You might think that a field sales force would have little to gain from a customer relationship management (CRM) solution. After all, they're in constant face-to-face contact with their customers, not stuck in an anonymous call centre.
Yet the sales team at Vita Thermoplastic Compounds (VTC) is finding that replacing pen-and-paper-based processes with a CRM system is giving them access to a new level of market and customer intelligence, helping them to win new business and serve existing customers better.
VTC, part of the British Vita group, blends and manufactures specialist thermoplastic compounds for extrusion and moulding by clients in industries as diverse as automotive, packaging and construction. One of the largest independent compounding companies in the UK, VTC has grown rapidly over the past few years and now boasts a turnover of £120m and a workforce of 650 staff across six sites in the UK and two in France.
The company's operations are run as specialised independent business units, with many customers dealing with more than one division. However, before the CRM system was implemented, sales staff often didn't know much - if anything - about the dealings their opposite numbers in another business unit were having with the same clients.
"We had systems for functions such as accounts, payroll and stock control, but when it came to knowing the market we were working in, we were running off bits of paper," explains Chris Hopkinson, VTC's managing director. "That approach simply wasn't allowing us to get the most out of the information our sales people were picking up."
It was clear to Hopkinson that the company was missing out on opportunities to acquire, retain and develop customers. What it needed was a system common to all business units which would allow sales staff to access all the intelligence about a customer generated within the company.
Because VTC was running off simple, paper-based systems, Hopkinson knew he needed a solution which wouldn't be too complicated and could be picked up easily by users with only basic IT skills. However, he also wanted a product with the potential to provide more functionality in the future.
"We wanted a system that would allow us to start by implementing and using only the bits that are key, but also to phase in further elements in a controlled fashion and allow us to bring people on at their own pace and drive the implementation forward in our own time," Hopkinson says.
Although the system would initially be installed in the UK, he expected to eventually extend it to the French operations as well.
Furthermore, because VTC is a relatively small operation - with a total field sales team of 35 and a small IT team - Hopkinson knew he needed a software partner that would understand the company's needs in the short term and be willing to stick with the project over the longer term. A review of the CRM marketplace led the firm to Selligent, on the grounds of functionality, price and implementation ability.
In the first phase, it has concentrated on implementing the front-end of the Selligent solution, tackling areas such as automating visit reports and other contact records. The company has also developed a number of functions specific to its industry sector, including a way to gather together market intelligence to profile its market presence relative to the large number of competitors.
"We're trying to create a full picture of the market from many pieces," Hopkinson says. "It's like trying to do a jigsaw without having the picture on the box and the Selligent solution has made it easier to construct that picture and report on our market position."
With Selligent offering a low cost per seat, VTC has already been able to recoup its investment, even though it has been live for just nine months.
"Given the nature of our business, even a relatively small sale will justify the cost," explains Hopkinson. "We know we've already been able to open up opportunities in one business unit based on contacts made by another where we wouldn't have been sharing that knowledge without Selligent."
However, the biggest benefits have been the most intangible, involving changes to the culture of the organisation, such as a greater willingness to search out and share customer information.
"For instance, sales staff going to see a new customer which already trades with another unit are now comfortable to call their opposite number in that business unit and find out what the customer is like and how best to deal with them," Hopkinson says.
He had no trouble getting staff to accept the switch from pen and paper to computer. That's because Selligent offers functions which are of benefit to individual users, such as diary management, integration with e-mail and document templates which cut down on the typing they have to do. By linking these into the other aspects of the CRM solution, Hopkinson has been able to get staff to enter customer and market intelligence - which will benefit the company over the longer term - without them feeling they are throwing data into a black hole and never getting anything back.
Hopkinson warns that for companies like VTC, which rely on personal selling, it's important to remember that sales staff will have different approaches to selling and will want to use the CRM solution in different ways.
"You have to understand what makes people tick and you can't simply give them a standard solution and expect them to get on with it," Hopkinson argues. "At the same time, you need to find a balance between what they want and the corporate objectives of the project."
VTC has now embarked on a second phase of implementation which will see Selligent integrated with back-office systems to give the sales force more information on customers, such as details of samples provided to them and reports on the progress of development projects being undertaken for them.
VTC, part of the British Vita group, blends and manufactures specialist thermoplastic compounds for extrusion and moulding by clients in industries as diverse as automotive, packaging and construction. The company's operations are run as specialised independent business units, with many customers dealing with more than one division. The CRM solution:
What CRM does for VTC
- Has helped VTC tackle areas such as automating visit reports and other contact records. The company has also developed functions specific to its sector, including gathering market intelligence to profile market presence or share relative to its competitors
- Increased the willingness to share customer information - sales staff going to see a new customer that already trades with another unit can find out what the person is like and how best to deal with them
- Benefits individual users by offering functions such as diary management, integration with e-mail and document templates which cut down on typing. By linking these into other aspects of the CRM solution, staff enter customer and market intelligence without feeling data is going into a black hole
- In a second phase of implementation the Selligent solution will be integrated with back-office systems to give the sales force more information on customers, such as details of samples provided and reports on the progress of development projects being undertaken.