Will the Internet cause the death of the outside salesperson?

I rarely teach a seminar without that question popping up somewhere in the course of the day. Almost every sales manager, executive, and salesperson I know has pondered it recently.

So what¿s the answer? Like most others, I have to admit that I don¿t know. It is certainly possible that some aspects of today¿s outside sales jobs will be replaced by point-and-click.

I am sure of one thing. The Internet specifically, and computers in general, can be powerful tools in the hands of a capable salesperson, and those who take the initiative to become automation-enabled will find themselves growing in importance to their customers and in value to their companies.

Rather than wait fearfully for an answer to appear, the wisest course for the professional salesperson is to proactively make computerization work for him or her.

Here are some ways that an Internet-enabled, computer-savvy, outside salesperson can use this technology to excel.

1. Qualify new prospects.

Just because you have the name of a new prospect doesn¿t mean that it¿s worth your time to call on them. Why not use the Internet to qualify your prospects before you spend time trying to see them?

Let¿s say you¿ve developed a list of 25 new prospects in your territory, one of which is XYZ Co. Do a search for that company through the search engines and see what develops.

You may discover a website with a wealth of information about the prospect. It wouldn¿t be unusual to find out the names and titles of key people, the key product lines or customers they serve, the mission or vision statement of the company, etc.

You may also find the company mentioned in a number of other ways. For example, you may find them mentioned in a press release by an association to which they belong. They may be a new member, or have been mentioned in an article in a trade journal, or listed as a customer by another vendor.

Every piece of information can be useful to you in determining whether or not to call on them, and if so, how to approach them.

2. Get comfortable with e-mail.

Think of how many hours per week you spend on the phone with all the people in your own company. Now add the hours spent on the phone with customers, or more accurately, trying to reach customers.

Suppose you could dramatically reduce that time by using e-mail to communicate with your support people and your manager. And now, suppose that you could virtually eliminate voice mail frustrations by communicating via e-mail with customers.

You could even collect the e-mail addresses of those customers who agree to this, and then use mass e-mails as a sales tool.

Let¿s say you have 100 customers, and it takes two months to see all of them. You have a hot new product to introduce to them. Why not mass e-mail the information overnight, then visit first those who first expressed interest in it?

3. Start using contact management tools.

Contact management software has been around so long, the benefits are so clearly established, and it is so commonly used, that I hesitate to even mention it. However, it¿s my personal experience that even today, at least 50% of the sales forces with which I have contact are not automated.

There is no longer any excuse for this. You need to be using a laptop with a contact manager program to collect and record information about customers, to record contacts and conversations, to create schedules and to-do lists, to file quotes and record sales information.

One of the characteristics of the turn-of-the-century marketplace is the rapid increase in the amount of information a salesperson must handle. Using a computer to assist in the organization and processing of information is no longer optional.

If you¿re not using a laptop daily in this manner, shame on you. You have fallen behind.

The initial cost is no longer an obstacle, as several Internet-based programs have been introduced recently that allow you to use contact management software via the Internet on a monthly rental basis.

4. Learn to make presentations.

The computer-enabled salesperson uses a laptop with presentation or video programs to present a new product or service to the customer.

Using these tools means that you can prepare a colorful, animated, talking presentation, and view it together with your customer. That allows you to make sure you get all the important details into the presentation, and present the product as positively as possible.

Taking time to create a presentation in a stress-free environment in your home or office ensures a far higher quality in the presentation than if you attempt to ad-lib as you go in front of the customer.

Store your supplemental paper-based literature on the computer, and print sales sheets with a portable printer on an as-needed basis. Watch all the clutter in the back seat of your car disappear.

You can take this concept to a deeper level. Your company, for example, can create the product presentations and make them available to all salespeople via CD-ROMs, downloads over the web, or internal networks.

Manufacturers can do the same for their distributors. Instead of relying completely on a salesperson visiting and training your distributor sales force on new products and promotions, why not create those product presentations and make them available to automation-enabled distributor salespeople over the Internet?

5. Become the customer¿s search engine.

There¿s no doubt that the amount of information available on the web in growing exponentially. It takes time to search through it all to find answers to the questions you, and your customers, have.

All of your customers are suffering today with more to do and less time to do it than ever before. Time is the most precious commodity of the Information Age.

The person who can find information on the Internet for someone else, and thereby save him or her time, is of great value.

I routinely pay people to search the web for information that I want. I don¿t have the time to do it myself, and it¿s a service that is of value to me. You can serve that function for your customers, becoming the trusted source of applied information.

Learn to use the Internet to research product applications, competitive products, the competition, technical details, and whatever other questions tempt you or intrigue your customer.

One way to prevent your customers from using the Internet to replace you is to pre-empt the process. Build your Internet skills to the point where your customers come to rely on you as a trusted source of important information, and you¿ll become irreplaceable to them.

6. Share your success.

We¿ve only just scratched the surface of the ways in which an automation-enabled salesperson can use computerization to become more effective. There are probably thousands of specific things you can do more effectively via computerization.

Here¿s an invitation to share your techniques with other salespeople. If you have a technique you¿d like to share, visit ¿Kahles Korner,¿ a bulletin board for salespeople, and submit your idea.

Open the web page www.dave kahle.com and click on ¿Salesper-son Members Board.¿ When prompted for a username, type ¿slspeople,¿ then use ¿sales¿ as a password. Post your idea or review the ideas of others.

You can no longer afford to be computer or Internet ignorant if you expect to prosper as a salesperson in the 21st century. The time to make proactive moves to become automation-enabled is now.

About Dave Kahle, The Growth Coach: Dave Kahle is a consultant and trainer who helps his clients increase their sales and improve their sales productivity. Dave has trained thousands of salespeople to be more successful in the Information Age economy. He's the author of over 200 articles and three books. The Six-Hat Salesperson, was recently released by AMACOM.

For more information, or to contact the author, contact The DaCo Corporation, 15 Ionia SW, Suite 220, Grand Rapids, MI 49503; phone 1-800-331-1287; fax 1-616-451-9412; Info@davekahle.com; www.davekahle.com

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