Magazine Article | July 21, 2009

Real-Time Data Aids Mobile Sales Force

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Forney Industries reduced sales calls by more than two hours by implementing a real-time catalog and inventory control system.

Integrated Solutions, July/August 2009
Mobile computing technology has helped revolutionize the way salespeople operate in the field. Being able to access product information and upload customer orders remotely has made these road warriors more efficient than ever before. But with mobile technology evolving so rapidly, a mobile sales automation tool can quickly become obsolete. These mobile applications should be revisited and updated on a regular basis, or else you'll find your mobile sales team falling behind the competition.

That's what happened to Fort Collins, CO-based Forney Industries, a leading distributor of metalworking and welding products, abrasives and cutting wheels, pneumatic tools, and other equipment. The company deployed a mobile computing solution more than a decade ago to help its 92 sales reps and regional managers as they traveled across the country visiting more than 11,500 retail and warehouse customers. Unfortunately, the system was showing its age.

The company sells its products to hardware, automotive, farm and ranch, and other retail outlets like Ace Hardware, NAPA, and True Value. Under its previous system, sales representatives would visit the store carrying a 40-page inventory folder. Orders were taken down by hand during sales calls that could last several hours and then entered into a portable data terminal each evening before being uploaded to Forney's central computer system via a dial-up connection. "They would do their sales route during the day, then have to put in another 2 to 3 hours punching in orders at night," says Kim Probst, senior executive assistant at Forney and program manager for the mobile sales solution.

It could take as long as 48 hours for orders to make it to Forney's warehouses in Fort Collins and Horseheads, NY. Rekeying mistakes in the field often led to the wrong item or the wrong quantity being delivered to the customers, which delayed payments and created headaches for the customer service team. The portable data terminals were also starting to fail, and the original manufacturer no longer supported the units.

Forney needed a real-time solution that would eliminate the paper-based ordering system, reduce errors, and improve sales efficiency. The company turned to inCode, an Alpharetta, GA-based consulting firm, for help. inCode designed a system built around Intermec Technologies' Windows-based CN3 ruggedized mobile computer and AT&T's Edge and 3G wireless networks. inCode also designed a real-time catalog and inventory control system using Dexterra's Concert mobile application development platform.

Forney began training its sales team on the new system in September 2007, starting with six representatives who were brought in to test the initial application. The rest of the mobile units were rolled out by region, and the system went live in November 2007. "Training was the biggest hurdle," Probst says. "We had to make sure the training program was a very open and positive experience. Some of the sales folks have been here 20 years or more, and many of them were nervous about the new system."

When a salesperson arrives at a customer location, they can now access the entire product catalog on the mobile unit. Using the built-in bar code scanner in the CN3, reps can scan products already on the shelves and build the customer order based on existing inventory. They can also add new items to an order at the store or delete a product that is no longer carried by that retailer. The application alerts sales reps if they've forgotten to scan a particular item typically carried by that customer.

Sales calls have been cut from 3 hours to just 20 minutes, allowing Forney personnel to visit as many as 10 stores a day (up from a maximum of six stores in the past). Orders are transmitted to the warehouse instantaneously, and a copy of the order is emailed to the customer at the same time, which helps prevent errors in the ordering process."The biggest improvement is that the system eliminates a huge number of errors," Probst says. "The old system allowed the reps to enter duplicate numbers. Human errors still occur, but this has saved us a lot of time in processing orders at the office." Since they no longer have to transmit orders at night, the sales reps have cut their work time from 10 to 12 hours down to 8, resulting in more time to prospect for new customers.

This improvement in efficiency has been better for the salespeople (who can spend more time with their families) and for customers. "The customers like it," Probst says. "We can provide reports on their order history, and the rep can email a copy of the order the customer just placed while they're in the store. We've gotten a good response on that, because the customer can look at the order while the sales rep is still there."

Forney and inCode have made just a few minor changes to the application since it was initially deployed. Probst says the company is now exploring some of the other capabilities of the Windows-based mobile computer, such as leveraging the unit's email and Microsoft Office functions. "We know the capability is there, so why not use it?" Probst says. "The unit can do a lot more than just produce an order."