It may seem a little premature to say it, but there are many people on the technology side who think that in the shift to mobile devices the industry could be looking at a tipping point that finally moves distributor outside salespeople away from being mere “order-takers.” The slam on distributor road warriors for generations has been that they just show up at their established accounts with a box of donuts and an order pad, shake some hands, tell some bad jokes, book a tee time, take the order and move on.Trade magazine articles, association keynote speeches, white-paper studies and position papers throughout the history of the industry have implored distributor salespeople to be proactive, drive demand, add value and get beyond being a lowly order-taker. The fact that it constantly has to be said is evidence enough that the proactive, crusading distributor salesperson continues to be the exception, not the rule. But that may be coming to an end. The tools salespeople need to be proactive, value-adding demand drivers are maturing to support the mobile salesperson. Increasingly, they won't stand for anything less.

“What I've heard is that now that you've given them all this power, they want more,” says Stacey Pandeloglou, principal of Distribution Technology Group, a rep firm that handles software and hardware to assist distributors. “‘Why can't I look up their past 40 orders?’ Where we're going, there's nothing you can't do. People want more. It's not like you have to force-feed them. You can't just play golf every Friday and every other day tell your sales manager, ‘I had a good meeting.’ Today, on the customer side, on the owner side, both are saying, ‘What did you do for me lately?’ Salespeople used to ride pretty well from year to year. Even if they did everything wrong, sales grew 20%. Not anymore.”

The fact is, it may be one of the tiniest, most insignificant functions of computers that is really making this change happen: reminders.

Bob Wittig, sales manager of Ximple Solutions LLC, Kensington, Md., has been involved for decades in the electrical industry's information technology game as an IT manager on the distributor side and in sales on the ERP software provider side. Now, from his perch managing sales of ERP upstart Ximple (which traces its roots to the Rigel system developed by electrical distributors on the Atlantic coast in the 1980s), Wittig sees mobile devices as game-changers because the back-end systems are being set up to trigger instant action on the salesperson's part.

“When a customer special-orders material, and the material gets received, the system can recognize that and send notice to the salesperson to make sure the customer is alerted that the material is about to be delivered. There are scores of these kinds of triggers. Credit control, back orders, special pricing, lean notices kicked out, user-defined events to remind yourself to do something at a certain day or time. All these have enabled people to become proactive and get the information when it's meaningful. Pushing that to the application available through a tablet or mobile device, whether it's phone, e-mail, an app or (in Ximple's browser-based system) an employee briefcase is very different than the way things were years ago,” Wittig says. “The whole mindset of young people, and this extends to anyone under 50, is that they need information. They need it now, and the people that have the information and can deliver it in a timely fashion, and do it most effectively, will be most successful in the market.”

The experiences of distributors' customers, based on their personal lives as consumers using the same mobile devices, is reshaping what it means to be effective in sales.

Scott Frymire, senior manager of product marketing for Epicor, Dublin, Calif., one of the largest distributor ERP providers in the electrical industry, gives the example of someone looking to buy a home. “If you're looking for a new home, and you see a For Sale sign, within a couple of minutes you can find out everything about it — asking price, tax base, school districts, information about the owner — using a smart phone get access,” Frymire says. “In the business world, we want to bring that same consumer-like power to our customers that they experience in their everyday lives.”

The software providers active in electrical distribution ERP systems face a common challenge in providing that kind of consumeresque experience for distributor salespeople so they can get their customers the information they need. The puzzle is not a simple one. The ways information displays on a smart phone or a tablet are very different from the displays on a large desktop monitor. In a smart phone, for example, the screen's virtual “real estate” can be obliterated by the virtual keyboard.

This problem makes it necessary for software companies to build systems that work equally well on iOS (the iPad's operating system), rival operating system Android developed by Google, Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system and all the various smart phone systems with no drop in ease of use. The companies are taking a variety of ways to get there.

Infor Global Solutions, Alpharetta, Ga., the other giant in the world of electrical distribution ERP, is using a middleware system it calls ION (short for Intelligent Open Network) to make it seamless for distributors to gather information from disparate systems in all parts of their enterprise to obtain a clear, seamless picture of customer activity as well as internal processes. ION was developed to keep from having to build separate mobile interfaces for all the different ERP systems Infor has acquired over the years — SHIMS, A+ and Infor SX Enterprise are the best known in the electrical industry. ION makes it possible for its app development platform, Infor10 Motion, and new smartphone apps such as Infor10 Road Warrior CRM, to provide field sales with just the information they need.