The Technology of Selling

Technology Allows for Targeted Messages, but Face-to-Face Contact Still Essential

  Bill Ault
It’s summer 1986, and Bill Ault is driving around rural Muncie in an ’83 Chevy Chevette packed with bottles of suntan lotion. He’s making cold calls to tanning salons and beauty shops and doing quite well. He’s made enough to pay for most of his Ball State tuition.

Flash to the present: Ault is a senior sales rep for a large pharmaceutical company and still doing business from his car—only now it’s a Ford Fusion—and he’s using an iPhone linked through MobileMe to an iPad and his desktop Mac. The phone lets him know if the products he sells, or those of his competitors, are mentioned in the news and reminds him when an appointment is coming up.

Changes in technology have affected every facet of our lives. It’s not surprising that the sales force is on the cutting edge.

By the Numbers
Consider that in an average day:

  • 173,000 professionals join LinkedIn.
  • 50 million people receive Groupon’s daily newsletter.
  • 140 million tweets are posted.
  • 375 million log in to Facebook.

The most striking statistic of all may be that 10 years ago none of these tools existed.

Technology has changed customers and their expectations. A few years ago, advertising options were limited to three major television networks, the local newspaper, and the radio. An ad would bounce off a huge portion of the audience to whom it did not relate.

Today, ads are targeted to a specific demographic with an identified need, strategically selected using customer relationship management (CRM) software. The method of reaching that audience might involve a SnapTag, an iPhone app, or a Zumbox with interactive media.

A few years ago, you kept your eye on the clock when doing business, knowing that at 5 p.m., your clients would head home. Today, work is mobile, and you’re expected to be available 24/7. Or close to it.

Ball State’s bachelor of science in sales prepares graduates for this world. Offered through the
H.H. Gregg Center for Professional Selling, the sales major is the newest in Miller College, and student enrollment is surging.

Improved Efficiency 

 Mike Newbold

Mike Newbold, BS marketing and business administration ’76, recalls a telephone response system in the 1970s that involved using a modem attached to a mainframe computer to validate account activity.

“If you wanted to extract data, you literally had to sit down and understand the code that it was written in and write a series of commands,” the president of the Central Indiana Region of Huntington Bank recalls with a laugh. “Today if you want to move money around, you just pick up your iPhone or your BlackBerry or sit down at your PC, and you can move money around and check your balances.

“We couldn’t respond to customers nearly as quickly then as we can today. Technology has vastly increased our ability to handle more customers and more information. I’m probably able to accomplish twice the number of things just by virtue of the technological environment we are in.”

One tool that helps with that efficiency is CRM software, which when used properly, tracks customers’ buying habits, preferences, needs, and likelihood to buy new products. It means a new sales professional can learn more quickly and that managers can accurately forecast profits.

On the Go
You aren’t likely to find Newbold in his office. He would rather be spending time with customers and employees.

“It drives my assistant crazy,” he admits. Luckily his BlackBerry never leaves his side. The most effective managers follow his strategy of increasing face-time and using mobile technology to speed up other communications.

Customers are mobile, too. People who use Facebook on a mobile device are twice as active as their nonmobile friends. Average response time to an e-mail is 48 hours. Average response time to a text? Four minutes.

Mobile Marketer has found that 70 percent of mobile searches result in action within one hour. That’s why search engines such as Google and Bing are working on real-time search to enable monitoring of online trends and hot topics as they occur and why 51 percent of marketing executives in one recent survey will double their mobile advertising budget in the next year.

Personalizing the Message
Kelly Osterling, BA ’99, is a sales rep for RR Donnelley, once known primarily as a printer of magazines and catalogs. Donnelley’s history is one of a company negotiating industry change.

 Kelly Osterling

Osterling describes how business is done today: “An insurance company may send a personalized brochure about diabetes and what to discuss with the doctor based on the claims information and other information the insurance company has on that client. Our clients look to RR Donnelley to prepare, produce, and deliver these communications over multiple channels like print, e-delivery, mobile apps, and even social networking sites.

“Companies need to be able to communicate through multiple channels in order to reach their maximum audience. RR Donnelley has very strong tools to help analyze each method of communication, and clients can pivot from one channel to another depending on the results they want to achieve.”

Osterling, who majored in marketing with a sales concentration, says she was well prepared to navigate the changing business world when she left Ball State.

“When I started my job, I didn’t feel I needed a lot of sales training. I needed product training and could apply the sales skills I’d learned from Ball State to successfully complete the sale.”

Now Hear This
It’s never been easier to listen to clients. Or more difficult.

“It is definitely much more challenging to listen to clients,” says Osterling. “Most communicating is done via e-mail or conference calls. Many people now work from home and in various locations around the country, so this is the best way to communicate as a team. However, whenever possible, I make it a priority to get in front of my clients on a regular basis to renew the face-to-face relationship.”

Bill Ault follows the same approach. The marketing graduate says businesses have to find their place on the scale from high-tech to high-touch relationships. Will customers be lost in a sea of automated phone prompts or greeted by a human being?

“When you call us, you can talk to someone,” he says. “Technology can never replace meeting with a customer and crafting a unique solution to meet their needs.”

Fast forward 25 years into the future, and where will we find tomorrow’s sales force? Will professionals use 3-D cell phones to do business from solar-powered cars? Possibly.

What’s sure is that data will be more streamlined and specific, advertising will be more targeted, technology will be more predictable, and that changes we haven’t thought of yet will be commonplace. And programs such as the sales major at Ball State will be there, preparing students to learn to effectively marry the psychology of selling with the technology to accomplish that.

Story by Christine Rhine, freelance writer.