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Conjoined in Mutual Development
A case study of how computer giant Compaq worked hand-in-hand with startup Conjoin on the release of its first product, Field.First.
Posted Jun 3, 2000
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This is the tale, perhaps even a fairy tale, of how Compaq, the computer systems giant, and Massachusetts-based Conjoin, Inc. joined forces to streamline Compaq's field force, strengthen the links between sales and marketing and, most importantly, give their salespeople better information in less time.

Joseph Batista, director of Internet enterprise initiatives at Compaq, lead an effort to develop an intranet-style Web portal for Compaq's East Coast sales representatives that would act as a clearinghouse for marketing materials such as brochures, spec sheets and customer testimonials--in short, a sales encyclopedia. Marketing staff and writers could generate new "artifacts," as Compaq calls them, and post them to the portal for prompt retrieval from anywhere in the field. Planet East, as it came to be known, was reasonably successful.

But this first generation system had a crippling bottleneck. All of the content had to be published in HTML, which required Batista to constantly nursemaid every document that needed to be posted or revised. And as material became obsolete, it tended to hang around the site, taking up room and cluttering the screen with irrelevant references. Batista dubbed the problem "information toxidity." "The people in the field were spending more time in front of a browser than the client," he says.

By February of last year, Compaq was looking for a better way to manage its document library, so when Conjoin came calling, they were quickly pointed to Batista. "The problem was that the field was clamoring for more functionality, but it was all they could do to run in place," recalls Nick d'Arbeloff, founder and president of Conjoin.

The companies quickly came to an arrangement to migrate the Planet East system to use Conjoin's flagship product, the Field.First browser-based intranet portal. There was just one catch: Field.First hadn't been launched yet, and a good deal of the functionality for the 1.0 release was defined as a direct result of working with Compaq.

Batista didn't mind taking a chance on the young company. "This is a ground-up group, so we didn't have to follow the traditional lines of corporate IT, where someone had to be an established vendor with three references and millions of dollars," he says. "We could afford to be an early adopter, take a gamble for an innovative, new-age solution that met our needs."

Dual Solutions
As it turned out Field.First's approach to document management solved both of Compaq's problems at once. The Field.First portal integrates with any standard office or document application on the user's computer, allowing content to be published in any format common to the company. This took the HTML conversion step out of the equation, enabling content publishers to post their material directly to the Planet site without administrator intervention.

Furthermore, every single document posted on a Field.First system must be assigned an expiration date, after which it will be removed from the site and placed in a permanent archive. Publishers are notified when a document is about to expire and can choose to give it a "stay of execution," but if they take no action the document is purged from active duty. With this system, marketing has to assume greater responsibility for the upkeep and "freshening" of important documents over time. "Now, [publishers] need to think a little more, rather than just taking their content and posting it to a Web site," says Batista. "They have to think about how it's going to be used by the consumer (the field sales staff)."

Building that forethought into the system was one of Batista's top priorities. He saw a serious gap between the intentions of the marketing staff and the needs of the field force. "Does anybody ask them if this stuff is any good?" he asks rhetorically. And on the flip side, "As a sales professional in the field, I'm not going to pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, that brochure was great.'"

The Field.First portal puts a content rating questionnaire at the top of every document opened by an end user. And while laziness can always dilute the effectiveness of a survey ("If someone thinks something is just 'okay,' they probably won't bother," says d'Arbeloff), Compaq has learned a lot by comparing ratings and usage numbers. Batista and the Daily Planet "editors" watch for patterns of high usage but low ratings, indicating a crucial but poorly-written document in need of an overhaul, and high ratings but low usage, which points to a great document that should be promoted to the field force. And if something is getting little use and low ratings, "Why are we producing this stuff if the field doesn't want it?"

Presentation Builder
While content tracking and management has been a boon for Compaq, Batista has dubbed Field.First's Presentation Builder the "killer application" of the portal. Presentation Builder's job is to build new Powerpoint documents from material stored on the Daily Planet servers. Either by browsing or using the portal search tool, field reps call up thumbnails of pages from any number of relevant presentations and build a "shopping cart" of slides. The Field.First server then builds a new presentation and applies a common color and appearance scheme to the finished product, eliminating any trace of its cut-and-paste origins. The user then only has to download the new presentation, rather than pulling down a half-dozen in their search to find relevant information.

After seeing the initial success in the East, Compaq decided to roll out the portal to some 2,000 reps nationwide, with a name change to the Daily Planet. New sales regions were added every six weeks, to coincide with regional sales conferences or events.

Mobility is on the rise as well. "It's lightened my briefcase," says Compaq Senior Account Executive Dick Auffrey of the Field.First-powered Daily Planet. "All I need is my laptop, and I can gain instant access to a lot of product information. I'd have to carry a systems and options guide before, a lot of white papers in print. Now I can go in and focus more on the opportunity that I'm working on. It's a very convenient place to get information."

Batista may be content with the results of the Field.First implementation, which he estimates cost $700,000 fully installed, but he isn't going to be content with success. "Everybody's talking about portals now, and that's great," he says, "but I'm looking towards a biometric infomediary agent that thinks and acts like Joe Batista." In the not too distant future, he wants to go beyond the realm of context searches and semi-intelligent topic alerts to a full-fledged automated system that anticipates the needs and interests of individual salespeople, compiles content based on their strengths and preferences, and delivers it when and where they want it. "Whenever something happens, I want mostly technical information, I want it in a Powerpoint presentation, I want it every Tuesday morning, with my AT&T account [expense status]," he says. That level of pseudo-AI is far off, but he thinks it will happen-and within the parameters of the existing Field.First portal. "Field.First is the core," says Batista.

Compaq is happy. They wanted a more complete resource portal for their field force, and got it. They wanted something easier to manage than their in-house first generation system, and got it. Conjoin is happy, too, because they successfully launched their product with a major, nationwide implementation at an organization that didn't bully them away from their core strengths. Perhaps this really is a fairy tale, after all.

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