February 2, 2010

The Future of Sales Includes Automation

By Malcolm Fleschner

In five years, salespeople won’t ask: “Should I automate?” but “Why didn’t I automate sooner?”

To get a fix on where sales automation began, where it is now and where it’s likely to be tomorrow, PSP spoke with three sales automation experts: Bill Fletcher, president, Software Showcase Consultants; Joe Tartaglia, vice president, High Caliber Systems; and Paul Selden, president, Sales Automation lnc.*

The Past

According to Fletcher, the first sales automation programs were designed to meet basic needs of insurance industry sales managers. As an example, Fletcher cited the Metropolitan Life Insurance Corporation. In the late 1970s, Met Life wanted to consolidate prospect information, so management introduced a mainframe computer and individual terminals to their central sales office. Metropolitan executives hoped this step would keep their sales staff on top of prospect lists and, not coincidentally, prevent individual salespeople from taking prospects to competing insurance companies.

This primitive form of automation represented a top-down approach to solving sales-related problems with technology. Conversely, early automation software developers created programs solely for their own use with no thought to production for the mass market.

Joe Tartaglia was one such developer. While selling portable computers in 1983, Tartaglia’s partner wanted a program that could track hundreds of leads the two were generating at trade shows. “Once I finished the tracking program and we started using it at the shows,” Tartaglia remembers, “people showed a greater interest in the program we used to input their names on the computer than in the computer itself. That’s when we realized we had a potential big seller on our hands. We polished the program, wrote a manual and started selling it.”

Tartaglia explains, however, that salespeople in 1983 were not prepared to reap the benefits of contact management software. As a rule, the “portable” computers of the day were anything but. Unlike today’s powerful, convenient laptops and notebooks, these behemoths of the early ’80s weighed 18 pounds or more. At the time, most salespeople were not computer literate and computer phobia kept automation from taking hold in the industry.

Tartaglia says the contact management software industry didn’t grow until hardware technology became better suited for the specific needs of salespeople. “It’s taken a long time for contact management to catch on. People who were involved from the beginning will tell you that it was almost unsellable for the first five or six years. Dow Jones was the first high-profile company to develop and market a professional contact management package. They put a lot of effort into selling it, even taking out full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal, but it still flopped. The market just wasn’t there yet.”

The advent of laptops and notebooks has spurred the very recent boom in contact management software. Tartaglia also credits a new breed of salesperson for that growth. “Since more entrepreneurial and computer-literate people have come into the selling field looking for more than just word processing out of their computers, the market has completely opened up.”

The Present

Fletcher equates the sales industry’s transition from tracking with post-it notes to high-tech computers with the 1920s shift in cold storage from ice boxes to electric refrigerators. Current software producers face the same problem as those early refrigerator dealers convincing salespeople that technology can increase performance. Experts predict, however, that soon laptops will be as common in a sales office as refrigerators in kitchens.

Estimates vary, but sales automation experts agree that only 10 to 35 percent of salespeople who could use sales automation to their advantage have taken that step. Paul Selden believes the high 35 percent figure includes salespeople who may not use computers themselves, but utilize the benefits of technology in the sales process. He explains, “These people might do follow-up work on a previous customer, such as the Sears salesperson who sells warrantee renewals over the phone. The contact list he uses comes from an information system which tracks a customer’s itch cycle. As a rule people don’t know when one of their warrantees expires; they won’t think to call and renew. Companies that take advantage of technology to exploit the itch cycle will create sales where before there might not have been any at all.”

The Future

No one can accurately predict what the future holds for automated salespeople, but the experts agree that the recession will play a major factor. Fletcher feels that some form of automation will be a necessity for the ’90s salesperson who wants to stay in control of every account. He thinks software producers will address this need by developing more detail-oriented programs for one industry’s specific sales cycle.

Selden identifies the restricted recession budgets as a potential deterrent toward companies automating. “In a recession, the natural human reaction is to cut research and concentrate only on wearing out shoe leather to get more sales. This may give a company a slight temporary increase in sales, but if they step back from the process for a moment to address their needs with appropriate automation tools, the rewards will be even greater,” he says.

Tartaglia claims that the industry’s emphasis on software features may confuse rather than illuminate potential sales automation customers. “Some programs have added bells and whistles that don’t perform useful functions,” he admits. Why? To get as many checks in the little boxes as possible when a magazine or newspaper runs a chart comparing a lot of programs. This drives manufacturers to put a lot of extra junk into programs. Streamlined programs may look less inviting in such reviews, but are probably the best programs for many sales cycles.”

No matter how the automation industry addresses these issues, it is almost certain that within five years somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of sales professionals will be automated to some extent. How that happens will depend on whether individual managers seize the initiative as leaders of the automation revolution. Although this will require both risk and attention to detail, managers who don’t exploit the potential in automation software will increasingly find themselves in a deep freeze.