E-Business Commentary

Something old, something new

Insurance. Cars. Fishing rods. Eyeglasses. Shoes. Furniture. Classic cars. Stationery. Industrial equipment. Steel. Software. Office furniture. Books. Flowers. The list goes on and on. Is there anything you can't buy over the Web? Well, probably a few things. Even so, the monsoon of Internet commerce is likely to continue. The only question -- at least for manufacturers -- is whether to offer products directly to the end customer; to continue to do all their business with dealers, distributors, or retail chains; or to embrace a combination of the two approaches. Regardless of the sales channel, the people who traditionally sold products to other manufacturers, to distributors, or to retailers are finding their roles transformed as well. While some have predicted the "death of the salesman," more likely the Web portends a reincarnation of the salesperson in a new capacity. Major accounts will still need hand-holding. But field sales staff had better wise up, not only to how the Web may affect them but also to the new technologies that are altering the way the sales function is managed. More manufacturers are adopting sales-force automation and customer-relationship-management (CRM) systems to help their sales administrators and field employees perform their jobs more efficiently and productively. At Herman Miller Inc., a manufacturer of office furniture, the sales team uses laptop PCs when consulting with clients to configure plans for their offices. "Our sales team can sit with the client and use the laptop to do different visual scenarios and pricing," says Dave Knibbe, executive vice president of sales and distribution at the Zeeland, Mich., company. "This is a wonderful tool for the salespeople, because it enables them to solve problems (when configuring the office environment) much more quickly for the client." Herman Miller's sales team also can go to a company Web site to update their knowledge of the latest products as well as learn about the latest techniques for dealing with a customer. Another example is American Isuzu Motors Inc., a leading importer of commercial trucks in the U.S. In April Isuzu signed on to use a new Web-based sales and customer information system from FirePond. Isuzu's more than 200 commercial-truck dealerships will use the software to enable salespeople to track Web-generated leads and capture key information about customers that can be used to improve marketing efforts. "With quicker access to information, greater support for our dealerships, and highly personalized selling capabilities, we foresee dramatic impact on sales," says American Isuzu Motors' Todd Bloom, vice president, commercial vehicle business development and marketing. The online system will incorporate various pricing options, truck features, and information on previous purchases. Another benefit of the new software is improved communication. Some systems are able to price a complex product and query the plant to check on availability and delivery date. Sales staff can see which leads are hottest and require immediate attention, and which can be deferred for later follow-up. Managers can keep closer tabs on daily sales results. In many cases, companies have found that once salespeople see the gains that can be had from CRM software, they're more likely to want to learn and embrace the new system. The software can help with generating leads, pricing, and selecting complex product variations. Despite all the automation, though, even Internet poster-child Cisco Systems Inc. continues to field a staff of several thousand sales representatives. This is a company that has had overwhelming success in piling up huge sales of routers and other network devices over the Web. And they're not alone. One of the most successful marketers of software to enable e-commerce between manufacturers, i2 Technologies Inc., also depends heavily on its fast-growing sales force to bring home record revenues. Clearly, the key role that sales reps play in the world of business -- high tech or traditional -- is not going away any time soon. It's simply changing to take advantage of the new technologies. For now, companies would be wise to seek a balance between the old ways of doing business and the new ones. As Gran Lindahl, CEO of ABB Group, asked at a recent IW conference, "How do you combine the knowledge of the old and new [economies]? We need both parts."

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