E-Mail Gets Thumbs-Up from Buyers, Sellers

Edition: April 2002 - Vol 10 Number 04
Article#: 1205
Author: Repertoire

Despite all the hubbub about the Internet and electronic commerce, the real action in cyberspace is e-mail. Simple, low-tech, but effective. While doctors and patients work out the ground rules for this new means of communication (See related story on page 52), sales reps and customers are feeling their way around the issue as well.

In this month's E-Vent, we asked readers of MDSI's Dail-E News to tell us how much e-mail figures into their supply chain relationships. We found out that most of the sales reps, manufacturers, manufacturers' reps and providers who responded to our questions think that e-mail does indeed enhance their productivity and service to their customers. Here's how some of them answered our questions.

How much time do you (or your reps) spend a week responding to e-mail? Over the past 12 months, has [this] increased, decreased or stayed the same?
A majority said they spend more time responding to e-mails now than they did a year ago. Still, a healthy minority noticed no difference over the past 12 months. None noticed a dropoff in time spent. Their estimates of time spent per week varied widely. One answered 10 minutes, another said 40 percent of their time. Some others: 15 percent to 20 percent of their time, 1 hour a week, less than 30 minutes a week, 45 minutes to one hour nightly.

A few verbatim responses:
• “Not enough, maybe 45 minutes per week.''
• “30 to 45 minutes for customer e-mails; hours for internal e-mail responses.''
• “Customer e-mail is around 10 percent of our daily e-mail, but is rising at an increasing rate.''
• “Probably no more than one hour a week; still use a lot of telephone contact.''

Responses from distributors varied almost as widely as those among manufacturers, from 10 minutes a week, to 30 minutes a day, to 6-8 hours a week. As with manufacturers, the vast majority of distributors reported that they spend more time responding to e-mails today than they did 12 months ago.

Some verbatim comments:
• “We have very few clients on e-mail. We wish we had more.''
• “This time has increased steadily over the last 12 months and will increase dramatically over the next 12 months.''
• [Time spent answering e-mails] has increased four score since I took over sales manager responsibilities, and probably doubled for the other reps.

What kinds of questions/requests do you (or your reps) typically receive from customers?
Some Responses from Manufacturers:
• Questions regarding pricing, product specs, RFPs.
• “Why is my product late?'' “I found an error in my material.'' “I need manuals.''
• Mostly product performance questions.
• Pricing, literature, studies.
• Product availability, evaluations, activity, etc.
• Product info, material number, u/m and pricing, MSDS info.
• Most of my emails are about appointments or sending me volumes of tests, etc., that I need for a presentation to the customer at a later date.
• Answers to pending issues, pricing, referrals, product specifications.
• Follow up on pricing verification, membership issues, etc.
• Detail about product performance, or assistance in developing a quotation or cross reference.
• Quotes, cross references on like products.
• Primarily communications relative to follow up on a proposal or on presentation dates or formats.

Some Responses from Distributors:
• The vast majority of email we receive from customers is either price quote requests from PROSPECTIVE customers or product availability from existing customers.
• Mixed. Varies from people placing orders, to many asking for research on an item, or asking me to look into a problem, or problem product.
• Our customers send us emails requesting everything from proposals, to shipment status requests, to clinical support information.

And Among Manufacturers Reps:
• Pricing, clinical questions, setting up appointments.
• Pricing, technical info, competitive info, website info, set up appointments, asking for samples.
• Product-specific questions, product application questions, appointment scheduling.

Do you (or your reps) try to encourage, or discourage customers from sending e-mails? Why? Do e-mails enhance your (or your reps') productivity, or reduce it? How about your service to the customer?
With only a few caveats, manufacturers, distributors and manufacturers reps find e-mail to enhance their productivity and customer service. For that reason, they encourage their people to use it.
Among Manufacturers:
• [E-mail] enhances productivity by increasing the amount of time available to respond to customers. Service improved by ability to respond at all hours.
• I believe it enhances [productivity] if managed well. Like anything, it can run your life or you can use it as a tool.
• Any communication is positive, even if it concerns problems.
• I encourage emails. I find it allows me to better organize things than voice mails.
• Email can be an extremely effective tool because I work in a team selling environment. I can email the customer, and “cc'' all the other people involved in the project.
• Email can…be responded to after hours so as not to use valuable selling time.
• It helps me keep track of projects, enabling me to keep files electronically.
• Since I am on the road, it can delay the response time if I don't have my laptop with me. But it increases productivity by eliminating the printing of a letter after composition and acts more like a phone call in response time.
• I encourage customers to send an email. It is easy to forward to the appropriate party in the home office and copy other personnel for followup.
• [Four reasons it enhances productivity]: 1) It creates another avenue to communicate with customers who are overwhelmed with phone calls, etc. 2) Since most decisions today involve multiple participants, it creates an avenue for the “coordinator'' of the buying process to communicate the SELLER's information to all participating members. 3) Customers, like us, set time aside on a daily basis to respond to e-mails; it is a perfect opportunity for non-invasive/pervasive communication to occur. 4) It sets commitments & promises of both parties into a written format, which allows for elimination of miscommunication….It allows for concrete establishment of dates, times and places for significant meetings that can be coordinated in one e-mail that may take MULTIPLE phone calls to coordinate.
• It keeps the communication loop going as phone contact becomes more and more difficult.
• [Email] mostly enhance[s productivity]. However, being copied on every piece of useless drivel between others on topics that don't concern me can be frustrating.
• Email can increase productivity. However, some jokes and photo files are so large that they slow down the systems and lower productivity.
• The customer is able to review the information when they can concentrate on that specific task – undistracted.
• It's quick and timely; written record gets more action than voice mails, etc.
• My customer contacts (mainly ET nurses and purchasing) are tough to get in touch with on the phone, and my territory too big to see them as often as I wish. So, email is ideal for getting a condensed, yet meaty, response.
• Improves communication. [Customers] always respond to e-mail; phone calls and VM are easier to ignore.
• Good to have hard-copy evidence of communication.
• I think the reps think that it reduces our productivity due to the fact that they dislike spending time in their offices vs. face-to-face with customers. However, I think that it truly represents an opportunity for increased productivity, as messages are deliverable immediately and, unlike voicemails, follow[up] may be immediate as well.
• It enhances productivity if [reps] don't use it as a replacement of being in front of the customer.

