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There’s no getting around it. Whether you’re communicating with the office, contacting a customer on the road, checking inventory, or entering an order, at some point in the process you find yourself at the mercy of technology.

According to an informal SM poll, multipurpose cell phones, laptops, and PDAs rank high on distributors’ “must-have” lists of sales tools for performing these functions. But increasing sales and closing deals doesn’t always depend on using the latest and greatest gadgets. Sometimes improving productivity means making the most of the tools you already have, or finding low-cost options you might have overlooked.

Staying In Touch
First and foremost, sales reps rely on technology to communicate with customers and managers. For most distributors, the tool of choice is the cell phone. Today’s cell phones do so much more than place and receive calls. Device convergence has led to the merger of cell phone and PDA functions, allowing users to not only make calls but to perform a host of other functions, from sending e-mails to accessing product stock via the Internet.

“Anything you can do to reduce a salesperson’s interruptions allows them to spend more time face-to-face time with customers solving problems,” says Michael Marks, managing partner for Indian River Consulting Group, Melbourne, Fla.

For Mark Newhouse, CEO, Laymen Global, Rahway, N.J., the best tool to achieve this goal is Palm’s Treo 650 smartphone, a device that performs every office function but make coffee. It combines a phone with e-mail, an organizer, messaging, and Web access. It also has built-in Bluetooth wireless technology to connect with other devices.

“All of these features are about being available instantly but not necessarily making yourself available,” says Newhouse. “We need the customer to feel that they can get in touch with the salesperson when and how they want to. If a customer calls our office and asks for a salesperson, the customer service rep can tap that call directly to the salesperson. They don’t have to know where the salesperson is, and they might not even have his cell phone number, but within seconds they can be on the phone with the salesperson.”

Today’s technologies are also about giving the salesperson the choice to decide whether or not a call needs immediate attention. “It may not be an opportune time to talk with the customer, so the salesperson can tell the customer service rep that it’s not a good time to talk. Then we can convey that to the customer,” Newhouse says.

But avoiding interruptions and being available instantly doesn’t necessarily require an investment in expensive technology. Most salespeople already have a valuable tool at their disposal that some might not be using at all: text messaging.

“People have overbought technology, and they don’t use what they already have,” says Marks. For instance, all cell phones have short message service (SMS). Marks suggests that companies make full use of this feature by including photos of their sales reps on their Web site with a box next to each photo where customers can send text messages to the reps’ cell phones. “That’s not new technology,” he points out. In many cases, distributors have already paid for it, and if they haven’t, the cost to use this function is relatively low.

Another underutilized feature that companies already pay for: three-way calling. “Virtually every cell phone plan has three-way calling,” says Marks. Sales reps can use this feature to put customers in touch with their sales managers, for instance, rather than giving the customer another phone number to call. The call is then transferred directly to the sales manager. “There’s a very smooth handoff, and if you’re a customer, you’re impressed with that,” says Marks.

Laptops: Love ’Em Or Leave ’Em
With cell phones and PDAs getting smarter and more compact, are laptops headed for the endangered species list? Not a chance, say distributors. PDA and cell phone screen size can be both a blessing and a curse. Some sales functions will always require a larger screen.

For accessing Excel spreadsheets and price quotes, for example, Newhouse relies on a laptop. “Although Excel is available on the PDA, it’s not very easy to look something up. The screen is too small to interact with,” he says.

Laptops are also a plus for sales presentations. Jeff Pratt, sales manager for R.D. Wilson Sons & Co., Clarksburg, W.Va., has invested in laptops for two of his sales reps within the past 18 months. The productivity gains have been tremendous, he says. One of the reps sells jan/san equipment exclusively and uses the laptop for PowerPoint presentations rather than handing out literature. In addition to having all the information he needs at his fingertips, he can also use his laptop when he’s on the road to enter orders.

And gone are the days when sales reps have to find a phone jack to transmit information to and from the office. Laptops, like PDAs and cell phones, are becoming more sophisticated, providing anywhere, anytime access. The new VAIO T350, for instance, is the first notebook with a cellular modem built in, making the search for Wi-Fi spots obsolete. Users are instantly connected to Cingular’s nationwide EDGE network. Other features include Bluetooth technology and nearly five hours of battery life.

So what other technologies are sales reps using to make their jobs easier? Some swear by GPS. For Laymen Global’s reps, GPS has been a worthwhile investment.

“Our sales reps are all over the state, so time is really important,” says Newhouse. “There have been times when someone was late to an appointment because they got lost, and they lost that sale as a result. It’s happened time and time again.”

The company’s reps are now using GPS in various forms: on the laptop, as standalone units, or as built-in options in their cars.

Companies that don’t want to invest in GPS technology can always turn to the Web for directions. Most people are already familiar with Yahoo! Maps and MapQuest. Chuck Crouse, owner of Crouse Enterprises, Vacaville, Calif., says most of the company’s maps are printed from these two sites.

The company is following in the footsteps of many other jan/san distributors by developing a Web site, which Crouse hopes to link to his suppliers’ Web sites for quick access to their products. Sales reps will no longer have to carry heavy catalogs with them, and the company can save money on printing. Customers will also have a better idea of what they are buying. For example, if a sales rep needs to show a customer what a specific janitor’s cart looks like, he or she can simply link to the appropriate Web site, and the customer has an instant visual of that cart.

The Web is also a great tool for sales reps and managers to measure and keep track of their progress. “Distributors get very busy servicing their customers and trying to keep them happy,” says Marks. “One of the things that falls by the wayside is growth.”

Marks suggests using the Web to create a low-cost sales “scorecard” that tracks the sales reps’ growth. Sales managers can use it as an incentive for reps by measuring “who’s the champ of the camp and who’s the chump of the dump.” Sales reps can also track their progress by logging on and seeing where they place in relation to other reps.

Marks also recommends that sales reps use the Internet to educate themselves about potential customers and prepare themselves for sales calls. A quick “Google” can provide valuable information about the customer so reps are well prepared and don’t waste time asking unnecessary questions, he says.

Wish List
According to a recent study by TNS, a global provider of marketing information, 75 percent of mobile phone and PDA users in the United States rate two days of battery life as the most important feature of an ideal converged device.

So, what other features and technologies are topping distributors’ wish lists? Answers vary widely. Some are content with the status quo and don’t see a need for change; others are eager to adopt new technologies. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is garnering interest. Many companies are using it to save money on long-distance and international calls.

WiMAX cell phones top Newhouse’s wish list. A standards-based wireless technology, WiMAX provides high-throughput broadband connections over long distances. The technology is right around the corner, says Newhouse, but it will be a while before cell phones are WiMax capable. And even when they do become available, he knows it’s important to wait until technologies become universally accepted. This helps drive costs down and ensures that your device is able to communicate with other devices.

Marks also warns distributors not to be too hasty when updating or investing in new technology. “Today, small businesses can get the benefit of technology without having to spray a money hose at it,” he says. “Don’t be on the bleeding edge of technology; be one step back. Most distributors would do better to be fast followers than to be innovators.”

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.


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