value [to the stores], and we can do that with this reporting."

Drawbacks and pitfalls
Not all mobile deployments are smooth. One manufacturer deployed a mobile sales-force application for its outside sales reps, but it didn't offer to either supply the handhelds or even get them at a reduced cost. As a result, only about 20 percent of the reps are taking advantage of the system. If the company doesn't show confidence in the system by supplying the tools, adoption is likely to be low.

There's also the challenge of back-end integration. "Integration is never as easy as it seems," says AMR Research's Gaughan. "Do you want to do it through your SFA or CRM vendor, because salespeople can get all the information that they need out of that one application." Doing that allows for the tightest integration, but expanding access to inventory and logistics applications increases the complexity. "When you start thinking about your sources of data, it changes your approach as to whether you want the business application vendor or a mobile services vendor as your conduit," he says.

There are also behavioral obstacles to consider. Some salespeople, especially older ones, are set in their ways and don't like to monkey with what works for them. "That's one of the reasons why SFA has not been successful in some deployments. Be careful how you position it," advises Gaughan, who suggests telling salespeople that it's not Big Brother tracking their progress, but rather a tool to help them spend more time doing what they do best. "Every salesperson hates administrative work. If you can show them how to reduce administrative work through mobile technology, it allows them to sell more frequently."

Gaughan recommends involving the salespeople in the project. "No one understands the process better than the people in the field," he says. "You may know the sales methodology, but salespeople have their own tactics. If you bring them into the development process, they might have a good idea you can incorporate."

Howard Baldwin is the former deputy executive editor of M-Business, a magazine covering mobile deployments. ZDNet’s Tech Update originally published this article on June 4, 2002.

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