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A selling tonic

Pepsi Bottling Group turns to a handheld device to help its reps sell smarter

Consider the many permutations of a bottle of Pepsi. You can buy a big two-liter container, or a six pack, or a half case of cans, or a single can, or even those new cute 8 ouncers. Consider further: all those choices add up to a lot of data -- different SKUs, order information, promotional ideas, and inventory management, for example. That's a significant load for a sales rep to carry, and it's just the beginning. The 6,000 reps for Pepsi Bottling Group (PBG), the $10.5 billion spin off of Pepsi Co, are responsible not just for Pepsi, but for lines like Mountain Dew, Aquafina water and Dole juices. They face a difficult management task: Organizing and using a vast and ever-growing pile of information on issues ranging from upcoming Pepsi promotions to delivery schedules.

To sort out this mess, PBG has expanded the use of handheld technology from its traditional stronghold on the inventory side of the supply chain, piloting a new handheld application for its sales force. The application, call Power Presell, is a customized version of SmartSelling, sales force automation software from Shelflink, a Cambridge, Mass.-based software company started by Nantucket Nectar founders Tom First and Tom Scott. The program, which is based on Microsoft's .Net framework, will run on a custom-built handheld device from Symbol Technologies. At around 14 ounces, it's relatively lightweight. The idea is to give sales reps insights into how to sell into individual stores by marshalling a host of data, such as selling history, demographic information, delivery schedules and inventory history, says Larry Trainor, the vice president of engineering at Shelflink.

Most reps currently rely on a cumbersome collection of training materials, promotional binders and brochures to keep track of the various promotions that Pepsi plans to run. For example, reps tend to come out of the regular sales meetings with big binders full of new information. All of that information is now being put into flash media format, and reps will be able to access it from their handheld devices. But the application is more than a paper replacement project. The device draws on a hoard of information that is analyzed in a back end data warehouse and gives advice on everything from suggested quantities of different beverages to new selling opportunities targeted to individual stores.

"The key piece is suggested ordering," says Trainor. "Analysis on the back end will drive suggested order quantities on the device. It allows the sales rep to see the previous order history of the client and suggest the best case quantities based on that information. It draws on sales history to take seasonal issues into account. For example, it would know when a delivery cycle includes a holiday such as July 4th and will suggest higher orders as a result."

The other important factor is the software's ability to prompt reps on selling opportunities that it arrives at by crunching numbers on local demographics and the ordering history of each client. By pulling relevant data from the back end data warehouse, the application knows what a store does and doesn't carry, and can bubble up initiatives to drive new products into a store.

"A good example is Mountain Dew," says Trainor. "If you go into a Wal-Mart near the University of Texas, the application will be smart enough to say, 'This story doesn't stock Mountain Dew Code Red, and based on our analysis, this is a very popular beverage for the college crowd.'"

According to Warren Wilson, practice director at Summit Strategies, a consultancy in Boston, Mass., the PBG project illustrates how corporations can drive vital business information out to its front lines. "It gives field workers access to sophisticated data analysis tools that in the past have been limited to the desktop," he says. "Doing that achieves efficiencies and productivity gains that carry straight to the bottom line."

The application also has the ability to look at the delivery data on each client on a sales rep's route, giving the rep added ammo when asked about missing merchandise. "Say a delivery truck tried to bring in product and was refused for whatever reason," says Trainor. "The manager sees empty shelves and will likely want to know why. Instead of making a bunch of frantic phone calls, the sales rep can now look at the device and see that a delivery was attempted, and was refused by so and so, and that's why they have limited stock. It gives power to the rep."

Reps can add information into the application, too, such as selling tips for each store, or the loading and delivery preferences of each client. This centralized knowledge base makes it easy for reps to substitute for each other, or pick up a new route cold. And finally, the application keeps track of sales and compares giving the reps good insight into how to meet their yearly quotas. "It's done in such a way that the reps aren't threatened," says Trainor. "Instead, we provide opportunities to close the gaps. If a rep is behind 100 cases in one store, for example, the application will present the targeted promotions that it thinks will go over well in that store."

Wilson notes that although PBG is on the leading edge of this technology, they are not alone. "The large enterprises facing intense competitive pressure in the marketplaces are increasingly willing to adopt solutions like this," he says.

SmartSelling has been through one pilot in Texas, and Trainor says that its slated for another in New England before gradually being rolled out across the sales force. Response has been generally positive. "We aren't about how to do automated order taking," he says. "We need to go beyond that to selling smarter. It's a huge advantage."

Wilson agrees. "Assuming that this delivers the kind of results that Pepsi expects, I think it will be an important proof point for the ability of wireless to engender cost savings and increase revenues," he says.

Pepsi will drink to that.

About the author: Carol Hildebrand is a freelance writer in Wellesley, Mass.

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