Speed, accuracy and portability are foremost concerns for today’s busy salespeople who need to work as efficiently as possible. Fortunately, today’s mobile devices are shrinking in size while increasing in functionality.

The latest gadgets can help sales teams keep track of hectic schedules and manage customer contacts with ease, thereby eliminating the need to lug around heavy books and calendars. But choosing the right tool for the right job can leave many bewildered.

Should you invest in a smartphone that combines the functions of several devices? Or is it better to keep your cell phone separate from your personal digital assistant (PDA)? And is it time to abandon the laptop? Here’s how some distributors are addressing these questions.

The Incredible Bulk
A year ago, distributors that were interviewed for Tech Central’s “Tech Tools: The Musts and the Lusts,” weren’t ready to part with their laptops. But this time around, several distributors are finding their laptops to be more of a hindrance than a help.

The problem, they say, is their size and the time it takes to set them up at a client’s site.

Jerry Garbett, general manager of Arkansas Bag & Equipment, Little Rock, Ark., says that his salespeople tried using laptops in the field, but they found equipment set-up too time consuming. As a result, he switched to Palm PDAs two years ago so salespeople could access inventory and enter orders from the field.

“I can have the information in 15 seconds, whereas it took two to three minutes to set up the laptop,” Garbett says. “The PDA is something you can stick in your shirt pocket instead of carrying around a 4-pound computer.”

The units also replace printed price books, says Garbett. And at the end of the day, the salespeople synch pricing information stored in their PDAs to their home computers.

In addition to portability and speed, Garbett chose the Palm because of its price. “If you drop your laptop, you have a $1,500 computer to replace,” he says. “If you drop your Palm, it’s $120 to replace.”

Garbett admits that the Palm has its limits in terms of how much data it can store, but he points out that most of the salesmen were not utilizing all of the features of the laptops anyway.

Dan Ott, co-owner of Facility Supply Systems, Chicago, has been using a Palm since the 90s for account management and scheduling. His latest version, the Palm TX, has built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology. He can also use the Palm TX to listen to MP3, download eBooks, or store digital photos.

“I carry pictures of custom entryway matting jobs we’ve done so we have a record of what the logo looks like, etc.,” says Ott. “If it’s an especially good job, I’ll upload it to my Palm so I can show that to prospective customers.”

But Ott warns against becoming too wrapped up in the technology itself. “Like anything else, in order for it to work, you have to enter all the information and plan out tasks,” he says. “Sometimes, with all the technology we have, it’s easy to become caught up in all the things you need to do to keep that information up-to-date, and you lose focus of what your main thrust should be, which is making sales.”

Synch or Wireless?
While PDAs are catching on fast with distributors, the move to wireless is somewhat slower. Some, like Dave Renard of Renard Paper Co., St. Louis, feel that wireless capabilities for laptops and PDAs are unnecessary.

He says he’d rather have his salespeople focus on building a relationship with the customer, instead of being preoccupied with entering an order on-site.

Salespeople at Brady Industries, Las Vegas, use laptops and docking stations, but Jeff Pease, vice president of sales, would like to add PDAs with wireless capabilities to their toolkit. Currently, salespeople can access stock on their laptops; however, they can’t view stock across all company locations, which Pease says is a detriment.

Brady Industries is moving its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system from a dated DOS-based system to a system that will integrate all branches of the company and allow the salesforce to access live inventory and information via wireless PDA.

“What we’re driven by is providing better service to our customers,” says Pease. “That means implementing technology that ensures speed and accuracy of information.”

Matt Miller, sales manager of B. Miller Products Inc., Hibbing, Minn., uses an iPAQ Pocket PC as a day planner and organizer, but sees the potential to increase PDA functionality by having one that’s wireless enabled.

“In the future, I’d like to have a wireless PDA so when I’m out in the field, and a customer wants to place an order, I can punch it in and electronically transit it back to the home office where it will be automatically processed,” he says.

Currently, Miller’s salespeople are doubling their efforts by re-entering orders at the end of the day.

Despite his technology “wish list,” Miller still swears by pen and paper. “I carry around a notebook,” he admits. “In a lot of ways, it’s still a good thing to have because you can jot things down quickly rather than whipping out your PDA or computer and booting up,” he says. “Every week a customer asks for some new oddball thing, and it’s easier to scribble it down on a notepad.”

