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The Automated Salesperson

Furniture World Magazine


Computer Assisted follow-up and sales education.

In a given year, business-to-business salespeople fail to call on almost half of their customers! That may sound outrageous, but it is true. According to a survey of 4,000 advertisers and prospects of Cahners Publishing, a publisher of business magazines, as many as 41 percent of a salesperson's customers were not called on in 1991. Only 16 percent of salespeople made it a point to contact all of their accounts at least once that year; and 37 percent indicated that less than half of their clients were called at least once. The main reasons for this poor follow-up were: illegible paper records (due to frequent updates), the difficulty of going through hundreds of records to determine account status, and lost files.

In the retail furniture business, the situation is even worse. Although there are no statistics to cite, it would be safe to bet that most, if not all, salespeople forget about their customers after they leave the store. Think about it. Has a salesperson from any store ever called to see if you were happy with a purchase? Has a salesperson ever followed up after six months or a year to ask about your future buying plans? It never happens, which is a crime, because the average lifetime value of a customer in the furniture industry is $30,000! Can furniture retailers afford to be content to make just one sale to a customer?

Aside from the lifetime value of a customer, which is the "macro" point of view, let's look at the "micro" point of view; that is, the amount of business that is lost every day. Certainly you know that eight out of ten customers leave the average furniture store without buying. They are never identified and their needs are not uncovered, so follow-up is impossible. Even if they do buy, salespeople rarely, if ever, follow up on past customers.

All of this must change if you hope to increase sales, profitability, and market share. Where will these extra sales come from? Using your current advertising budget and media mix is unlikely to yield a greater number of customers that come into your store, so the answer is to turn a larger percentage of those people into long-term buying customers.

It is actually a job for good salespeople who are assisted by a computer. With the right system in place, salespeople can increase their people-skills, develop trust and create rapport with their customers (even those who do not buy), gather information on needs and buying time-frames, and set the stage for meaningful follow-up via phone and letter.

The call for this type of proactive approach has come from some of the best minds in business and management. In a Wall Street Journal article (December, 1992), Peter F. Drucker said, "Few businesses have tried to get information about their non-customers, let alone have integrated such information into their databases. Yet...non-customers always out-number customers. Failure to pay attention to the 70 percent who were not customers largely explains why companies are today in a severe crisis." Dr. Warren MacFarland of the Harvard Business School has said, "In five

years, there will be two types ofcompanies: those using computers as a sales and marketing tool, and those facing bankruptcy."

You can see that automating the sales force--once considered a pipe dream--is now a necessity. You may be wondering what aspects of your business could be impacted by a computer system. With the right software and the support of management, a computer system can dramatically affect sales, advertising, merchandising, customer service, and sales training. Sales training? Yes!

At every market, one of the most common complaints that I hear from furniture store owners is that they cannot train their salespeople to do things differently, so sales figures rarely change very much or for very long. I have learned why this is so; and the person who gave me the answer is Dr. Tony Alessandra, one of the most sought-after keynote speakers and sales trainers in America.

Dr. Alessandra has given an average of 120 speeches, seminars, or workshops per year for the last 12 years. His clients include IBM, AT&T, and many other big hitters. He knows what he's talking about when he says that the most effective sales training takes place over time, with small increments tackled every day. After all, people learn best when they practice at their own pace, every day. How can a computer system make that happen?

The ideal computer software will provide contact management and sales automation capabilities, but it will not stop there. It will also integrate full-time, on-screen sales coaching into all parts of the program. The training will be customizable, so each company will be assured that its people are being taught accepted sales principles and practices. This will also assure the company of consistency--all salespeople will be talking the same talk and walking the same walk.

Salespeople will benefit from having an interactive "sales trainer in a box" that is always there to refresh their memories and coach them on the best next move. Through repetition they will understand and practice new sales techniques; and see an immediate pay-off for their new efforts with increased commissions. Of course, the increased income will motivate them to learn and apply even more new ideas.

Imagine a salesperson sitting down to call a customer on the phone. A computer system would enable him to review the customer's file; remind himself of the objectives for the call; brush up on answers to possible objections; review information-gathering techniques and specific questions to ask; consult a phone script, if necessary; receive coaching on relationship-building skills; and so on. The training possibilities are endless.

One of the most important benefits of daily sales training via computer is the increased likelihood that it will be accepted by salespeople. Let's face it, most salespeople resist on-going training. They don't want to be told how to sell. They will, however, be receptive to coaching that is offered as a part of their routine use of the computer to track and contact customers. The key difference is subtlety--and practicality. Software does not insult a salesperson's intelligence or beat him/her over the head with "this is how you must do it." Also, software does not go away. Unlike sales trainers, software belongs to a company and is available 24 hours a day.

In the future, sales automation software will serve the goals of sales teams, sales managers, and managers in every department of a company. The best sales automation systems will be oriented to a company's long-term mission, not just to short-term problems. In addition, sales automation will be treated as a strategic investment. It will be designed holistically, which means not only providing the requirements for increased sales, but also giving marketing, advertising, sales, customer service, training, and other managers the information that they need to understand and direct the course of the business.

Jesse L. Wacht is President of InContact Systems, an computerized sales follow-up system. Questions retarding any aspect of computerized sales management can be directed to Mr. Wacht care of FURNITURE WORLD Magazine at editor@furninfo.com.