>> Article Archives >> Sales Strategies >> Death of a Salesman?: Technology & Selling

Sales Strategies
Death of a Salesman?: Technology & Selling
By Timothy McMahon, McMahon Worldwidwe

The business of selling has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. The challenge for today's professional salesperson is more than just to adapt to the new technologies; it is to master them and learn how to leverage them as powerful tools to create new sources of selling advantage.

Willy Loman didn't have one. He couldn't even have imagined one. Even if he could have imagined one he wouldn't have been able to see why he would need one.

"Willy", of course, is playright Arthur Miller's most famous character from Death of a Salesman. He was the master salesman of the 1950's who in Miller's play is told that what he's done successfully for so many years just doesn't work anymore... that times and the world around him changed but he hasn't. His company simply doesn't need him anymore! For Willy, selling was straightforward. It was travelling the territory, making calls on customers and prospects, "detailing" the product, building one-to-one customer relationships, and using his well-honed sales skills. What Willy couldn't have imagined was the computer as an essential sales tool, much less the Internet, electronic mail, sales force automation, and on and on and on.

Willy might have asked, "Why do I need all this technology? It's just taking time away from the real business of selling: face-to-face time with the customer!"

As sales organizations and their corporations make ever larger investments in these new technologies, the question surfaces, "Do salespeople really need all this technology?". Do we all need to become computer users? Does today's sales rep need to acquire and master a new range of skills apart from selling? The simple answer is a resounding "Yes!"

Willy: "It seems to me that these companies have just fallen in love with these new technology toys and don't really know much about selling. My customers don't care about whether or not I have a computer!"

Willy is partially right; his customers don't care whether or not he has a computer. Customer expectations of their salespeople are changing, however. Today's customer increasingly expects his or her sales representative to:

  • be better informed;
  • to have virtually instant information to accurate and up-to-date pricing and product information;
  • to respond quicker to customer requests, questions, and issues;
  • to produce and deliver proposals and other written communications faster and error-free;
  • to have a better knowledge of competition,
  • To make more effective and productive use of the customer's time

A salesperson's ability - or inability - to meet these expectations becomes as much a part of his or her competitive advantage as product or price. Today's "technology toys" are specifically designed to provide salespeople with exactly these capabilities.

As far as face-to-face time, the "new technologies of selling" are designed to make that time more productive and more effective. How much time did Willy spend gathering needed information (if he could get it) on a customer or prospect, or to prepare for a sales call? How many times did he say to a customer, "I'll get back to you with that information" because he didn't have it readily available - and have to make a second sales call instead of one? Most importantly, how would he have fared against more efficient, productive, and effective competitors?

Willy's customers are not the only ones who are changing. So is his company. Customer expectations extend not only to the salesperson, they include his or her company as well. Many companies have traditionally operated more like a group of smaller companies who needed to work together but didn't very well. Those small companies were called sales, customer service, marketing, finance, manufacturing, operations, administration and so on.

Willy: "That's true. I've had customers ask me 'Don't your departments ever talk to one another?' I've lost customers because I was the only one who seemed to understand their needs . I always wondered why the company couldn't fix that problem."

There was a pretty good reason why that "problem" couldn't be fixed: communications. Before computer systems became common in business (the "Paper Age") it was virtually impossible to collect, collate, and share (i.e., communicate) accurate and real-time customer information across the business enterprise -- to everyone who touched the customer. Until the fairly recent advent of personal computers and networks, computer systems were only used for scientific applications or to process accounting or financial data and track manufacturing and distribution - and even then it was difficult to get information to those who really needed it. Until salespeople could be provided with portable notebook computers and powerful data communications capabilities, few companies had real-time, accurate information on their customers or could communicate needed information directly to the salesforce.

One of the most important corporate changes of the last ten years is the Enterprise Concept, and it was brought about entirely by the new technologies. Under the Enterprise Concept, each and every area or function of a company is dependent on and works hand-in-hand with every other function across the business enterprise. Each contributes and shares a corporate Knowledge Base (using advanced database technology and data communications) for improved decision-making and to better meet customer needs. The investment value is clear even though the technology costs and implementation challenges are great. The greatest challenge to implementing the Enterprise Concept, however, has been changing the way people throughout the company view their jobs. No longer can an employee be just a part of the sales department or marketing, service, finance, and so forth.

