Sales Technology Should Help Customers Help Their Customers


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Is the goal to make technology work for salespeople or should it be to help the salesperson’s customers? Salespeople, after all, are the face of the company for the customer, and it’s their job to help customers help their customers. This is important, whether the technology is directed toward wholesale or retail customers. For wholesale customers, they are looking for several things to fill several needs. Retail customers are looking for one thing to fill one need. In my world, it is the end customer that is the primary customer.

As a buyer for our retail store, what I wanted to know from my vendors’ representatives was which items were on back order, when could I expect them and, if I were to write an new order, how soon would I receive it.

My first introduction to a vendor’s technology was back when portable computers were not quite so small. The salesman for Waterford Crystal came to my office, with what looked like a toolbox. “Strange,” I thought, because he usually carried an attaché case. As I went through my inventory records, he wrote what items I wanted and how many of each I wanted. I kept wondering what that box was for. After the order was written, the salesman asked to use the phone, cleared space on my desk for the box and opened it. The front folded down, and I saw a keyboard. He plugged it in, turned it on, turned my phone around, took out a gadget, replaced headset with the gadget and dialed an 800 number. I heard buzzing, and the little screen came alive. Fascinated, I had no idea what was going on. He typed in something, and up came our store’s name on the screen.

One salesman tried my suggestion and began phoning customers.

He asked me to read the item numbers on the order, and he typed in the numbers. That done, he told me to wait. I forget how long it took, but I saw numbers and product descriptions start to appear. He scrolled through the list, told me which items would be shipped and which were back-ordered. This information was important for my salespeople because they needed this same information when customers wanted items we were out of. I had such high hopes that my life would be much easier. However, for whatever reason, within a few months, Waterford went back to the old ways.

Another time, the salesman for Dansk Designs came in. Dansk was the design leader of its day and a very popular line with our customers. The usual routine was that the salesman would come in, I’d go through my records, the order would be written, he would take it and he’d be on his way. Not this time, though. Before I even started to look through my records, he told me he would, this time, tell me what I should order. Understand, we kept very good “rate-of-sale” records for every item in this department and, either because of my ego or necessity, I felt no sales representative was going to tell me what to order. He pulled out a large computer readout and showed it to me. No way was I going along with this. I told him he could keep his record for posterity, but I would order by what our records showed. We sold out of those few items I ordered in lower quantities than his readout recommended.

Shipment notices

Shortly after I left retailing, one of my consulting clients was Crane’s Papers. Our store did a lot business with Crane’s, and because I “spoke their language,” the folks there asked me to moderate a seminar for the company’s Florida sales meeting. In my talk, I asked how many in the audience called customers when they got notice of shipments to tell them their orders were on their way (something that is now routine with online stores). No hands went up. Hmmmmmm? I knew from experience that it took at least 60 days from order to receiving and, no matter what the inventory was since the last shipment was received, by the time the next one was about to be shipped, sales would made. One salesman tried my suggestion and began phoning customers. He found that with many calls, he got additional orders. I don’t know if others in the seminar did it, but I hope so.

There are many businesses that face the same slow delivery schedule who could benefit from this advice and technology. If the vendor’s technology would advise salespeople of upcoming shipments and the salespeople were to call customers, the salespeople would be writing more orders and, better yet, would be helping their customers have the right amount of inventory when they needed it.

What is puzzling to me is why other vendors did not follow the same paths and, why both early pioneers I met with in my retail days quit using their technology to help their customers. The “rate of sale” is vital information. It is not how much has been sold but what has been sold when and how often. No point-of-sale program offers this information—what I call a “horizontal picture per item”—yet most buyers try to rely on POS information for reordering.

It matters not whether what is purchased is parts or finished inventory. The need for a vendor’s technology is to provide its customers information to allow them to give their end customers what they need when they need it—not what is not needed when it is not needed. I have yet to see the technology that can help customers help their customers.

Alan J. Zell
Attitudes For Selling
Alan J. Zell, Ambassador of Selling® at Attitudes For Selling since 1983, offers workshops, seminars and consulting on all business topics related to selling ideas, information, skills, services and products for individuals, management, businesses, organizations, education and government.


  1. Alan… I enjoy your columns. Keep ’em coming.

    One technology that I think does help customers help customers is the product configurator. Product configuration applications enable salespeople, or customers themselves, automatically to design and price customized products, services or solutions. Configurators are useful when the product is particularly complex or when customization is an important part of the value proposition. Configurators are typically based on an ‘if….. then’ rules structure. The general case of this rule is ‘If X is chosen, then Y is required or prohibited or legitimated or unaffected.’ For example, if the customer chooses a particular feature (say, a particular hard drive for a computer), then this rules out certain other choices or related features that are technologically incompatible or too costly or complex to manufacture. You can also link product visualization technologies to configurators. PV enables sales reps and customers to produce realistic images of products before they are manufactured. The image can take the form of a simulated photograph, 3-D model or technical drawing, and can include other related documentation such as specifications or prices.

    Francis Buttle

  2. Francis. Thank you for your nice comment. You made my day!

    When I was asked to write an article about how IT could help salesmen (generic term), I tried to show that what my vendors’ IT did for not just me, but also for my customes as it is they who kept our and our vendors’ doors open and helped us both pay our bills. It comes down to rate-of-sale, or if one were a manufacturer, rate-of-usage. In either case, the 80/20 Rule prevails but it is not 80/20 across the board, each item has its own rate or, as I tell my clients, everything has its Xmas, but it isn’t always in December. My job was to, as possible, have the right amout of each item in stock when our customers were most likely to want it and to have only what is necessary when the demand is lowest for each item i.e I only had to have enough to take care of sales during the time it took to replace them. Of course, guessing/predicting what will be sold when is a very inexact science if it could be called a science. If it is not a science, then it is called “gut feeling due to experience.”

    If a vendor can help their customer(s) predict what the rate is when, then the customer can work on less inventory of some things some of the time and still be able to meet the variation of what their customers rate of usage or pucharse is.

    Because my vendors, other than the two cases in my article, did not provide me with a history of our rate of usage/sale, my mentor devised out a hand-kept system (this was BC) that allowed us to control what we would order when knowing, due to tracking, the logistic time. This allowed us to carry, in my departments, maybe 20% to 30% less inventory or have less dollars tied up in inventory when depth was not needed is those items.

    What I decry is that there is, at least as far as I an determine, no POS program that will give a “horizontal picture” of rate of sale for each item. So, I would presume that this would be the same for any business that has to carry inventory of part, finished parts or finished products. If there were, then why has not it morphed into the POS world?

    Buyers/purchasing agents need to be told when what not to buy as well as when to buy and that can only be done if vendors keep each customers’ rate of usage in a horizontal picture. Still, it would be up to the buyer to check to see if the rate of usage will be the same or changed.

    Again, thank you for your comments.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected]


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