Getting Together, Electronically
Technology for conducting meetings over the Internet can help bring your remote workers into the home office.
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In my September 1999 column, I overviewed the results of a research study we did on the sales effectiveness challenges companies are encountering today. I received a significant amount of follow-up e-mail from that article. The theme of many of the responses was that while pointing out the specific problems was interesting, offering solutions to these challenges would be much more useful.

These readers were, of course, right. The fact that we need to reinvent the way we market, sell to and service customers is clear to all Chief Sales Officers (CSOs); how to do it is not. So over the next several months I will be focusing my column on profiling specific strategies for dealing with the sales effectiveness challenges we face. This month, I want to address an issue many companies are encountering today-how to adequately support the virtual sales force.

In our recent survey of 202 firms, over half reported that their salespeople spent a significant amount of time working remotely (either out of home offices, at customer sites or using a hotel room as a base of operations while traveling). This virtual-office concept offers noticeable advantages: it places sales reps closer to customers, it decreases office space requirements and it can be a plus in attracting or retaining salespeople who want more flexibility in how or where they work.

But companies adopting this approach also report that it has significant downsides. When sales reps are out in the field, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to work with other individuals whose help they need to get things done. They cannot just walk down the hall and meet with people in support, manufacturing, sales management or finance, for example.

Insights I gained while recently attending a conference in Boston-focused on leveraging the power of the Internet to create "virtual meeting rooms"-demonstrate that a solution to this problem is now available. While the session attendees represented a wide variety of organizations-such as brokerage firms, pharmaceutical companies, computer firms, manufacturing organizations and governmental agencies-they were all tackling the issue of supporting remote workers. The people I interviewed pointed to three aspects of the Internet that made it a good technology platform for dealing with this challenge. First, it is ubiquitous; users can access the Internet from virtually anywhere. Second, the Web is never closed; it is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Finally, thanks to communications bandwidth improvements, voice and video can be transmitted as well as data.

So, just how are these organizations using the Internet to support remote sales forces? Consider the following examples.

New Product Rollout Support
Exabyte, a computer storage systems manufacturer, is using a new breed of Internet-based software, Symposium from Centra Software of Burlington, Mass., to support the rollout of a major new product line. In the past, educating sales people on new product offerings was a time-consuming task, often requiring them to leave the field. Now, to take part in the product launch, reps who are working remotely need only a PC with a microphone and built-in speakers, a standard phone line and the new meeting software package.

Exabyte recently conducted a rollout meeting over the Web for 40 reps. At a preset time all the reps logged onto the company's Internet server. The Centra software supports sending voice and data over the Internet at the same time, so the meeting leader was able to bring up the new product presentation, and everyone could see it simultaneously on their PCs and at the same time hear his voice as he talked through the product launch plans. Communication is bi-directional, so meeting participants could also ask questions. Exabyte got very positive feedback from attendees who felt they were able to get high quality interaction and information while working in the field.

Virtual Sales Meetings
A CRM vendor shared a slightly different use of this type of technology. The vendor is using a similar strategy to conduct weekly sales meetings over the Web. Each Monday morning the sales reps from each region sign on to the company Intranet server. The regional manager then brings up the forecast for everyone to review, and participants talk about the status of each opportunity, brainstorming ways to move the deal forward.

Using this approach, it is also easy to involve people from other company departments. Someone from marketing may join in for a few minutes to discuss a planned seminar program. A product development manager can easily do a quick update on a new release. The CEO can "drop-in" to give a marketplace update. Even though sales reps are now scattered all over the country, they can easily simulate the sales meetings they would have had if they were all working at headquarters.

CRM System Support
Another interesting idea was supporting the use of CRM software systems. Many companies we have interviewed in the past report problems in successfully rolling out major CRM applications. They cite conducting adequate user training for remote users as being a significant problem, as flying hundreds of employees to a central location is time consuming and expensive. Canada's Department of Agriculture has turned to virtual training over the Internet to deal with this issue. Using the e-collaborative approach, students working remotely access the Internet and watch as an instructor brings up SAP application screens and demonstrates how to complete specific tasks. Students can actually work on the same screens as the instructor. If they have a question, they can click on an icon to "raise their hand." The Department of Agriculture also has the ability to do testing at the end of a session to ensure that students have grasped the concepts. The department estimates it has saved over $500,000 in travel costs, while providing a high level of training.

C3i, a New York City-based CRM project-support firm, had another approach to solving the training problem. Working with Docent, of Mountain View, Calif., the company has developed a series of pre-recorded courses for using Siebel's CRM product. The advantage of this approach is that the classes are available any time a student wants to take them. So at night, or on weekends if they wish, salespeople can sign on to the Internet and get training on the functions with which they are having trouble.

Closing Deals
A manufacturing company we talked to suggested another creative use of this technology. The company pointed out that these types of software systems could be used for spontaneous meetings involving people outside the company. This firm stated that in the past, when a salesperson visited a customer site to try to close a deal, customers often brought up a number of product and financial issues they wanted resolved before signing the contract. Using the e-collaboration approach, salespeople now tackle those challenges in real time.

The sales rep and the customer both sign on to the manufacturing firm's Internet server and the rep then invites the right people from his firm to join the virtual meeting. Using this approach, attendees can work interactively with the same documents, such as product specifications, bid sheets and implementation plans. With remote access to the right people in manufacturing, finance, sales management and support, all collaborating to get the issues resolved, this firm is now closing deals in much less time.

The ROI is Clear
Since both voice and data can be sent over the Internet using the advanced collaborative applications available today, the cost savings from avoiding conference calls can quickly cover the software investment. Add to that the benefits of improved communication between the field and headquarters, more frequent training for sales reps and the ability to shorten sell cycles and ROI can be significant.

Working remotely will be a required way of life for many sales organizations. Using e-collaboration techniques, you can realize all of the advantages of this strategy-while minimizing the negatives.

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