The Last Frontier

Most computer applications seem to be aimed at reducing costs. At least, that’s what you read on the capital-expenditure applications. [...]

March 1 1994 by Robert Bittlestone


Most computer applications seem to be aimed at reducing costs. At least, that’s what you read on the capital-expenditure applications. The promised savings are as breathtaking in their ambition as they are underwhelming in their realization. But I wonder, how often have you looked at a proposal to use the computer for increasing revenues?

By now, few people have not heard of the success of the American Airlines SABRE reservation system, or the American Hospital Supplies order-processing facility that lists competitors’ products as well as home-grown ones. But these are only two landmark cases. It’s surprisingly difficult to rattle off another five, let alone 500. Apparently computers are not helping salesmen as much as production people. Why?

What is the difference between producing something and selling it? Method versus magic; West versus East; yin and yang; left brain and right brain. No wonder computer projects proliferate in that cozy, quantifiable, describable production zone. But if you want to use a computer to help your company to sell things, you first have to define the soul of a salesman.

Now computer types have many skills, but as a rule, they’re not strong on soul. In fact, some think the computer has more soul than the computer programmer. Computer people don’t drink in the same bars as salesmen; some salesmen suspect they don’t drink at all. On the flip side, computer people harbor the growing suspicion that salesmen have been lobotomized in that part of the cerebral zone responsible for adding up the sales targets. With only two days to go until the quarter’s end, and the target only 60 percent met, not even faster-than-light travel will get you out of the hole. Thus, it’s all the more frustrating when the quarter’s quota suddenly is filled.

What’s to be done? I bring no panacea, but I offer a brief account of my company’s experiences of this deep divide.

Once upon a time, our salespeople had to comply with a back-office system for “never forgetting a name.” Whenever you met someone, you clipped his or her business card onto a form, on which you wrote a few other things-such as the line of business-if you could be bothered. Then you handed the form in to the Great Administrative Machine, which devoured it in one hungry gulp and sent it to some black hole far beyond the event horizon. Now in theory, you then could ask this machine anything, such as who it knew in Toledo or what other fertilizer manufacturers the company had contact with.

But somewhat unsurprisingly, nobody ever used the machine. It was too complex to operate. It was back in the office when you were in a hotel room or at home. It was always out of date or irrelevant. And nobody bothered to enter their best contacts, anyway. As if to make up for this deficiency, once a year, the Great Administrative Machine sent out a long list of names, with just one request-to mark the ones getting Christmas cards.

So the salesmen endured this uneasy truce until one day the sabers rattled, and the winds of change blew through the front office. We gave our people laptops, and we loaded a communicating data base called Lotus Notes onto each computer, with a complete copy of all our client and contact interactions on the built-in hard disk. We gave them a modem to transmit and receive daily updates wherever they were. The system originates the name and address on all their letters and faxes; it holds their meeting notes; it reminds them of their follow-up calls; it keeps them abreast of other client interactions; it lets them qualify their contacts and monitor the future-order pipeline.

Within three months, the paper files in the office began to shrink. The circulating file copies of correspondence vanished. The secretaries quickly abandoned their DOS word processors for the one they found there. And the salesmen started to complete their meeting notes and call records within a few hours of the events. Now the management team can coordinate an account plan for an international customer, product and service lines, consultants, and divisional segments. Within 24 hours of significant international business taking place in the U.S., our European counterparts can be up to speed, and vice-versa.

This technological revolution isn’t confined to consultants like us. Unilever has standardized on the same package for 20,000 world-wide users, and via its global UNISON project, it is bringing its advertising agencies on board-a first step toward the extended electronic enterprise. We already have implemented E-mail links to all our major customers and to members of the Foundation for Performance Measurement, and we are hard at work for businesses ranging from banks to broadcasters that are busy doing the same. Next time you’re planning an equity issue, think how much more productive (and less expensive) everything can be when all the players are linked together.

The last frontier is accessible; the trick is to let the front-line people design it. Ignore the cries from the information systems people who say those people will never succeed; they will, with some help. And who knows? You might just find a note on a CRT one day that says they’re all out drinking in the same bar.