“By the year 2020, 85% of all Customer transactions will be done without human intervention” -Gartner Group
Technology has changed business in the last 10 years. Much of the emphasis has been on the changes in marketing, and new channels which didn’t exist previously (Social Media, Search,etc.). While these changes are significant, another aspect of the sales process – the transaction itself-is in the midst of a quiet revolution.
In the not so distant past, the Outside Sales Person would visit a customer, take the order, and
then call it in to the “Order Desk”. Sometimes they would know whether things were in stock (they might have gotten an Inventory List sometime earlier in the week), sometimes they would know when things will ship, most times they got the pricing right. The advanced companies sometimes had an “inside” sales person who worked with the “outside” sales person, and gave them information via the phone.
So, in the most advanced instance, you had a salesperson on the phone with their office getting information from the company’s systems via another person and relaying that to the customer. Salespeople developed “poker faces” so the customer across the desk wouldn’t know that the inside sales person was telling them the customers parts hadn’t shipped and wouldn’t ship for the foreseeable future.
Sometimes the customers would type their orders into a system to create a purchase order, print it out, then call the inside sales person who would them type it into another system as a sales order. Then they would mail the purchase order to the vendor, who would open it, check against what the inside sales person typed, then send an acknowledgement through the mail.
The revolution started in the consumer world. Online customers could enter their own orders, see inventory availability, pricing, and shipping dates. Once the order was placed, they received automated updates of the order progress via email.
The business to business world has been about 5-10 years behind in this trend, and smaller businesses lag further behind. Although the vast majority has invested significant time, talent, and dollars to create internal systems, this data is hoarded. The reasons for this hoarding range from internal politics (control over the data equals power) to fear of sharing data. The first cause is cultural and needs to be dealt with through proper management; the second is often based on fear, much of which is unfounded. Small businesses that have significant data losses (customer lists, vendor lists, or sales data) overwhelmingly trace the source to internal personnel. The specter of multi-national hackers looking for data from small to mid-size companies is overblown.
The challenge for smaller business then becomes: how do I efficiently, safely, and affordably “share” the data in my home system with the external people who would most benefit from seeing it?
Unfortunately, there is not a “one size fits all” answer to this challenging question. As with any complicated decision, one needs to break it into component parts to focus on building a solution.
If you have outside sales people, focus on what information they need when sitting across from a customer or prospect. Things to consider include:
- Order History
- Product usage “footprint” (are they using all you sell?)
- Inventory Availability
- Payment History
- Product Information
Next, what do you want that Salesperson to be able to do?
- Accept Payments
Once you have a blueprint for what you want them to be able to do, you need to define the system(s) within your organization which have this data, and whether the data is static or dynamic. For example, if you wanted the salesperson to be able to present a video about specific product usage to a potential customer, that is static and could be loaded onto their mobile device in advance. However, inventory quantities are dynamic and may need to be accurate at the moment of purchase in order to allocate specific resources.
If you are lucky, all the dynamic data you need will be in the same system. If this is the case, you need to find a solution which allows remote access to the system feature required, without allowing full or risky access. Depending on your home system, this may be an off the shelf product or a custom program.
If the data required comes from multiple systems, you have more significant challenges. While showing amalgamated data from multiple systems is available through many off the shelf Business Intelligence (BI) systems, once you need a single user screen which can write to multiple systems, you are normally looking at a custom program.
The latest term for all this is “Sales Acceleration Software” – the latest catch phrase.
On the other hand, if you do not use external salespeople, or are looking to have customers enter orders directly, you face different challenges.
In this case, you need to consider the differences between the B2C web store and a B2B portal. In a B2C store:
- We sell to anyone
- Payment is processed at the time of order placement
- Pricing is public and universal
- Infinite inventory availability is assumed or given on a Yes/No basis
Whereas in a B2B environment:
- We may not sell to everyone (no end users, only wholesale)
- Customers have payment terms
- Pricing is specific to the customer and order
- Blanket orders with multiple release dates may be the norm
- Partial orders are a possibility (if you have 99 in stock and customer wants 100, do you tell them “no” on availability?)
So we can think of the B2B Portal as a Web Store with more rules. The biggest difference is that we need to know who the customer is so we can give them their special pricing, allow them to re-order based on previous purchases, and pay with the terms we have agreed upon. The easiest way to do this is with a product which allows the customer to “log in” to your home system. This allows you to use all the rules (pricing, terms, etc.) which exist in the system and apply them to the customer immediately. To do this with a web store, you would have to program the rules in for each potential user and have them apply.
The biggest issue with allowing customers into your system is determining what they are allowed to see or do. Many systems have “portal” add-ons that allow you to determine what the customer sees and what they cannot. The most common decision is whether to let them see total inventory or a simple availability confirmation. Many companies do not want a customer to know they have 20 million of something in stock fearing that would open negotiations on price.
When implemented correctly, the portal gives users the online experience they require. It allows foreign customers to enter orders during their normal work hours. It improves the company’s image while allowing those customers who wish to skip the human interaction full access to anything they need.
Please note that I have not mentioned EDI as a method for this as it is a system that exists outside of the realm of online order entry and is a completely separate discussion.
The final option, which is used by an extremely small number of small businesses, is to link their home system directly to the customers system, allowing orders to flow directly between the two. This is something like EDI, without the third party “VAN” to set the rules for communication. This is almost always custom software and requires programmers from both sides to agree upon a format and schedule. Caution should be used if entering into one of these relationships that incoming data is processed though and API or similar feature to assure that database integrity is not compromised.
Generally, companies that empower their salespeople and customer with the information developed in their home system see several improvements and efficiencies:
- Reduction in duplicate data entry
- Reduction in data entry errors
- Enhanced relationships with customers in disparate time zones
- Freeing up “order takers” to be “sales developers”
- Higher velocity
- Enhanced image
As the marketplace evolves, and a generation who has always experienced online shopping as a given takes over the workforce, there will no longer be an option for portals, web stores, and connected salespeople. It will become the norm and those outside will have a distinct disadvantage.
About the Author: Paul V. Rossi, CPA is currently a Professor in the MBA Program at Dowling College in Oakdale, New York. Paul spent much of his career with Ernst and Young, and continues to work with small to medium sized companies facing "challenges" when not teaching.