With rapid response to customer needs more important than ever, savvy distributors are turning to technology for an edge.
Salespeople carry the success or failure of their companies on their shoulders. It's a tough job requiring unshakable confidence, resourcefulness, outstanding interpersonal and presentation skills, and a great deal of technical knowledge. Increasingly, it's become critical for salespeople and their managers to use mobile technology to maximize selling time. This article will provide an update on what's happening with digital catalogs, tablet computers, mobile smartphones and sales management tools.
During the past two decades, manufacturers' product catalogs have evolved from paper to electronic formats, and they continue to become greener, smarter and more-efficient tools. Salespeople working for electrical distributors, independent manufacturers' reps and electrical manufacturers no longer lug around heavy catalogs or briefcases filled with paper catalogs, flyers and cut sheets. Now all of this information is electronic and can be downloaded or accessed by computer if the customer wants real-time information on products 24/7, hard copies of catalog pages, cut sheets, or other detailed specification information. Salespeople also often have hard and soft copies of information about cross-referenced products, just in case customers have questions on them. All of this data requires that large catalog files are stored locally on laptops, notebooks or mobile phones, or are accessed remotely via the company's website or via e-mail. One of the challenges with remote access of these digital catalog files is that wireless connectivity can be spotty on jobsites or in customers' offices. The signal is frequently too weak, so it's a good idea for salespeople to have that content loaded on their laptops. One downside of this approach is that these files can be large and slow to load.
Some electrical manufacturers are now developing software solutions to remedy this problem by offering access to this information used with smart phones and tablets. GE Energy Industrial Solutions, Plainville, Conn., has developed a new mobile technology tool for electrical distributors, manufacturers' agents and OEMs. According to Chris Bowler, general manager of marketing, “When a customer is at work, at home or on the road, the new GE Smart Catalog App is designed to give timely information at the tap of a finger. The latest product information is always available on-demand whenever the customer needs it. Each time the customer opens the app on an iPhone or iPad, it wirelessly updates and provides access to the most current editions of GE's ‘BuyLog, Control, and Standard Motors Catalogues.’ Distributors, salespeople, agents and buyers have quick-and-easy access to electronic catalog content for timely information without being tied to their desks.”
One of the best sales applications of iPads and other tablet computers is showing products or podcasts during sales presentations. Besides the hardware advantages, there are several tactile advantages — it's easy to pick up and hold, doesn't have any cords, and the customer can tilt the screen as needed so they can see it clearly. Mike Dandridge, sales consultant, High Voltage Performance Co., Temple, Texas, says when using tablet computers it's imperative to pay the additional monthly charge for the 3G data plan for a tablet to access the internet. Says Dandridge, a long-time electrical salesperson, “Remember, when you're making calls, you're not only selling products and your company. You're showcasing your own mastery of devices and software to gain the customer's confidence in you and your company.”
Other uses for tablets in this industry include taking notes at meetings and, for end users, completing forms for service work. Some general contractors have installed tablets on large projects for trades to check on the work in progress, saving time and promoting safety. In these applications, tablets help project managers or other subcontractors record notes or save pictures of work done incorrectly for training or sending to the insurance agent. Tablets also work well for any type of training and help the IT staff in their support of employees.
Mobile smart phones
Everyone knows how ubiquitous mobile phones have become for voice calling, but you may not have realized how much people are using them to access the internet. According to Flurry Analytics, San Francisco, a consulting firm that analyzes trends in the use of mobile devices, people now spend more time using mobile apps than they do accessing the internet using mobile phones, desktops and laptops (see chart on page 24). Another indicator pointing toward the popularity of mobile web surfing is some data from MobiThinking.com, which says that of the 5.3 billion mobile subscribers globally (77 percent of the world population), many never or rarely use a desktop, laptop or tablet to access the Web. Another interesting statistic from MobiThinking.com: 90 percent of mobile subscribers in the United States and Western Europe have an Internet-ready mobile phone.
As the mobile phone takes root in the electrical industry, many distributor software vendors (including ERP) have released or will soon release mobile phone versions so distributors' employees can monitor customer or employee issues and continue their work when out of the office. “With the new technologies, versatility and power of the mobile smart phones, the plethora of mobile phone apps plus the new tablets, the innovation will drive new sales opportunities,” says Frank Hurtte, co-founder, River Heights Consulting, Davenport, Iowa.
