MULTICHANNEL MARKETING: Sales teams field Web growth

B-to-b mailers emphasize the continued importance of the human touch

Forrester Research predicts that U.S. b-to-b e-commerce revenue will hit $1.3 trillion over the next three years, compared to $108 billion in consumer e-commerce revenue.

As a result, some b-to-b catalogers hope to cut back on catalog pages and reduce their print circulation in favor of their more efficient Web businesses. But of those employing field sales reps, few seem willing to reduce the size of that work force.

A number of b-to-b catalogers believe the Web simply can’t replace the personalized service of a field sales team. “Customers want attention. They want that arm put around them, so field sales are the backbone of what we do,” says Rick Coalter, director of marketing for Scarsdale, NY-based plumbing supplies cataloger J.A. Sexauer.

In light of this, the $76 million Sexauer, which produces a 1,400-plus-page master catalog every other year and three smaller specialty books a year, has no plans to scale back its field sales staff of 200. “We do see more people buying out of catalogs and our Website,” Coalter says, “but we also see the continued need for our salespeople….When you’re talking repair parts, customers need to see the types available and have their uses demonstrated.”

Many catalogers serving high-tech industries are also retaining sales forces. Bankers Systems, a $115 million cataloger of financial software and printed forms, has found that field sales reps armed with catalogs sell its products most effectively. The St. Cloud, MN-based cataloger, which has 100 field sales reps and another 50 inhouse telesales reps, has no plans to cut any of its sales team, says director of corporate marketing Peggy Wilson.

Although Bankers Systems’ Web catalog is fully transactional, Wilson says the company relies on the Web more for software fulfillment than for selling. “Most of our products are high-technology software, and that requires face-to-face selling” for product demonstrations, she says. “The product is complicated, and is only becoming more complicated. E-commerce doesn’t bring much value to the process of explaining it to customers.”

“Field salespeople need to add value beyond what can be done either in catalogs or on the Internet,” agrees Chaz Henry, vice president of configurator sales at Clarify, a San Jose, CA-based customer relationship management software firm. With so much information already available on catalogers’ Websites, the role of field sales these days goes well beyond “you pick it, you got it” selling, Henry says. “That doesn’t add any value. The best use of field sales teams is to move into more complex products that can’t be explained so easily on the Web.”

A matter of customer preference

Like other marketers of complex products, $7 billion printing equipment company Unisys Direct relies on its field salespeople to demonstrate its wares. But last year the Blue Bell, PA-based firm analyzed its selling scheme, polled customers, and decided that its 1,200 field salespeople needed to focus more heavily on customers from larger companies. Now Unisys’s sales force spends most of its time with the top 1,000 accounts.

“We are going to use the Web and telesales as channels to make it easier for customers, but we’re not going to try to channel them to the Web and away from our salesmen,” says spokesman Jay Grossman. Unisys’s transactional Website was launched a few years ago.

At R.S. Means, which sells cost manuals for construction professionals, “bigger jobs are automatically referred to our salespeople; the catalog and our Website serve only smaller jobs,” says direct mail manager Murray Smith Jr. “The salespeople may use the catalog for lead generation or referrals.”

In addition to demonstrating and explaining products, field salespeople can also “go high or low” in setting prices with individual customers – a distinct advantage, Sexauer’s Coalter notes, “because when you publish a price in a catalog, you’ve set the bar and can only drop the price from there.” Even though you can make frequent changes to the content on a Web catalog, you still risk putting off customers if you try to raise prices over the prices originally posted on the sites, he says.

A more elementary factor also keeps Coalter bullish on field sales: A number of Sexauer’s customers aren’t yet on the ‘Net. The cataloger’s primary audience of hospitals and schools notwithstanding, “many of our customers are small mom-and-pop hotels, apartment building superintendents, and others that may not have access to the Internet.”

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