by Alice Dragoon

AMF Gets Sales-force Automation Right

Sep 15, 200211 mins
CRM Systems

Two years ago, reps at AMF Bowling Products had good reason to shudder at the very mention of sales-force automation (SFA). It is notoriously hard to get right, and the company’s first attempt failed miserably.

AMF reps sell everything from shoe spray to the back-office software that runs a bowling center. They need a way to track their customers?owners and managers of some 6,000 U.S. bowling centers?and the equipment they already own. Knowing which customers have ancient ball return machines or out-of-date automatic scoring systems helps them zero in on the best sales targets. The company’s first major SFA effort?a series of homegrown Lotus Notes databases of customer information?didn’t take long to earn the sales reps’ ire. Reps couldn’t take their laptop into bowling centers and enter customer data without looking like spies to the alley owners with whom they were trying to establish trusting relationships. So instead, they’d scribble notes on paper. But after schlepping through four to six bowling centers, the last thing reps wanted to do when they got to their hotel at night was fire up their laptop and spend up to an hour logging their sales calls into one database and entering data on what kind of equipment each center had into another. Because it usually took another 30 to 45 minutes and sometimes as much as two hours to replicate their notes, most reps gave up in frustration. “You’re talking about an extra two hours at the end of the day,” says Chris Keller, Long Island, N.Y.-based Northeast district sales manager and a 10-year AMF veteran. “The application was just too difficult. We’re salesmen. We need to use our time to make money.” Keller confesses he abandoned the Notes system after about three months. Only half of the sales force updated Notes religiously, and as time went on, usage fell, says Jay Buhl, vice president of North American sales. By 1997 the reps had reverted to their own?often paper-based?systems for tracking customer data. As a result, “We didn’t know how to get in touch with our customers and didn’t know what equipment was out there,” says Buhl. “If a district sales manager left the company, we had no clue what was going on in that geography.”

Although the lack of a centralized customer database was tolerable while AMF’s global business was booming, the boom ended abruptly when the Asian market collapsed in 1998. Suddenly, AMF could no longer rely on outfitting new bowling centers in Asia for its growth. To make matters worse, an aggressive expansion campaign increased the number of AMF-owned bowling centers in the United States from 125 to 415 in two years, making it the world’s largest owner and operator of bowling centers. Because AMF sells equipment to its own centers at cost, the company effectively decreased its universe of profitable sales prospects. Between 1997 and 1998, worldwide sales of AMF bowling products plummeted from $300 million to $150 million.

Aiming for a Perfect Game

John Walker, who became vice president of North American sales in June 1998 (and is now senior vice president of global sales and service), wanted CRM for three reasons. First, he was eager to improve customer service by facilitating internal communication among reps, the technical support help desk and the credit department. Reps were often getting blindsided on sales calls to customers wrestling with technical problems; other times, customers targeted for big sales were being hassled by the credit department. Second, Walker wanted to pursue targeted marketing of customers instead of blanket promotions. Third, he was convinced a CRM system could help reps better manage their time and accounts?and facilitate smoother transitions when reps leave. But for CRM to do any good, the system had to be easy to use.

With Y2K looming in 1999, CRM took a backseat to replacing legacy back-office systems. The company did, however, have to pick software for the tech service help desk?and did so with CRM in mind, says John Fottrell, vice president of IS. Upon evaluating several products, he says, AMF chose Applix on the basis of its strong help desk functions, strong CRM functions (the ability to keep track of contacts, maintain detailed customer profiles and manage quotes) and its capacity for multilingual, multicurrency support.

Once the legacy systems were replaced, Walker pressed for a CRM initiative and won the go-ahead to invest $325,000 on the SFA project. From the beginning, it was not an IT project but a business initiative, says Fottrell, who points to Walker’s active involvement as critical to the system’s success. Walker had watched a previous employer waste $1 million developing a CRM system that users hated because the project was driven by what management and IT liked rather than what users wanted. To avoid that trap?and to address the skepticism of veterans of the ill-fated Notes system?Walker and Fottrell involved sales reps from the start. In October 2000, they convened a kickoff meeting, which included six sales reps, Systems Architect Harsha Nagaraj and an Applix project manager. Walker set the tone by making it clear that it was the reps’ opinions that counted most.

Reps were encouraged to be frank about what they hated about previous systems and what they wanted from the new one?and they didn’t always agree. “We grunted it out for an entire afternoon?after which I was sure we were not going to be successful,” says Fottrell. “It shocked me that they didn’t have consensus about what they wanted.”

During three or four sessions, the reps, with the help of IT, hammered out specs for the system and gave feedback on rough prototypes. And the reps themselves came up with the idea to use PDAs; putting Applix on Palm devices would let them collect customer data in the bowling centers easily and discreetly.

But using the Palm meant overcoming some technical hurdles (such as getting the data to sync with headquarters) and upgrading to the Palm-enabled version of Applix. The system is also limited by the smaller screen size, the amount of information that a Palm can hold and the need to minimize sync time.

