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Beyond Contact Management

Carpet maker Beaulieu Group has equipped its sales force with order-processing mobile software

Sales-force-automation software loaded on laptops and PDAs has mostly been used for personal productivity, helping salespeople manage contacts, appointments, and to-do lists. Now some businesses are taking mobility in a different direction, equipping their sales forces with software that takes orders and begins processing them on the spot, bypassing productivity-draining paperwork and getting orders rolling faster.

Carpet company Beaulieu Group LLC in February began equipping its commercial-accounts sales staff with an order-entry and customer-service application that was custom developed by Optimus Solutions, and now 250 of its salespeople are on the system. Previously, orders had to be written out at a customer's site, such as at Home Depot or Lowe's stores, both of which are Beaulieu customers, and entered into the company's system after the salesperson returned to the office. Orders then went to the company's central office, where clerical workers keyed them into an order-processing system. "Our salespeople used to spend more time doing administrative work than selling," says Tom Barge, Beaulieu's VP of information services.

The Optimus application resides on Sprint Pocket PCs, carried by each salesperson. Besides entering purchase orders, they can wirelessly access the company's pricing databases and make changes to orders over Sprint's PCS Vision cellular network, which tunnels the information to Beaulieu's internal network via a data link. The software also works in a disconnected mode so a salesperson can download prices to their Pocket PC and take orders offline, then wirelessly sync their data changes and updates later, if wireless connectivity is an issue at a customer's site. "This has definitely improved the way we deal with customers," Barge says, adding that the process cuts out a full weekday that salespeople previously had spent doing paperwork.

Beaulieu salespeople can download prices and take orders offline on handhelds

Beaulieu salespeople can download prices and take orders offline on handhelds.

Beaulieu's approach to sales-force automation is unusual in the retail industry. "It's typical for sales reps to update deal stages and manage contacts on a BlackBerry or a Pocket PC, but it's not typical for order-taking," says Forrester Research analyst Liz Herbert. Order-entry applications are more common in field services, such as home-appliance maintenance and in the pharmaceutical industry.

Vendors of sales-force-automation software typically offer mobile software that's centered around contact management, with order entry offered as a custom add-on. But Beaulieu didn't want that. "We know who our customers are and really have no need for contact management," Barge says.

The carpet company isn't alone. With the continuing decline in the cost of mobile hardware, improvements in wireless network bandwidth, and greater availability of mobile apps, more businesses will be looking to supply salespeople with tools that do exactly what they need, rather than a one-size-fits-all package.

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