Mike Tyler draws a triangle on the white board. Split into three horizontal slices, it represents his business, encapsulating the entire strategy of the world's number one employee benefits organisation. After plotting a couple of apparently misshapen dotted triangles around it, the operations director of William M Mercer puts down his pen and begins explaining how his time recording system will help him to map to it better.
The triangle represents the most effective use of the three levels of consultant within the company, and for Tyler, mobilising these resources through better use of IT is something of a new problem. In fact, he and his fellow panellists, representing pharmaceuticals outsourcing giant Innovex and Barclays International Funds, each face their own challenges in managing sales or consulting forces which are geographically spread out, ensuring they keep in touch with base and keep doing what the company HQ thinks they should be doing.
But in addition to keeping a line of communication open to track employee performance, companies must ensure that information comes back. IT communications must carry data for billing clients or, in Barclays' case, provide for the ability to share knowledge from sales calls with the rest of the sales team and assign actions to sales support teams in real time.
The use of new communication methods, whether a traditional LAN or an Internet-based system, creates new difficulties in maintaining central control. First and foremost is the need to ensure that sometimes technically illiterate or individualistic employees use it.
"You're always working against the natural culture of the field force," says Innovex business director of decision support services Jeremy Broadis. "You have to understand the profile of the people you hire. It's all about incentivising them to use the system... and part of that is finding out what software works and what doesn't."
Innovex has implemented a reporting system from Business Objects. It is delivered over a browser through its WebIntelligence interface to 70 field managers of the 2,000-strong salesforce.
To coax staff to use laptops which they might otherwise have left at home, Broadis suggests providing e-mail and Internet access, and not only for work use, to encourage them to dial in. "If nothing else, it will increase PC literacy and make staff more familiar with the browser interface."
Each panellist has his own methods of persuading staff to keep in touch. Barclays International Funds, for example, has totally embedded its Baan FrontOffice system in the way salespeople work as an answer to fears of "technophobia". "So we put them on an intensive training course and embedded the product in the sales process," says Internet specialist Eamonn Ozerovitch. The salesforce even aided in selecting the product and developing the system.
In Tyler's pyramid example, the three slices represent its three levels of consultant: the junior stringers, middle-level workers and top-end "rainmakers" who bring in the big deals. As well as ensuring the right ratio exists so top consultants aren't opening the post, the business also needs to maintain a good balance of resources between the three different levels of consultant.
The first phase for Mercer was ensuring accuracy of data; as recently as 18 months ago, people were still recording time on pieces of paper. "This was all developed according to how easy it would be for punch operators to enter the information.... People inputting time were always second-guessing what the eventual bill would look like."
The company has now moved to a new front end where employees can input time straight onto the desktop PC as they work on a project. Most are only working on a handful of clients so they can easily click in and drop in time. Tyler adds: "It's a classic example of how technology has moved our whole thinking on.
Barclays International Funds has a more complex and equally challenging communications structure. Its worldwide salesforce supports IFA customers around the world. Sales support assistants in the local or regional offices are the second main contact point for customers and also carry out customer relationship management (CRM) exercises such as marketing mailshots. In addition to its external broker network the company also has internal customers throughout the Barclays group.
At the end of 1999, the company implemented Baan to enable more effective communications between its internal and external distribution channels. The system "enables a streamlined method of communication between the sales team globally and facilitates a team selling approach."
The Baan system offers the salespeople the latest information on the broker and the status of the account prior to a sales call. In addition, information from other parts of the business, product updates, videos and promotional material in PDF format, is automatically available on the salesperson's laptop wherever they are in the world and at whatever time.
Better communication was also the motivating factor at Innovex. In a sensitive and complex sales environment such as pharmaceuticals, making the right number of calls to key influencers such as general practitioners is crucial. "If the optimum call frequency is six calls, and you know a colleague has made three calls, then you can make another three calls, so it improves partnering and team working," says Broadis.
Knowing Your Product
Beyond basic communication, one of the significant aims for each of our panellists was ensuring a better understanding of what was being sold.
For Mercer this was partly in order to keep track of a changing dynamic in the way clients wanted to be billed. The company found an increasing consumer demand for fixed-fee process and transaction work. "But we don't know how long [a job is] going to take--so we agree a ballpark range; if it takes ten hours longer because data is poor then the price can go up," says Tyler. "That's grey hair work--we've done it before but just can't get a handle on how long it takes.
Tyler says that a key problem that arises is that clients will present entirely new problems in need of a solution, where "the value of the solution has nothing to do with the amount of hours we spend on it."
Historically, pricing was based solely on time, "but people at the bottom end are forcing us into a fixed fee, and at the top end people are asking very complex questions, but saying they need an answer and they'll pay to get it."
The triangle describes the ideal mix. The closer Mercer can get, the more its profitability starts to take off. The company is in the process of building a number of reports together with its supplier, Computron, to draw the data out and craft invoices and reports more accurately and flexibly.
Tyler says: "We're working with [Computron] to ensure that more detailed reporting will be part of the implementation. The core product is developed for recording time for professional services groups, but obviously the specific needs that we have make us different to other professional services firms."
The second phase will roll out in the UK later in the year. Instead of billing clients solely on time spent, "we need to get a better handle [on] how much time we're spending at each level to produce a particular output for a client. Getting a handle on our costs in terms of how we do a job is absolutely vital in terms of organic profitability, because it's also vital in planning ... for the future."
For global companies, consistency of approach is a key measure of success. At the end of the day, say the panellists, it's the customer that counts, and if a mistake happens because the company is not communicating properly internally, it is the supplier that carries the can.
"Imagine the complexity of working with some of our clients," says Tyler. "We could have someone working on Wimpey, to take an example, and call up the system and not know whether it's the hamburger or road maker. Because it was not previously available on screen, if you wanted a report and had to commission it specially, you would just not do it.
"Now we have the prospect of simply sitting at your machine, calling up a customer's details, and finding that yesterday a consultant booked time to them. You have a much better sense of what's going on and, as a consequence, there's a much tighter linkage."
The time-recording work at Mercer is being supported by a new way of handling client data, both globally and within the UK. Because of Mercer's global reach, "we have to be able to handle this smartly, both from a defensive point of view and from an assertive client management standpoint."
The evident ripple effect on clients has encouraged staff to use the system more at Barclays International Funds.
"Initially salespeople saw the system simply as a contact management tool," says Ozerovitch. "Now they have seen how much it can do automatically. Sales productivity has increased as the time spent on non-selling activities has been reduced. The salespeople have also found the information provided by the system very beneficial in the production of their sales forecasts."
At Mercer, the time recording project is part of a wider process improvement exercise, and the long-term benefits of giving individuals a better opportunity to analyze their own efficiency will come further down the line.
But already it has seen an improved level of accountability. "It's mostly a psychological thing for individuals when they find the inaccuracies that used to occur don't now. In the past... there were always times at the end of the month when the bill came through and they would still find inaccuracies because of miscoding [by the punch operators]. Now there are no gaps in the system. If they put time in the system and hit the button, there's no one else to blame."