Among Distributors:
• We encourage email communication simply because it is a very efficient method of forwarding all relevant information to all parties who need to know. This communication method allows us to respond faster to our customers' needs, and it also provides documentation of these interactions.
• Gives [customers] a chance to send info at the time they are thinking about the issue. Gives me the opportunity to research and reply at non-traditional business hours.
• Easier to get conversation with MDs via e-mail than phone. Can send quotes, product links, etc., with better copies than fax.
• Way more efficient than face-to-face every time (no traffic, no being stood up, etc.).
• [My e-mail address] is printed on my card, so [customers] can use it if they want. But I guess I would still rather have a good ol' fashioned voicemail (if you can call that old fashioned) over an email in most situations. It is not always convenient to check email, while voicemail takes seconds from virtually anywhere.
• I guess that you could say [e-mail] enhances my productivity to a point. I would rather look at it as another option for the customer to communicate with me. Sometimes if I am out running around all day, and there are a couple emails waiting for me when I get home, it is easy to check it out in the evening and send a note over that is waiting for them when they arrive in the morning. The danger of relying too much on that is to make yourself a little too invisible to the customer.
• We have reporting done on e-mail. We send info on blast e-mails to reps. It's great. I am a distributor/owner.
• We very much encourage our customers in their use of email with us…16
It's available 24-hours, is quick & effective and legible, and enables a running “dialogue'' to take place when the circumstances warrant. Similarly, many of our customers are using email to share their product formularies in electronic format – that is greatly preferable to printed/faxed product listings, because we can immediately massage the information in spreadsheets/documents and import/export it into our legacy systems without re-keying. Email is also an effective way for a customer to feel like they are truly “communicating'' with us after-hours.
• Emails are a time saver; can answer in the evening after off the road, cuts down on confusion and mistakes with phone mail or verbal answers. Also, I can email customers new products and info and therefore get the information out much quicker than it would be on my routine visit. Also, if [the customer has] a problem, the email can be forwarded to appropriate people in the company that can help resolve [it].
• It is easier than listening to voice mail and trying to write everything down when someone is talking a mile a minute….You can go to a manufacturer. website and e-mail pictures of products to customers.
• E-mails enhance the service to my customers. My customers know that I do not sit in front of a computer all day, so they only e-mail non-urgent requests. They know if they need an immediate answer, they must call me directly or leave a voicemail. But for getting product info, e-mail is so much better than trying to fax some picture that looks like a blob to the fax recipient. Also reports can be e-mailed in Excel format, allowing the customer to sort or re-work the data in the way they would like it presented.
• [E-mail] enhances my productivity and allows me to better serve my customers. My laptop is an integral part of my day-to-day sales process. It allows me to access an account's order history, local inventory levels, pricing information, as well as utilize ROIs in front of the customer, access reimbursement rates, CPT codes, etc. etc.
• I personally discourage [the use of e-mail], as I only check e-mail once daily, and some individuals are under the impression that it is “immediate'' communication. Then there are absences and vacations. I encourage clients to call and talk to a person regarding their orders, situations, or problems.
• Communication by e-mail is not a substitute for actual sales calls to clients, but can supplement their efforts.
• If [customers] request price quotes, it is easier for me to send them at night instead of waiting. They can get the information faster and print it off or just save the info for future reference.
• I prefer to use the fax machine over e-mailing because I don't always have time to log on to the Internet and retrieve messages, but if a fax comes through, it is put in front of me almost immediately.

And Manufacturers Reps:
• Sometimes my days run very late. So while I am trying to wind down from the day's activities, I respond to emails and answer questions. This way, I do not have to wait until the morning when I am trying to get ready for the day's appointments. In fact, I wish more of my customers would use it.
• Scheduling via e mail can quickly expedite the appointment process. In the past it might take me days to reach someone via phone. Email quickly connects me to hard-to-reach customers.