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Field force automation in the automotive industryThe Elegant Solution

Kent Automotive markets its aftermarket automotive parts from its world headquarters in Cleveland, OH with over 14000 individual SKU's in its inventory. The company employs over 100 sales agents nationwide in automotive sales and over 400 in industrial product sales. Until recently, however, the salespeople were still firmly rooted in early twentieth century technology, pounding the pavement daily for new business were still lugging planners, cumbersome map books, endless notes from voicemail's, leads gleaned from prospecting guides and pens and pencils. Lots of pens and pencils.

"Sales personnel had access to a sophisticated customer management system running on their PCs," explains Klein. "When the salespeople used to go out on the road, they were still using pen and paper. This was not only inefficient, it meant that the information had to be entered twice, first by hand in the field and then into the management system on the desktop when they got back to the office."

Requests were coming in not only to streamline the system but also to bring in some sort of information technology to organize customer information and capture it back in the office in a repository for analysis. Together with Tom Wojnarowski, Vice President of Management Information Systems, Klein began to experiment with handheld computers.

"Our challenge was we needed to invent some sort of automated device for our salespeople," Klein recalls. In addition to cost savings, Klein knew the convenience of this approach was obvious. "When you're on the go, it is much easier to point and click using radio buttons and drop down menus rather than fumbling with the keyboard and mouse on a laptop."

Keeping it Simple

"This [ISD's software] was something anybody can use. Keep in mind that our expectations were not that high to start with. We were just looking for a basic way to distribute a database and the information onto a device for it to write back," explains Wojnarowski.Sales Span That was the first goal, Wojnarowski says. Once that was accomplished, a whole laundry list of "nice-to-haves," came out. There were some things Wojnarowski didn't like about the system, and he had some problems connecting and synchronizing to the company database. A few calls to the tech's at ISD straightened the problems out.

When the prototype was shown to the salespeople, Wojnarowski found there were a few things that he and Klein hadn't thought of that the potential end users felt were important. "First, they wanted the ability to sort. When we did it by address, the product sorted by numbers. So if you have a lead at 40 Euclid Boulevard, and another at 400 Euclid Boulevard, the software would put all the 4's together. So we toyed with it and had it sort by ZIP code, then the streets lined up the way we wanted them to."

Another problem, says Wojnarowski, was the inability to turn off some functions. Salespeople accidentally deleted all their records. Another in a series of quick calls to ISD's technical department solved the problem.

Field Feedback

Corey McCoy, an account manager with Kent Automotive in Cleveland, OH, was typical of many field salespeople whose job it is to find new business. He was also Klein's target user for the new system.

FFA chartSpending 80 percent of his time in the field, McCoy was used to lugging around a small arsenal of sales material and ancillary items, including map books, information gleaned from prospecting guides and a planner that was filled with endless notes, information from daily voicemail's, appointments and schedules. Everything on paper, much of it handwritten. Then, of course, there was the daunting task of transferring everything from his traveling office--his car--to his office in Cleveland. It was cumbersome, time-consuming and strictly a twentieth century way of doing business. "The Palm device really lightens your load," McCoy says. "I can do my job better and be more efficient. Everything is at my finger tips."

Now a confirmed handheld computer user, McCoy admits that the transition was a little weird. "At first, you're going to be very scared, but as the transition continues, you soon ask yourself how you could have lived without it." The transition period he speaks of took only one week.

Klein also noticed a difference in the way that sales agents work. "We are becoming very proficient with the Palm devices," he says. "There's been a big change from the days with paper planners we're far better organized."

McCoy gave a specific example of how the handheld computer has made him far more efficient. "Before the Palm devices, we would spend countless hours in the library going over whatever prospecting reference text was available. It would literally take two or three hours every Friday afternoon to plan for the following week. That means more than 100 hours per year are wasted by sitting and manually transferring the stuff by hand to a form. Now, having this material at my fingertips has left me in the field 20 percent more." Tech support problems have been few and far between. Most of the time, if something goes wrong, the salesperson calls Wojnarowski's staff and they try to troubleshoot. Those rare times when it's been impossible to figure out over the telephone, the salesperson just returns to the office, downloads his data into another device and goes back out.

As easy as Klein and Wojnarowski say the handheld computer and software are to operate, there is always the person who is technologically gun shy.

"When we demonstrate the handheld to a salesperson," says Wojnarowski, "we spend about three hours in a training class that we developed. It's a hands-on process; the class goes through the handheld's features. We show them how to tap and hold plus everything else that they need to know.

"For every technology-challenged person we meet at a sales location, we also find a power user--someone who is five steps ahead of us and who has already figured out how to do something new on it. When we find that person, we challenge them a bit, give them a little more training and they become our in-house experts. If another salesperson has a problem, they'll call on one of the experts. If that fails, then they'll call us."

And the Winner Is.

Klein feels that the introduction of Palm's has done a number of things to aid the sales force. "It has given us more control over where the salesperson goes," he says. "It has given the manager a better way of allocating resources and opportunities, and it gives us the ability to direct the salesperson to where those opportunities are. You've got to give them tools to be competitive."

The end result? A sales manager working on a desktop will access a list of sales leads from a company intranet site and assign certain contacts to a salesperson. The next time the salesperson needs to synchronize between the desktop and the handheld, the new contacts are transferred. When the salesperson makes a call, he or she will capture information about the customer and location using the Symbol. The next time they synchronize, the new data integrates back to the central server relational database, eliminating the need for duplicate keying.

The system automatically keeps the sales force up to date with the latest information about customers and prospects. Rather than relying on pen and paper, they now have a current database full of customers on their new handheld's. In addition, the data captured in the field allows Klein and his colleagues to develop more effective sales programs because they now have rapid access to detailed customer information. Plans include equipping all 100 salespeople in the Kent Automotive division with the new system and eventually, Klein hopes, to other divisions as well.

"Using ISD's solution, we've been able to make a relatively inexpensive handheld device work like a $4,000 PC," Wojnarowski says. "Just in our division, you can get an idea of the savings."

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