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November 19, 1997updated 03 Sep 2016 7:15pm

DEATH OF THE SALESMAN

By CBR Staff Writer

In the future, there will be no salespeople. Or if there are, they will be CGI-generated holograms, not living, breathing expense-account abusing carbon units. This from former Gartner Group analyst turned marketing man Bill Hopkins, who claims to have found the only company to be able to achieve this semi- desirable end, Smart Technologies Inc, of Austin, Texas. One says semi-desirable because we all know that sales people are incredibly valuable elements of business life, and that some of my best friends, etc. But the thing about technology is that its applications seem endless, reaching into areas that one would never have thought a computer would be able to make a contribution. And while no-one wants to throw people out of employment for no good reason, sales people are by their very nature expensive, requiring lots of commission checks for the service they provide, at least at the enterprise level, where they do so much good in terms of nurturing and maintaining relationships.

By Gary Flood

However, lower down the value chain, the same evolutionary challenge that faced secretaries in the 1970s is now swinging its hammer shaped head around to the sales people who do the grunt work of selling – taking down customer details, processing orders, what have you. The web offers the prime medium, it would seem, to make sure that when a customer or potential consumer opens a dialogue with your company, by utilizing technology such as databases we can make sure the company maximizes its opportunity to sell to, or retain, this particular individual. Anyone who does even the most cursory web shopping, for cheap flights or discount hotel rooms or books or CDs, is used to filling in profile forms, and typing in a password so that when you return, the site knows something about your preferences (or at least calls you by your right name!). But how primitive this is compared to how it could be. Which brings us back to the death of the salesman – web-style. Hopkins in June left his position as Research Director for Gartner Group’s Marketing Knowledge and Technology practice to take up the job of Senior VP Marketing for two year old Texan start up Smart, claiming that what induced him to leave his sinecure was the fact that he’d finally found a company that incarnated a lot of the visionary e-commerce ideas he’d been kicking around. The idea is encapsulated in the term Enterprise Relationship Management, an area describing software for managing transactions among enterprises, their customers, business partners, suppliers and employers. Hopkins believes the impact on the traditional consumer-company relationship from ERM will be at least as significant in its own way as ATM machines have been to the profession of being a bank teller. ERM software such as Smart’s is claimed to offer a mission critical business model for the internet, via a single point of access, universal database connectivity, and an open, and allegedly highly scalable (though based on NT rather than Unix), architecture.

Islands of automation

In essence, it’s a way of gaining and maintaining information about customers’ demographics, spending habits, product interests, support issues, and so forth, uniting front end and back office information about the customer to improve the buying process, using a browser. Existing solutions, says Hopkins, create too many islands of automation, with data about a customer somewhere in the ether between the help desk, the customer service and support function, the e-commerce application, the sales management team, the core business enterprise applications (SAP etc.). Though most can remember your name or what’s in your shopping bag for that visit, few do little more to make it a compelling shopping experience. The claim is a more holistic approach (when did they last request technical support? signed up for a seminar? how good a customer are they?) is needed for the web-aware world of the future. Smart Technologies was created two years ago with the merger of two separate companies, MIS2 Inc and NetTools Inc, two long-standing sales force automation (SFA) developers and partners. The leaders of both firms seem to have decided that the SFA technologies of 1995 would never attain what they wanted from them, so they spent the last two years not just web-enabling their existing software, but develop a whole new engine to try and revolutionize customer to supplier relationships as suggested by the web. The resulting product, the Smart Enterprise Customer Interaction System, is a hub claimed to offer a synthesis of what was previously delivered by point solutions to customer interaction, such as e-commerce, call centres, targeting and personalization engines, and good old SFA itself. Smart also offers so-say Smart Touchpoints, applications for customer selection, acquisition, support and loyalty, using Smart DNA (Distributed Nonproprietary Architecture), now up to its fourth release, an offering promising a highly scalable (Hopkins talks calmly of millions of users) framework. This gathers relevant information from separate internal databases, supposedly without re-engineering, working through a standard web browser, promising further no software to download or plug-in to configure. It also integrates with enterprise software from players like SAP AG, Vantive Corp, Siebel Systems Inc, OpenMarket Inc, Calico Technology Inc and iChat Inc. Included is a Trend Database (for storing user profiles) and a Personal Marketing Rules Editor to determine which particular ads or other information is most appropriate for that particular customer. Based on open standards including Java and Corba, and Microsoft ones such as DCOM and ActiveX, the system also claims seven levels of security.

