Joe Killory, general sales manager of Castriota Chevrolet in Hudson, Fla., has an unusual way of saying good morning to his sales force. He says he zaps them with his hand-held computer as they come through the door.
By 'zapping,' Killory means he beams a message - such as the latest factory incentives or sales goals - from his hand-held unit to the salesperson's hand-held computer, an Electronic Coach Apple MessagePad equipped with software designed by Infinity Systems One Inc. of Perrysburg, Ohio. Salespeople at Castriota Chevrolet are not allowed to come to work without the Electronic Coach.
This is not a scene from 'Star Trek.' It is an example of what the latest hand-held computers can do for a dealership sales force. Though new to auto sales, hand-held computers have been used in other industries for years. The transmission of messages operates using an infrared beam, just like a TV remote-control device.
The few dealers who use it say the hand-held computer will become an essential automotive sales tool over the next few years.
PERFORMS MANY TASKS
The computers not only keep the sales force informed of incentive programs but allow them to search an up-to-date list of inventory. Salespeople can record customer data and print follow-up letters. The units also offer a calendar, day book, Rolodex and customer profiles.
The computers track sales activity and, after downloading to the dealership's central computer system, can be used to generate reports for management showing what the sales force has accomplished on a daily basis.
The units are activated with a pen. The commands are either handwritten or typed in on a keyboard that pops up on a screen.
In the six months Castriota Chevrolet has used the Electronic Coach, sales have increased about 10 percent, and the close ratio has improved substantially. Instead of the former 25 percent close rate, the store now closes 35 percent of its sales prospects. Killory attributes the improvement to the hand-held computer's customer follow-up features.
The Electronic Coach has at least two competitors: Sales Manager, which is produced by Universal Computer Systems of Houston, and SalesLink, which operates on a 3Com PalmPilot computer. SalesLink was developed by sales consulting firm Jeff Sacks and Associates of LaJolla, Calif., and is marketed through Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Troy, Mich.
$4,700 TO $7,700
The Electronic Coach has been around the longest, just six months. Infinity Systems One has more than 500 units in the field. The Electronic Coach generated about $600,000 in revenues in 1997, and the company projects $1.2 million in sales in 1998, says spokesman Dave Dimmer. The price per unit, depending on quantity ordered, ranges from about $4,700 to $7,700 over a three-year lease.
Sales Manager is still being tested, and SalesLink has been on the market for a couple of months. EDS has sold four SalesLink Systems. The desktop system, linking software and five PalmPilot units, sell for $14,990.
Features vary, though the devices provide the same basic functions:
Sales Manager and Electronic Coach provide training and scripts that walk salespeople through the sale.
Sales Manager performs visual presentations and allows the salesperson to communicate with a sales manager from a remote location.
'The (dealership) sales manager is notified by a pop-up window (on his computer) at his desk that there is an incoming offer. He can work the offer on the PC and submit it back to the salesperson. The salesperson never has to leave the prospect,' says Monica Gallamore, a marketing representative for Universal Computer Systems.
Size and portability make the devices attractive to dealers. The largest of the three is the Sales Manager, just a bit smaller than a laptop computer. The Electronic Coach is a notebook computer, and the SalesLink is wallet-sized.
Dealers seem attracted to the convenient size of SalesLink. But generally, the bigger the computer, the more powerful and the more advanced are the features. The next generation of the Electronic Coach is expected to be smaller.
'The PalmPilot fits in your pocket,' says Mike Johnson, dealer principal for Durand Chevrolet-Pontiac-Oldsmobile Inc. in Durand, Mich., who is testing SalesLink before introducing it to his sales force. He wants a device as small as possible so the sales force can use it to sell cars on the lot or off-site.
WILL ENTHUSIASM LAST?
While dealers call the devices phenomenal, there is a potential drawback. Like any other new technology, the sales force could put it on a shelf a few months after the initial excitement fades.
'We have had the Electronic Coaches six months, and the salespeople like them. But it is a chore to get them to use them. It hasn't affected our sales,' says Doug Chase, sales manager of Jim Rathman Chevrolet in Melborne, Fla.
Still, there is a cure for lax behavior. Killory has rigged the Electronic Coach units so that they shut down if the sales force fails to download information before they leave for the evening.
'A salesperson can't greet a customer without the Electronic Coach,' says Killroy. 'It is part of the job description.'