February 2, 2010

The Human Element

By Robert McGarvey and babs s. harrison

Like so much in sales, the future of technology in selling all depends on your outlook. If you view the techno-glass as half empty, you’re probably going to have trouble making the transition to Web-based selling. While some decry the Internet as tolling the death knell for selling as we know it, others say, “Hold on a techno-sec there. We may be facing a huge opportunity.” In fact, some experts are predicting better selling through technology.

“The Web may actually increase the need for salespeople,” says Warren Shiver, a consultant with Siebel Multichannel Services who helps leading-edge clients mold their sales strategies to meet customer needs. “The Web definitely doesn’t end the need for salespeople and, when you understand it, the Web allows salespeople to become more efficient at selling and providing value-added services.”

So what’s up? According to Jeff Gaus, vice president of marketing at eFusion Inc., a Website support firm, the answer is simple: “Humans like to do business with humans, and technology hasn’t changed that at all.”

In other words, get the Internet working in sync with traditional selling – and watch out. “For companies that unite the Web with traditional sales efforts, there will be big, big wins,” says George Colombo, president of Influence Technologies Inc., a sales training firm. “The Web and traditional selling are not incompatible – in fact they can be complementary, and the companies that figure this out will do very well.”

Are we ready for that wedding? For many companies, the honeymoon has already started. “Early on, a lot of companies thought, ‘Great! the Web means buyers will no longer have to talk with people.’ But we’ve found that doesn’t work,” adds Scott Nilson, director of marketing at eSupportNow, which provides sales support services for online merchants. “Selling is coming full circle. Buyers still want some human interaction.”

For salespeople, this is good news. Selling as we’ve known it isn’t going the way of the dodo bird. But the Internet isn’t about to disappear either, and sales professionals have to find a way to use it to succeed. Benefits can be huge and come quickly. Martin Charlwood, president of the online travel agency Uniglobe.com Inc., knows this all too well. It used to take 14 customer contacts to sell a cruise, he says, but “by using online tools, we’ve gotten the contacts down to two or three.” That’s vivid proof of exactly how powerful the Web can be when linked with more traditional selling tactics.

The picture gets even brighter. “Integrating the Web with traditional selling isn’t a chore – it’s a substantial opportunity,” says Tim Davis, president of Epic Strategies, an electronic commerce consulting firm. “Do it right and you are creating a new channel. You also are giving more customers more choices about how to deal with you.”

The trick here is to do it right. There are numerous ways to stumble, thwarting your Web-based efforts while confusing and annoying participants in traditional selling channels. “Most companies don’t really think through what needs doing, so their Web programs flop,” says Wally Bock, a consultant on Web issues.

Work with the Web
So what do you need to do to get the Web working in tandem with your sales efforts? First, realize that there will be casualties. “The Web does mean the death of the order taker,” admits eFusion’s Gaus. “Order taking can be done much more efficiently and inexpensively on the Web.” Now customers can fill out forms online – with no labor expenses at your end. Furthermore, they can easily and quickly make corrections so that the form is correct when they submit it. Won’t some customers make mistakes? Of course, but probably no more than when they spoke with order takers. “These kinds of administrative chores are well suited to the Web,” says Colombo, “and more companies will be shifting these tasks online.”

The Web also excels at providing answers to customers’ and prospects’ questions, says Colombo. In the past, salespeople invested countless hours in answering the same questions: How big is it? What colors does it come in? Who else uses it? And so on. Now that information can be gathered together into a searchable online database or, for companies with smaller technology budgets, online FAQs (frequently asked questions). Either way, salespeople no longer have to put time into mundane chores. “The Web excels at taking care of details,” adds Gaus, “and that leaves professional salespeople free to pursue higher-value tasks.”

The Internet also may be the most powerful, efficient and cheapest brochure ever. Even simple brochures can cost $1 apiece, while elaborate ones can easily top $10. Then add postage. On top of that, ponder the delay factor. Traditionally, if prospects wanted to investigate your offering they would mail off a postcard or call to ask for literature. Maybe a week later, the requested literature arrived at their office. But when did they review it? Were they still interested? In the meantime, did they make another purchase that solved their problem? To make a long story short, these sales support activities were not very cost-effective, but there were few alternatives when it came to beginning a dialog with a prospect.

That was then. Now you can use the Internet intelligently to make information readily available to prospects, Gaus points out. Not only are the costs negligible, but the information is available 24/7 for prospects to read whenever and as often as they want.