Sales management tools
Along with managing basic customer contact data, some customer relationship management (CRM) software with sales analytics tools is helping companies in the electrical market use point-of-sale (POS) customer history data to identify customers who purchased last year but not this year; for cross-selling products opportunities; and for identifying companion products, where when a certain percentage of product A is sold than a specific percent of product B should also sell along with it.
Several distributors are having success with software provided by Sales Management Plus, (SMP), Newport Beach, Calif., “The thing that makes sales different today is that everything is up-to-date with growing connectivity, which is really important when servicing our technology-based customers,” says John Russell, senior vice-president, Electric Supply and Equipment, Greensboro, N.C. “Anyone who touches the customers, customer service, inside or outside sales must have the right technology tools. We are using Sales Management Plus for contact management and the sales analytics. Our outside sales team uses their dashboards to capture sales process information like number of customer visits over time and other measures or run their own analytics to find new sales opportunities within their assigned accounts.”
SMP's tracking goals and forecast features become a powerful motivating tool for outside sales to stay on track or begin working harder and smarter using sales analytics. Scott Webb, director of technical support, North Coast Electric Co., Seattle, says his company is happy with its SMP customer relationship management (CRM) program and is getting plenty of actionable information to help its sales team. But he says they became “high-power users” when they began using project management feature to help identify, monitor, track and win high-value projects. “Monthly project review meetings go very smoothly by reviewing new and open project opportunities and assigning actionable tasks to sales team members to increase the probability of winning the project,” he says. “It really helps our outside salespeople and management to review their accounts throughout the month to see how they are doing and to stay on track with their goals and forecasting.”
Independent manufacturers' representatives in the electrical market are also keenly aware of the importance of harnessing these mobile tools. In a recent study conducted by the National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association (NEMRA), Portsmouth, N.H., 64 percent of the rep respondents said understanding how to effectively use mobile technology to drive sales was a critical skill. NEMRA representatives are making investments in mobile technology in order to respond to the ever-faster demands of their customers. Being able to present products and solutions quickly by utilizing all of the communications formats, including video, is an important capability reps want to add to their sales calls.
Another thing that has changed for reps is how fast customers expect things to get done. Business is done on a 24/7 clock these days, and technology has made it possible to get most anything done in any location. John Hoelz, president, J. F. Noland and Associates, an electrical rep based in New Berlin, Wis., says new technologies such as the cloud and faster wireless access offer reps enhanced sales capabilities, but they need more training on using it all.
“A component of selling is demonstrating their product and business knowledge,” he says. “But it's now a necessity for the outside sales to demonstrate their technology IQ as well. The salesperson needs to know how to use the right technology tools to provide the best presentation of product content to their customers and maximize their close ratios.”
Louis Pasteur said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” Today, a salesperson must be a sales savvy technologist with excellent product knowledge to help customers select the correct product for their electrical needs.
Disclaimer: The author is a sales consultant with SMP.
Mobile in the Future
In an industry brief published in Nov. 2009, business consultant Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn., predicted these would be the most common consumer applications of mobile technology in 2012.
Most services offering person-to-person transfers, using Short Message Service (SMS), signed up several million users within their first year.
Location-based services (LBS)
Gartner predicts the LBS user base will grow globally from 96 million in 2009 to more than 526 million in 2012.
The user experience of mobile search needs to improve to drive customer loyalty and drive sales and marketing opportunities.
Sixty percent of handsets shipped in 2009 could browse the mobile Web. Gartner expects that number to rise to approximately 80 percent in 2013.
Mobile health monitoring
Health-care professionals are using IT and mobile telecommunications to monitor patients remotely. So far this has been limited to pilot projects.
Paying for goods and services over the mobile Web.
Near-field-communication services (NFC)
NFC allows contactless data transfer between devices and terminals, typically to pay for transport or to cash in a mobile coupon.
Gartner expects spending on mobile advertising to reach $7.5 billion in 2012, up from $530.2 million in 2008.
Mobile instant messaging (IM)
Gartner sees growing demand for mobile IM, especially in developing markets. This presents an opportunity for mobile advertising and social networking.
Ring tones and ring-back tones have turned into a multi-billion dollar service. When this brief was published two years ago, Gartner consultants said mobile music sales were not growing as quickly. With the rapid acceptance of the iPad and iPhone during that time, this may have changed.