Guest Column - March/April 2010

Future Selling Using Technology and the Old-Fashioned Touch

By Spencer Toomey

his past Christmas I did all of my shopping online. I was very proud of myself; I didn't walk into one store. I went online and clicked away. When I think about everything that I bought, I already knew what it was ahead of time. Why go to a store when everything you need is online?

The two sunglasses that I bought were replacing sunglasses that were lost by my sons, one on Amtrak, the other on a plane, so I knew exactly what they were. The book Super Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt was easy because my son had read Freakonomics and loved it. The handbag was one of the brands that I sold; so was the jewelry case, and the briefcase.

So when I think about it, I already knew everything that I needed to find before I bought them online. I am not so sure I would have purchased something online that I didn't know and that I had never seen.

The incentive industry took a major step into technology in 1992 when RepLink first appeared. It was a huge development in the market and one that made every supplier's job much easier and more efficient. It allowed the suppliers to do a spec sheet with the click of a mouse—a job that used to take hours, days and weeks to do. The next generation of RepLink allowed reps to put full presentations together in a matter of minutes and present them to their customers without ever leaving their offices.

The technology has grown tremendously. My own company has a system where we give each one of our customers their own unique password to our site, which enables them to see their specific pricing, search for products, download hi-res images, put together a presentation, find tracking numbers for orders, look up orders and monitor sales, past and present, in any time frame that they desire. This allows customers to do product research and selections 24x7, and since our system is online, it is updated daily.

All of this technology should make life wonderful and everything should work perfectly. But it doesn't, and there are many reasons why.

The Products: There are some products that you just have to touch and feel to see the quality, the weight, and how easy or difficult they are to work.

Continuity: While technology has allowed many companies to put their incentive and service award programs online, many companies still need printed catalogs. While both require continuity, the length of time is different.

The online programs are more flexible and can be changed more frequently and easily, keeping everything fresh. The printed catalog takes longer to put together, is more expensive and is not as flexible as an online program, and therefore needs much longer continuity. The common factor between the two is that they both need continuity.

Before the Internet made everything so readily available, if a company wanted to put a product into a program, they would have to contact the supplier and ask them for an image of the product in the form of a transparency that could be used for a printed catalog. The process was time-consuming and made putting a catalog together for a program expensive. On the positive side, the supplier knew everything that was being put into a program and could do forecasts for it. Today, with everything available online, items can be placed into programs without the suppliers' knowledge, and this can lead to problems when items are not forecast and then discontinued.

So how do you work together to ensure successful programs and prevent some of these issues? The short answer is constant communication—using technology and some old-fashioned touch.

There are many products that a buyer will see in their everyday life, and they will know their value, but there will always be some that they don't know or that they would like to learn more about. There is also one of the most underrated elements of choosing the right products, and that is the relationship between the supplier and the buyer.

Technology is great and it allows you to gather information and put programs together, but where it falls short is when things go wrong. That is where the old-fashioned touch comes in. You need that person to contact to help you solve a problem. It could be a late or lost shipment, something suddenly out of stock or discontinued, a price that doesn't match the PO, finding an appropriate sub—you want someone to talk to.