A Phone Call Away
One gadget every salesperson can’t live without is a cell phone, but is the smartphone — a tool that combines PDA and cell phone functions — the device of choice?

Treos, a smartphone brand, are still popular among distributors. At the time of this writing, Palm announced the new Treo 680 series of smartphones slated for release in November. The device comes with music, video and photo slideshow players and a new, free, Google Maps application based on the Palm operating system.

But some distributors, like Ott, still prefer to keep phones and PDAs separate. “I don’t want everything on one device,” he says. “I prefer a simpler device for a phone … I don’t need bells and whistles.”

Neither does Miller. His standard cell phone is by far the most useful mobile device he owns.

“Based on how competitive the distribution business is now, every salesperson has to have better ways to stay organized and faster ways to communicate with their home office,” he says. “That’s where the cell phones come in.”

Sometimes the simplest solutions are still the best.

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

Marketing On The Move
New technologies for salespeople aim to ease time constraints and automate information. However, the marketing side of business is also benefitting from technology.

Marketing has traditionally relied on paper flyers to advertise a business. However, the increase in printing and postage costs is beginning to put a dent in many distributors’ marketing budgets.

“Mailings are becoming smaller and more specific because of postage increases,” says Cathy Veri, principal for marketing firm Marketecture, Canton, Mich.

To address the increases in printing costs, some distributors are investing in technology or turning to Web-based printing companies to save money as well as target direct mail campaigns to increase their success rates.

Veri is seeing a trend toward on-demand printing whereby companies can personalize their marketing campaigns and print small quantities. “On-demand printing is getting more recognition, and more vendors are offering it now,” she says. “People don’t want to print 100,000 pieces of something and hope that it works.”

With on-demand printing, a salesperson can print two or 200 copies. Using a template, he can personalize his print campaign and mail it to the contacts of his choice. A salesperson in a different state can also personalize the template with his own contacts and print out only the amount he needs.

“It’s called commingling,” explains Veri. “You commingle your mail with other mailers so you get the best postal rates even though you’re mailing only 20. If distributors use that in their business they can drastically reduce their marketing and printing costs.”

Some companies already have the technology available to produce personalized campaigns and don’t even know it, says Veri. Distributors with Xerox iGen printers can separate customers into portfolios and then print out direct mail pieces that address those customers’ specific needs and values.

Dan Ott, co-owner of Facility Supply Systems, uses Microsoft Publisher templates to create company brochures and mailers. “Before, you had to go to a printer or designer,” he says. “This has made it easy to bring our marketing efforts in house.”

Web-based printing companies, such as www.zooprinting.com and www.vistaprint.com, also offer customers low-cost alternatives to traditional printing companies.

Customers can use templates from the Web site, upload their own designs, or employ the company’s design services to order high-quality business cards, brochures, flyers, and more over the Internet.

“Printing is such a commodity,” says Veri. “The reason companies don’t want to communicate with their customers is the high printing and postage costs.” Fortunately technology can help them ease the financial burden.

— K.K.



Interactive Site Addresses Climate Change
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently unveiled its climate change Web site. The site, available at www.epa.gov/climatechange, provides the latest scientific research and information and highlights programs that address climate change at the local, state, national and international levels.

The site features five main sections: science, U.S. climate policy, greenhouse gas emissions, environmental effects and what you can do.

There are also steps people can take to reduce emissions, and a calculator to help people estimate their “carbon footprint” — the amount of greenhouse emissions they produce on a daily basis.

OSHA, Others Form Business Safety Page
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), along with an alliance of other organizations, has created a new “Making the Business Case for Safety and Health” page, located at www.osha.gov/dcsp/products/topics/businesscase.

The site outlines the benefits of having a safety program as a core function of a business’s operations. It is intended for businesses of all sizes and includes links to organizations that help safety managers show the value of investing in workplace safety.

Keep In Touch With Customer Base
Curious about your the news and trends in your customers’ businesses? Visit www.cleanlink.com and tap into the insights of SM’s sister publications — Housekeeping Solutions (in-house facility managers) and Contracting Profits (building service contractors).