Rebirth of The Salesman

Dec. 21, 2004
Account execs weave the Web into their world by uniting technology with the human touch.

Nancy Jacoby, 39, scoffs at the idea that 'Net-savvy young salespeople or a Web site proffering elevators will put her out of the $27 billion elevator business. So does her customer Jim Long, a project manager for construction firm Ondra-Huyett Associates Inc. in Allentown, Pa., who says: "Would I be inclined to purchase an elevator over the Web? Yeah, I'd be interested in seeing how far I could get. But again, if I've got a question, I'm calling [Nancy]." Jacoby started out as a secretary in 1983 at United Technologies Corp.'s Otis Elevator Co. office in Allentown. She handled a variety of telephone calls: Otis account executives seeking information from product manuals; and elevator technicians needing to know which job to go to next. Jacoby also fielded calls from irate customers demanding updates about late shipments. Working to find answers under pressure taught her how to cultivate corporate sources as well as how to find people outside Otis who knew about elevators. Jacoby joined the company's sales force and by 1990 ranked among the top Otis reps. She was winning almost half of all projects bid in Allentown, and was invited to a select meeting in Chicago for no more than two dozen top performers. Otis executives wanted to know what made them excel. In response, "the thread was that we all took care of our customers in our own way," says Jacoby. Salespeople have always struggled with ways to integrate daily responsibilities and technology. Rewarded for time spent with customers, many not only lacked the inclination to learn to use tools, they feared them as well. They worried that new technology was hard to use, or worse, would replace them. In fact, salespeople of old viewed the telephone and direct-mail catalog sales with suspicion. In the 1990s sales forces across the nation were given laptops to feed with contact information. Again feeling threatened, many refused to enter customer data. Anxieties have reemerged, and this time it's the Internet provoking them, and not only in the U.S. (See "Asia awakes to e-commerce") Manufacturers can help salespeople make the Web work by finding ways to unite technology with a human touch. Internet-savvy companies are recognizing human reactions to new technologies -- ignorance, fear, anger, and regret -- and are finding ways to dispel them. Those reactions to Internet technology are understandable. Online marketplaces and Internet auctions, fertile grounds for sales, are encroaching on traditional territories, forcing salespeople to adapt. One way is to embrace technology. For example, manufacturers are trying to deal with independent online bulletin boards, and are looking for ways in which salespeople can counter misleading information or rumors that appear on them. While companies reckon with how best to use the Internet, so do smart salespeople. They are trying to harness its power, just as the best account executives before them tackled technologies that changed customer expectations long before any CEO knew the meaning of the word Internet. And it's not only those over 30 who struggle to weave the Internet into their world. Recent college graduates have problems with it, too. While Jacoby's generation may grapple with the newness of the technology, companies find that young Turks rely too heavily on Internet tools and lack the people skills sales veterans have honed. EMC Corp., Hopkinton, Mass., a $6.7 billion manufacturer of computer storage systems, boasts one of the country's fastest-growing sales forces. This year it expects to hire as many as 1,000 salespeople. "The level of complexity of the message 'how to use these products' is something you cannot easily get done without intelligent conversation between people," points out Jim Rothnie, 51, senior vice president of product management at EMC, who often accompanies salespeople on calls to discuss new products or the corporate vision. Those who thrive at EMC are not necessarily the youngest or the Web savviest. Successful salespeople are those who learn fast. That's because EMC churns out new products quickly: In 1999 80% of sales came from products introduced that year. Those able to sell this evolving stream of goods know their customers' jobs as well as their own. They can imagine the application of EMC products in new areas, and can spark interest in new uses. Then they can marshal EMC's corporate resources -- product designers or top executives such as Rothnie -- to detail what can be done. "It takes a lot of imagination and understanding -- a combination of knowing a customer's background and how the product works," sums up Rothnie. One of EMC's fastest-growing business segments is storage for companies such as eBay Inc. and America Online Inc. To penetrate that market, the high-tech manufacturer needs not only individuals who understand its products, but also those who comprehend how business on the Internet works. Without that mix, results can be disappointing. "It's very frustrating for someone like me to come into a sales situation with a salesperson who does not really understand what the customer is trying to accomplish," complains Rothnie. "It's hard to salvage a call when I wind up asking for information about the customer's needs directly when I'm there to explain new products." For companies trying to integrate the Web into their established sales operations, veterans of e-business offer models to follow. Traditional manufacturers such as Otis are benchmarking Cisco Systems Inc., Dell Computer Corp., and others to learn how best to use the technology. Also aiding salespeople in their use of the Web are vendors of sales-force-automation software that have broadened product lines to include Internet applications. Siebel Systems Inc., Oracle Corp., and upstart offer tools for obtaining customer information as well as forecasting and design functions. Software can automatically thank customers for orders and allow them to view their purchase