Computers Help Sales Force Keep Foot in the Door

AT first glance, Ron Van Orden's office of the future looks a lot like his Chevrolet Celebrity. Nothing special about his car. Mr. Van Orden, a salesman with American Telephone & Telegraph Company, doesn't even have a car-phone. But a laptop computer and a portable printer have catapulted him into a new way of doing business. ``In the course of a day I end up doing a lot more than I used to,'' he says.

AT&T calls this concept the ``virtual office.'' Its aim: Move sales people out of the office and in front of the customer. AT&T's push into portable computing is part of a general move by American business to change the way people work. In a Computerworld survey last month, 86 percent of top corporate executives said that carefully targeted computer projects are re-engineering their workplace.

Low productivity gain

In the 1980s, businesses in the United States invested heavily in desktop computers with disappointing results. Office productivity barely moved up. Thus these companies are targeting their computer investments a lot more carefully these days.

``People were starry-eyed a couple of years ago,'' says Joe Maglitta, a senior editor with Computerworld. Now, ``people are becoming more realistic about what they can accomplish with information technology.''

The results can be surprising.

On this particular Friday morning, Van Orden drives to the Wallace College Book Company in Lexington, Ky. He carries no briefcase inside, only a black carrying case with a laptop computer inside. The call is routine. The company has been billed incorrectly. Van Orden corrects the bills, popping open his computer at one point to retrieve the correct tax rates for various classes of calls. Back in his car, he types a reminder on his computer scheduler to mail the company literature on a new toll-free serv ice. ``If you don't have a desk anymore, you don't have the incentive to go there and sit,'' he says.

The technology shines best when the unexpected occurs. On a recent visit to one of his customers, a local catalog merchandiser, company officials suddenly asked for an AT&T proposal to expand their telemarketing center. They needed it that day.

Before the virtual office, Van Orden would have had to gather the company's ideas quickly and dash back to the office to look through manuals to come up with a proposal. This time, he stayed put, used his laptop to dial into one of AT&T's numerous mainframe systems, and retrieved the information on-line. Total time to finish the proposal was just 4-1/2 hours - with the customer.

``This one particular appointment has justified all this,'' he says, pointing to his laptop.

So far, AT&T says customer contacts are up an average 20 percent for the 2,600 salespeople with the technology. AT&T is equipping its entire network services sales force - 10,000 people - with portable computers and printers. Although costs of the new technology run into the tens of millions of dollars, the company expects to recoup its investment within a year by downsizing the office space it leases.

US companies from sports-shoe manufacturers to printing firms have also begun to use the technology. The salespeople at Ciba-Geigy Corporation, the pharmaceutical and specialty chemicals company, use laptops for such things as placing orders and obtaining product and pricing information. A survey of senior information-systems executives last fall found that 44 percent planned to make major investments in that area this year.

Office as `drop-in center'

By virtually eliminating the office, AT&T is pushing into new territory. ``We are asking people to make a major change in the way they think,'' says Roger Dalrymple, manager of AT&T's information technology division. Sales offices, for example, will become drop-in centers - ``like coffee-shop areas,'' he says.

Sales managers face as big a change, Mr. Dalrymple adds. Because workers won't be together in an office, managers can't walk around to keep up with what's going on. That will mean more formal meetings with salespeople.

Surprisingly, to reach Van Orden a caller leaves a message in his voice mail, which he retrieves on the road. Equipping him with wireless communication is the next step, Dalrymple says, to be taken perhaps a year from now.

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