Empowering sales

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To help it compete in the grimmest marketing environment in a decade, Airborne Inc. is creating an online portal to harness the brainpower of its 580 salespeople in the U.S.

The portal will allow the shipping giant’s sales staff to work together to cross-sell to global clients, send customers marketing literature online and report to sales managers on their efforts in real-time.

Airborne is not alone in turning to the Web to enhance its sales operations amid a slowing economy. Consumer products giant H.J. Heinz Co., DuPont and Tenax Corp. have similar initiatives under way:

•Heinz is building a portal that will allow its 600 independent brokers and salespeople to access brand logos and sales policies online, as well as work together on sales efforts.

•DuPont’s pharmaceutical unit is starting an intranet portal to allow its 900-plus salespeople to prepare marketing presentations online.

•Tenax, a manufacturing and agriculture company, is launching a portal to allow its salespeople to work hand-in-hand with executives in planning inventory controls.

These companies’ portals allow salespeople to do simple things, such as accessing marketing materials, as well as complex tasks, such as sending order forecasts to managers to aid with just-in-time inventory planning.

Considering these companies’ businesses represent a broad swath of the economy, their b-to-b portal plans are significant. They show that major U.S. companies are changing from a new economy perspective that viewed the Internet as a means to cut staff through direct-to-client sales to one that sees the Web as a way to make salespeople more effective and valuable.

"Sales forces have become even more important," said Julian Chu, director-retail practice at consultancy Mainspring Inc. "As the economy slows down, it becomes even more important to drive revenues through innovative ways."

Airborne flies to Web

Seattle-based Airborne does scant advertising, so its salespeople are its de facto marketing program. "Our sales force in our case is our entire marketing effort," said Michael Heilman, VP-general manager of logistics services. "Our sales force is one-tenth the size of UPS’ and FedEx’s, so to take market share from them, we have to be a lot more effective."

This means focusing the company’s far-flung reps, based everywhere from London to Los Angeles, on using the Onyx Software Corp.-designed portal to share customer intelligence. This helps accomplish a top Airborne marketing priority: cross-selling.

"We’re trying to do much more team-selling," Heilman said. "Now, if one of my guys makes a call on a major Airborne customer, he’ll enter the results of the call, and everyone can have a look at it."

The portal also plays into Airborne’s attempts to reverse its fortunes. It recently reported a first-quarter loss of $17 million amid slumping sales, compared with a $32.1 million profit a year earlier.

57 varieties online

Heinz, whose lines include StarKist tuna, 9-Lives cat food and Weight Watchers in addition to its flagship ketchup brand, is in the midst of launching its first salesperson portal. The company sees it as the nexus of its Internet strategy, which centers on enabling its salespeople.

"This is definitely about empowerment," said Mike Garfield, general manager of e-business for Pittsburgh-based Heinz. "We want it to be a one-stop shop for salespeople. It was a critical piece. It gets us into the b-to-b world."

While Garfield wouldn’t reveal potential cost savings, he said a major reason Heinz started the portal was to save money. "Rolling information out to our sales force, it will allow us to repurpose at a fraction of the cost," he said. Traditionally, Heinz has sent out pricing and marketing information on CDs, a costly practice that didn’t allow for timely information updates.

The launch of the portal, designed by Vignette Corp., comes at a critical time for Heinz, whose marketing spending strategy is being questioned by at least one prominent Wall Street analyst.

"Vast amounts of advertising-marketing dollars need to be spent to maintain positions, but pure growth in these categories could be minimal," wrote Edward Jones analyst Patrick Schumann in a recent report.

Garfield said the portal fits neatly into Heinz’s strategy of not hindering salespeople’s full access to clients. "We don’t plan to get into channel conflicts in the retail world," he said.

Unlike many consumer products companies, Heinz relies on independent brokers for its U.S. sales. Should they decide Heinz is cutting them out, they could fight back by concentrating on selling other companies’ products.

Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont Pharmaceuticals Co. sees its portal as a marketing information channel that emphasizes speed. "It aggregates content into one place and helps salespeople find what they’re looking for more rapidly," said Derek Jones, senior director of e-business.

Tenax, meanwhile, wants its new salesperson portal to help it handle one of the most challenging tasks in a slowing economy: managing production and inventory. It’s doing this by allowing its 75 U.S. reps to provide sales forecasts to planning executives through the portal.

"This is forward-looking information derived from the salespeople, the people pounding the streets," said Peter Ianniello, exec VP-sales and marketing. "They quote customers, log on to the portal, and assign the likelihood of sales and closing dates. We are all now sitting at the electronic table, collectively making decisions."

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