agreement as it's processed. When customers have complaints, technology may help allay their anger. Good salespeople are evolving into guides through the thicket of information available from the Internet and trade shows, academic journals, and consulting firms. When their advice is perceived as a valuable service, clients pay extra for it and for the product they sell. Being a good salesperson has never been easy. Long before Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman a half century ago, pitching products meant long hours, rejections, and lonely days and nights on the road. Technology may have changed, but the gripes of good salespeople haven't. They may talk on cell phones, surf the Web, and call on customers from Tupelo to Tokyo, but there are still long delays in airports, drab hotels, and plenty of rejection. Salespeople tend to thrive by making money for themselves and for the company, but that focus on the dollar can obsess them, and take them away from learning about the latest and greatest technology. Despite the hype surrounding the Internet, today's sales veterans responsible for recruiting new employees are looking for the same skills that were critical more than a decade ago. When Roger Manka, 37, began his career in 1983 as an inside sales representative for U.S. Robotics, then a tiny networking company, he developed a reputation as a people person who seemed to know everyone inside U.S. Robotics as well as at customer companies. He remembered their names, and grasped product technology. Those skills enabled Manka to hold just about every sales job at the company, including distribution sales manager and regional director of enterprise. Shortly after U.S. Robotics was acquired by 3Com Corp. in 1997, Manka landed the position of vice president, named accounts and service providers, at the Carrier Systems group. With sales in his blood, Manka still spends time almost every weekday face to face with customers. He translates their needs into language preferred by 3Com's research and development design centers. This helps the company introduce the products customers want. As vice president of U.S. Carrier sales, Manka also manages the Carrier group's 165-member sales force. Now he's grappling with how best to implement the Siebel 1999 sales-automation platform, which helps the company maintain customer databases, and offers salespeople forecasting tools, a purchase order function, and an ability to download marketing information from customers' Web sites. Some of Manka's best salespeople are slowest to adapt. "It's probably the guys who are much more successful who have a tendency not to use it at first. They're relationship guys, They know who their customers are." Manka employs a carrot-and-stick approach to encourage employees to use the Siebel system. He lends his top performers an administrative assistant to start them off by typing contact information into the program. He recognizes in e-mail broadcasts those who successfully learn the system. "I've also highlighted those who have not used it -- they hear from me on a voice mail to them and their managers," Manka says. When he's not in front of customers or managing sales-force automation, Manka is recruiting and training new employees. He looks for some of the same skills that fueled his success 17 years ago. "We need people who are experts in relationship management -- and that's something that's always been there," he points out. Manka also seeks individuals who are electronically competent and those with time-management skills. Endless Web surfers are not wanted. Manka's account teams today are weighted with individuals who have computer-science and engineering backgrounds over those with business or liberal-arts training. Although this means that the sales group better understands the products 3Com is selling, often the company must introduce them to skills necessary to manage a sale. This includes basics such as greeting customers and making introductions, presentation skills, and techniques on maintaining an optimistic, outgoing attitude. To ensure that techies communicate in a way that customers respond to, Manka pairs technical members of the account team with salespeople who are masters in relationship management, and hopes that each person's skills rubs off on the other. Back in Allentown, sales veteran Jacoby has marshaled resources in much the same way as Manka. Shortly after she became one of Otis' best sales reps she was promoted into management. Her strength came in understanding people's skills and pairing individuals to complement one another. During her supervisory tenure, Otis implemented sales automation; the same kinds of concerns swirling around the Allentown office today about the Internet came up then. The automation initiative -- giving people laptops with contact management, product design, and other software -- provoked angst among reps who wondered if they would understand the technology and if it would automate them out of a job. Those concerns proved unfounded, and as sales-people learned how laptops could be used, such as for quicker answers to customers' questions, they began relying on them. Revenues improved in Allentown and in nearly every Otis location in North America where sales-force automation was introduced. Ironically, Jacoby left management and went back into the field as an account executive earlier this year in part because she found the tech-savvy recruits wanting in people skills. As a manager she was surprised by the way new employees would take information from the Internet -- such as road directions and prospect information -- without checking it with colleagues for accuracy. "I've noticed that young people getting out of college don't have any maps. They just look up directions on the Internet," she remarks. The Internet will give information, but Jacoby would never go to a major prospect meeting without talking to people to find out who they are. "Information is power, but I never use just one source," she insists.

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