The image of the bedraggled traveling salesman is a unique part of Americana - but it is one that is fast becoming out of date.
Once wearied by mountains of paperwork that piled up during long trips away from the office, the salesman of a few years ago was beset by organizational problems as much as by the task of trying to sell merchandise. Today, salespeople arm themselves with dozens of new gadgets to keep them in touch with the home office and increase efficiency.
At least that's the idea behind "sales force automation," the business world's code name for this technology build-up.
But do these gadgets - databases, modems, faxes, cellphones - make salespeople's lives easier, or do they just create more problems with even more batteries and adapters?
At a sales-force automation exposition held here recently, the answer was abundantly clear.
"There's definitely a real need for all this," says Terry Gilligan, an attendee who works for Tom Snyder Products, a firm based in Watertown, Mass., which sells technology like CD-ROMs to schools. "I'm looking for things that will help me better serve ... and increase time with the customer."
"Time" was the magic word at the show. At booth after booth, the refrain was, "We understand your time is valuable."
How valuable? How much would a salesman pay for, say, 94 seconds? CardScan hopes the answer is $299.
The Cambridge, Mass., company sells a paperback book-sized machine with software for that price. The device scans business cards and then puts all the card's information in a Rolodex-style computer file. It takes 1 minute 48 seconds to type the information on a normal business card into a database. It took the CardScan 14 seconds.
But wait, there's more.
The show had gadgets galore. Perhaps the pice de rsistance was a phone that's also a pager and a fax. A product of Unwired Planet Inc. in Redwood Shores, Calif., it can receive and transmit e-mail and access the Internet as well.
When asked if the phone could download the latest European soccer results from the World Wide Web, the saleswoman admitted that it can only access sites that are published in a specific format, but anyone can configure any Web site to meet these demands.
Oh well. Apparently it's difficult to escape "some assembly required" in one form or another. But in the end, almost everyone agrees, the technology is worth the trouble.
"It greatly reduces work, which increases creativity," says Christina Smith, a saleswoman for publisher Random House. "If you're doing research, it takes out the travel time, and that gives you more time for other things."
The idea behind the souped-up phone and many of the other products is to complement the "virtual office," says Pete Ferrari, another of the phone's promoters.
"The virtual office is a new concept designed to empower salespeople with all of the information they would have if they were at their desk," he says.
So, is it time for a virtual salesperson as well?
Not yet, Mr. Gilligan says. He insists that the technology is a tool for salespeople to help their customers. New programs can tell him the last time he talked to a certain customer, what their needs are, and what their budget is, for example. This way, he says, he can avoid wasting time asking questions that can easily be answered by a computer.
Harvey Mackay, author of the best-selling book "Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," says these are some of the reasons companies must automate or be left behind. "If companies do not know about the technical revolution, then there's no question about it, they will not be able to compete."