If you had believed all the hype two years ago, you would have expected sales forces to have gone the way of leisure suits by 2000 – because of the Internet. Experts predicted the Internet would replace salespeople. Customers would read competitors’ Web sites, make a decision and place an order without any human interaction.
But just as television did not kill radio and the videocassette recorder did not eliminate movie theaters, the Internet has not replaced sales forces. However, the Internet does have its place as an important tool to enhance the sales processes of companies with limited sales resources.
Sales is all about getting the customer’s commitment – when a salesperson and customer reach a mutually beneficial agreement. Closing the sale usually requires a lot of personal contact in the form of meetings, phone calls, presentations and business lunches. But a constant problem for sales organizations remains – how to service customers in remote locations or in locations outside the sales territory of a small company.
The Internet has brought the world closer, and its miraculous effect extends into sales. Distance is not a problem when it comes to making presentations, revising contracts or simply communicating. Today, salespeople have a myriad of options for servicing remote clients through the Web and providing the hands-on, personal service that the customer down the street receives.
In the early 1990s, servicing a remote customer was a slow, cumbersome process. Usually, contact was initiated through a direct mail piece. The potential customer mailed a response card, which then was handled by a fulfillment house. These fulfillment houses usually batch-processed requests, so in a week or two, the prospect received some information, maybe not entirely specific to his needs because of the impersonal nature of the contact.
The fulfillment house then passed information about the prospect to a salesperson, who decided whether the lead was worth pursuing. This decision was usually an impulse not based on solid information. The salesperson might have considered the name recognition of the company, size of the potential sale or job title of the lead. This process is similar to cherry-picking while blindfolded, with a lot of good cherries left neglected on the tree.
The salesperson then telephoned the prospect to discuss his needs and mailed him a proposal. At this point, with only the telephone to work with, the salesperson’s efforts were often wasted. Sure, the prospect received brochures and other literature. But when the proposal landed on the prospect’s desk, often he flipped to the last page, saw the price before understanding the value and got sticker shock. Why? Because he was not guided by the salesperson through the finer points and value of the offer.
Let’s say the prospect was still interested in the offer. Then, the slow process of mailing revisions to the contract started. After a series of back-and-forth revisions to the proposal, the two parties finally agreed on the fine points.
Our Web-based model shows a different scenario. Decisions are not made by guesswork, but with solid information. Communication happens lightning-quick, nearly as fast as real time. Sometimes communication is better than real time, as the Internet enables more flexibility on both ends. With Web-based sales tools, an inside sales team can deliver almost all the benefits of an in-person sales call without actually having to be there.
The entire process is refined for the benefit of both the salesperson and the customer. The customer first expresses interest in the company by filling out a form on a Web page. The form includes qualifying questions that will be used to determine whether this lead is worth pursuing and to help the salesperson tailor the sales approach. In hours, the customer is e-mailed a URL where he can download or read online the literature he requested.
The salesperson then contacts the customer by phone or e-mail, learns more about his needs and schedules an appointment to present a proposal. This meeting is done through the phone and the Web – the two parties talk on the phone while the salesperson presents his proposal on the customer’s computer. The only difference between this scenario and a live meeting is that the two parties are not sitting in the same office. This is a thorough presentation, driven by the salesperson, so there is no sticker shock at the end. The customer understands the nuances and value of the offer before seeing the price.
If the customer requests changes to the proposal, the salesperson can make real-time changes, and the customer can immediately see the effect of these changes. The salesperson and customer can collaborate on the proposal, resulting in an agreement that meets the needs of both parties. The entire process – from the moment the customer first expresses interest to the closing of the deal – can take place in a fraction of the time of the “old” method.
This process is enabled through several new software tools that allow a salesperson to take control of the customer’s computer and give his presentation over the Internet. The customer does not need special software, just a Web browser and an Internet connection. Other tools allow real-time chat between a salesperson and a customer, whereby the salesperson can “push” URLs onto the customer’s computer. In this model, the customer’s computer replaces the traditional slide show.
With this approach, the salesperson can be more flexible and accommodating to scheduling difficulties based on different time zones or a busy customer. If the salesperson does not have a travel budget, he still can compete with those who can do the face-to-face appointment. Suddenly, presenting to a customer halfway around the world is not such a difficult task. Sure, a salesperson might have to get up at 3 a.m., but at least he can give the presentation in his pajamas, even if he isn’t Hugh Hefner.
The benefits of this Web-based process are numerous. The process of qualifying leads is optimized, so the salesperson does not have to resort to cherry-picking. It saves the salesperson money, as he is not sending and resending packets by overnight mail or printing excessive amounts of material. Both parties save time, as e-mail communication can happen almost in real time. The salesperson is in control of the presentation and proposal. Personal contact is facilitated – the customer gets a personal presentation where he can ask questions rather than a packet of paper in the mail. The sales cycle and fulfillment time are shortened. In the end, everyone wins.
With the Web as a sales tool, geography no longer limits the customers that a sales force can reach. Every customer, even those in outer Siberia or those with smaller potential, can receive the same level of customer service and sales support. Consider it a computer-to-computer salesperson. With Web-based sales tools, the world is your territory.
Gordon Viggiano is founder of information development firm InfoPlex Corp., Hayward, CA, and director of sales operations at Brigade Corp., San Francisco.