Inriguing backers and leaders

The company, totally invisible as it has been up until now, seems well placed to make good on some of all these brave words. Having grown from six to 145 employees in two years, with claimed 1997 revenue of $10m (on top of a total of $15.4m worth of venture capital raised in two rounds, April and October), the company has been able to attract some intriguing backers and leaders. Its investors include Austin Ventures, Internet Capital Group, Origin Partners, LP/Technology Development Corporation, and Imperial Bank, for instance, and its chairman is founder and former CEO of Tandem Computers Inc Jimmy Treybig, previously at VC superstars Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers and now a partner at Austin Ventures. Every start up company has to have, by some unalterable law of Marketing 101, some staggering statistics about the potential size of the target market. Smart obliges with numbers from not Gartner, but Forrester Research and IDC. The former, well, hmm, gives us a figure of $8bn’s worth of goods and services traded over the internet this year, and if that seems a tad high, try an upper end of $327bn within five years. IDC’s (indirect) help in hyping Smart’s idea comes in the form of stating that suites for customer relationship software is a smaller proportion of the overall market than point solutions, but that growing by 40% a year, from today’s $740m total for 1996. Plus, using figures that just scream to be poked and prodded, the August consulting firm is telling us that companies can expect anywhere from 50% to 90% savings if they let their customers serve themselves over the web. If all this seems a little blue sky, Smart has at least identified five companies as using its software, though those companies, due to the competitive edge element, are being tightlipped as to what they are actually using it for. These are Apple Computer Inc, Compaq Computer Corp, Minolta Corp (https://www.minoltaprinters.com), and the Softbank Corp subsidiary Ziff-Davis Communications Inc (for its NetBuyer site, at https://www.netbuyer.com). The company claims to have won such clients after investigating the potential for such solutions within Fortune 1000 companies with both high investments in IT and a lot of tremendous amount of interaction with customers. With Compaq, for example, the company claims to have built a customer interaction component on top of its famed built-to-order system (CI No 3,201), integrating apps from SAP, Siebel, Vantive and Calico. This is supposed to have been so successful overall that the company has moved its internal sales target upward by $10bn for the year 2000, from $40bn to $50bn.

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Higher end of the customer roster

If that kind of figure suggests that Smart is aiming for the higher end of the customer roster, you’d be right – especially given that it has lined up as its prime delivery vector blue-chip systems integrators and consultancy partners such as Andersen Consulting, Ernst & Young LLP, and KPMG. Hand over the keys – it’s time to let the customer drive, is the company motto, which neatly brings us back to Hopkins’ imaginary future customer- salesperson transaction. Given that the biggest movie in the US two weekends ago was the scifi gorefest Starship Troopers, Hopkins playfully invites one to consider how real the Bugs were in that movie, and how far we are really from computer generated avatars being the company face of perhaps the very near future. Imagine buying your Harley, then having something go wrong with it, he says, So you go complain on the web to the guy who sold it to you via streaming or video compression, get a promise to fix it… then walk outside and see the real guy driving down the Pacific Highway on his own hog. Was that him or a computer version you just spoke to? Hopkins shrugs that what is important is whether or not you got your problem solved, not whether the fellow was a real Sales Joe or an anthropomorphic graphical simulacrum. Similarly, when ATMs started, there was some worry about whether customers would trust them or if they really preferred human interaction. Seems we’d all agree that in terms of convenience, speed, and reliability, we’ve all grown pretty used to the idea of doing a fair amount of our banking transactions with machines. Will Smart be the first company to achieve the same breakthrough in web commerce? Potentially, despite the hype (for instance, there is precious little technical meat in a lot of the marketing collateral, and five customers in two years, even though they may cut you big cheques, is not an awful lot really). But with Dell blazing the way, there does seem to be a real trend toward real selling of goods over the internet, and Smart Technologies may well be ideally placed to ride that rising tide. And – whisper it – would we really all be so much worse off without all those telesales folks?

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