Willy:"It sounds like you're trying to tell me that there's more to my job than Selling".

Ultimately we are all now in the "sales department". Every employee in every function potentially makes a contribution that impacts our ability as a company to sell our product and meet customer needs. Salespeople are unique - they are the only people in the entire company who really "know" the customer - his/her needs, goals, business issues, satisfaction, likes and dislikes. There is no information more vital to the success of the company and it can only come from one source: field sales. When an organisation is successful with the Enterprise Concept and armed with better customer and market information, it is able to produce the right products, at the right time, marketed and priced in the right way, to the right customers to produce competitive advantage for its salesforce. And that's what "selling" is all about!

Willy: "Well, I see what you're saying. Still, I just don't like computers. All this Windows stuff confuses me. I guess I'm just an old dog who can't learn a new trick."

If only there was an easy answer to this! Too many salespeople - and sales managers - continue to be needlessly concerned over whether they can learn to use today's computers and software. Without exception, the answer is again "Yes they can!", with the caveat "but it may take some time and practice and a little frustration from time to time". Many new computer users fear breaking the computer, erasing all those bits and bytes of data, or being asked to learn a programming language. It's important to understand that, unlike the "computer systems" many of us began with even 15 or 20 years ago, computers and their "application software" are increasingly easy to use and understand (even though they occasionally still do "strange" things for which there appears to be no reasonable explanation). No business user will be asked to "program" and, following simple procedures, it is unlikely that a user will ever permanently "wipe out" all the data he or she has entered or "break" the computer.

Salespeople are not the only professionals who have felt - and had to adapt - to the demands of technology. Up until the mid-1970's, many accountants still utilized manual ledgers for company bookkeeping; manufacturing managers had to learn state-of -the-art systems for capacity planning and inventory management; and on and on.

At the same time that some of us are busy "adapting" , an entirely new breed of salesperson has been emerging over the last 10 years from today's schools and universities. He or she is more than computer literate - they are computer adept. They already have years of hands-on experience in computer systems and fundamental Office applications such as word processing and spreadsheets. They are proficient at "surfing" the Internet and researching information, and especially strong in the use of new communications tools such as electronic mail and network conferencing. As they seek professional employment, they view these technology tools as necessities not "nice to haves". More and more companies are finding that their ability to attract and keep top sales talent relies, in part, on staying on the leading edge of selling and corporate technology.

Willy: "That's true. In my company we hired a new marketing manager six months ago. He quit recently and said it was because he couldn't do his job here - that he couldn't get the information he needed because we didn't have a good marketing database. At the time I thought that was fine; get rid of another computer guy. Now I'm not so sure ..."

The bottom line simply is this: the business of selling - for better or worse and even if we might prefer it otherwise - has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. Technology and changing customer expectations are at the very root of this change and both will continue to set its future direction. The challenge for today's professional salesperson is more than just to adapt to the new technologies; it is to master them and learn how to leverage them as powerful tools to create new sources of selling advantage.

Even Willy might have agreed ...

Key Learning Points:

1. The purpose of technology in selling is to help salespeople better meet and exceed increasing customer expectations

2. Use selling technologies to make face-to-face time with the customer more effective and productive, not just more frequent

3. Perhaps the most important benefit of selling technologies will be to create a coordinated Business Enterprise that more effectively serves the needs of the customers.

4. The most important information in the company - customer information -- is held by the sales force. Technology is a communications vehicle to share that information to those who need it.

5. The challenge for salespeople is not just to adapt to the new technologies, but to master them as an important competitive advantage tool.

Tim McMahon is the bestselling author of four books on Sales and Technology including Selling 2000 - The Vision and Promise of CRM and The Sales Management Equation. He is a frequent conference keynote speaker and advises clients around the globe on sales process and technology strategies. McMahon is the founder of SalesConference.Net headquartered in Merrimack, New Hampshire.

More articles by Timothy McMahon
More articles on Sales Strategies