And that information works both ways. “The Web is interactive,” says Damian Bazadona, a partner in Cyber-NY, a high-tech oriented marketing agency. While “interactive” has perhaps become an overused buzzword, when your plan is conceived correctly, Bazadona explains, you can learn a great deal about your customers. Traditionally, companies paid huge amounts of money to research who their customers were. Now, customers often will tell businesses about themselves free of charge on a Website. Why? Once basic privacy concerns are satisfied (Web users want to know you won’t share their information with others), many surfers will happily tell their age, gender, household income, Zip code – perhaps even their favorite color and where they like to vacation. Collect that information into a database, and not only will you know your customers much better, but you’ll also be able to reach them with sales materials most likely to arouse their interest.

Offer Choices
If you have any doubts about Web-enhanced selling, consider an industry that has traditionally relied solely on face-to-face selling for decades: insurance. YouZoom.com is a Website actually devoted to the proposition that, for the most part, agents often sell insurance best. That’s backpedaling from the once-common belief that the days were numbered for agents who sold simple policies covering automobiles, term life and the like.

YouZoom aims to help agents and brokers get online while also offering consumers an easy way to use the Web to contact appropriate agents. “What we’re doing, ultimately, is Web-enabling the supply chain,” says Kieran Sweeney, YouZoom’s president. In that process, prospects win because YouZoom never shuts down, provides requested information instantly and introduces cost savings that can mean keener pricing for customers. For agents, YouZoom provides a Web presence to help counteract the inroads made by Web-only operations, prospect for new customers and, of course, introduce efficiencies. “This really becomes win-win,” says Sweeney.

The lesson goes far beyond the insurance business. YouZoom is just one example of how harnessing the Internet to traditional selling creates a successful sales weapon. It comes down to offering choices. Give prospects a choice and the probability of a winning outcome vaults skyward. Some customers are comfortable with a phone, others like the feel of a mouse button, while others still like to press flesh with a human before signing on the dotted line. And the smart businesses are the ones providing these multiple modes of buying, says Influence Technologies’ Colombo.

Build Relationships
Despite their allure, many Websites have a big problem: They get lookers in abundance but buyers are scarce. “The look-to-buy ratio at many sites is very low,” says eSupportNow’s Nilson. “The average consumer-oriented site is at a 2 percent conversion rate.”

That’s terrible, but it gets worse. Vast numbers of shoppers are filling shopping carts online but never checking out. They click out of the site before consummating the transaction. What’s wrong?

Explanations are plentiful. Experts point to everything from distrust of the Web to unfamiliarity with the medium. Opinions on the solution, however, seem unanimous: Put humans to work contacting those online shoppers. Ironically, many companies with Websites are finding that the route to increased sales is via building traditional selling back into their sites. “The technology exists to allow for easy interaction with shoppers,” Nilson points out.

In many cases, Websites include “click here” buttons that put users in direct voice contact with a sales and service professional. “We can monitor users and intervene at critical moments,” Nilson adds. Those moments could mean identifying people with more than $500 in merchandise in their shopping carts or building up a database of which mouse clicks indicate mounting shopper frustration and then providing human intervention with proactive help. “We’re coming around to seeing the nature of selling online as involving relationship building with customers,” says Nilson.

Technology is evolving to expedite this trend. Tools for relationship building include text-based chat (such as ICQ or AOL’s “Instant Messaging”) and voice-over IP (Internet Protocol). Nilson explains that this Internet-based, telephone-like connection allows a buyer and a sales or service rep to talk while the buyer stays connected to the Website, even if there is only one phone line. Nothing special is needed to employ voice-over IP – just a sound card, microphone and Internet connection should do the trick.

Fine Tuning
When will you know your Website is in top form for supporting your traditional selling approaches? Don’t breathe easy too soon, says Shiver, who suggests that experimentation is the name of today’s Web game. “We’re still figuring out what works best,” agrees Colombo.

Luckily, it’s easy and relatively inexpensive to track what’s working and what’s not on a Website with real-time counters that monitor traffic, click-throughs and purchases. In traditional sales and marketing, weeks, or frequently months, passed by before meaningful customer survey data came in. Now a business can put a poll up on its Website in the morning, have visitor input tracked and analyzed by lunch and launch a site revision before shutting down for the night. “Companies are still experimenting with their Websites, still looking for what works for them,” says Colombo.

The rapid technological evolution adds to the mix. A year ago, text-based chat was considered an innovative sales and service tool. Now that’s old hat, as voice-over IP gains fans. What will be in vogue next year? Nobody knows, because the rulebook for the Internet is still being written. The best advice for any company is to get a Website up and running, modify it as user data come in, and then keep on modifying it because the need for change will never vanish.

“You have to figure out what works and what doesn’t. But you also need to recognize we are still very early in this process,” says Colombo. “You’ll have a lot of trial and error – that’s unavoidable. Approach creating your Website in the spirit of trial and error and you’ll thrive.”