Nagaraj says that Eric Weimer, a district sales manager based in Richmond, Va., who had been using a Palm to track customer data on his own, understood the constraints and convinced the other reps that they needed to limit the number of fields and the size of the drop-down menus. For example, to collect data on pinspotters (the machines that reset the pins), some reps wanted to include every model that AMF had ever made in the drop-down menu. Weimer argued that a salesperson just needs to know whether a customer has an AMF pinspotter; in most cases, the model doesn’t matter since the main selling proposition is when it’s not an AMF product. So the group whittled a drop-down list of 22 choices to eight critical items. Reps also asked to see the status of all of their customers’ sales orders. But because a typical order includes 80 to 100 line items, that would have dramatically increased sync time and overloaded the Palms. Instead, they decided to give reps just information on shortages (when AMF can’t immediately supply everything ordered) and warranty orders (when warrantied equipment breaks and replacement parts must be shipped quickly). This keeps reps in the loop when customers have problems.

To help fine-tune the application, Fottrell and Nagaraj enlisted Weimer to represent the tech-savvy rep’s viewpoint. They also got input from Dave Cykoski, a longtime AMF rep based in Jacksonville, Fla., “because we thought he would never give up his Daytimer,” says Fottrell. “We knew that the rest of the salespeople were somewhere in between.”

At the December 2000 sales meeting, Weimer led his colleagues through a hypothetical day in the life of an AMF rep using Applix, showing them how they could use the system to focus on the customers most likely to spend money, as well as how to update prospect or customer information. He also illustrated how they could use their laptop (which they’d keep in their hotel room) to view messages from the credit department or see their customers’ unresolved calls to the help desk. Weimer told his fellow reps, “You’ll have the opportunity to say, ’I know you talked to AMF a couple days ago, and we didn’t get back to you, but this is the answer.’ You become more valuable, and customers will want to talk to you more than someone doing a cold call.”

Weimer deftly fielded reps’ questions and challenges. “He was right back at ’em with some real, specific business reasons as to why it was done the way it was done,” recalls Fottrell. “There’s no way an IT person could’ve had the same credibility.”

The reps got their Palms and training on the Applix software at the March 2001 sales meeting. Because AMF was about to enter Chapter 11, reps were understandably distracted. AMF’s aggressive investment in bowling centers in the late ’90s had left it with what Buhl calls “a broken balance sheet.” Before filing for bankruptcy in July 2001, the company laid off 171 people, including two district sales managers. (It emerged with a restructured debt in March 2002.)

Even so, Buhl made collecting customer data a priority. By December 2001, reps had collected data on 80 percent of AMF’s customers, he estimates. Through a series of pull-down menus on their Palm, the remaining 21 North American sales reps could easily fill out or update a customer’s equipment profile “on their way from entering the bowling center to the front desk,” says Buhl. “It’s less than a five-minute event.” Syncing data with headquarters proved to be a breeze: When reps dial into headquarters, they just put their Palm in the cradle attached to their laptop and push the Hot Sync button. That synchronizes data on their Palm with the SQL server in Richmond?a process that takes 10 minutes tops, according to Nagaraj.

Although Cykoski still hasn’t thrown out his Daytimer, he gives the Applix system a B grade (he admits that if he devoted more time to exploring what it can do, he might give it an A).

No More Gutter Balls

Now that AMF has a central repository of updated customer data, the company can send targeted promotions to customers most likely to respond to them. Buhl reports that two out of three promotions run this year using data gathered through Applix have boosted sales. Following a January promotion on pinspotters, AMF’s year-to-date pinspotter revenue reached $403,300 in April, up from just $9,000 for the same time period in 2001. Likewise a February promotion on automatic scoring equipment yielded $601,000 in revenue for that category through April, up from $252,000 last year.

The ability to target promotional mailings saves the company money and makes customers feel like AMF understands them. In the past, all promotions went to each one of the 6,000 U.S. bowling centers. Since AMF can now send a mailing to just the 500 or 1,000 accounts for whom it would be appropriate, the cost savings per promotion is approximately 60 percent, according to Buhl. Perhaps more important, AMF is no longer annoying customers by sending them irrelevant offers?or alienating those who’d just purchased the product in question a week or two before.

In the field, reps are using Applix to focus their efforts on selling customers what they’re most likely to buy and to zero in on the customers who are most likely to be the biggest spenders. Before Applix, the Northeast district’s Keller would have wasted time trying to sell a product that was on special to bowling centers that didn’t need it. With Applix, he says, “I can focus on the correct customer with the correct product.” Using this strategy, Keller managed to sell $212,014 worth of bumpers in a single month?surpassing his fourth quarter 2001 quota of $110,206 by 92 percent. Cykoski too has had good results with the Palm. Midway through 2002, his sales were already approaching his 2001 total.

Because reps can gather customer data much more efficiently, they can call on more customers. Keller, for example, says he can now visit one more account each day he’s on the road. And sometimes that extra stop can really pay off. One day Keller decided to visit a military base because Applix data showed that all of the equipment in its bowling center was old and no AMF salesperson had visited recently. Turns out the bowling center was about to close and move to a new location?and Keller ultimately closed a $400,000 deal at the new facility.

“This gives us an advantage over the competition,” Keller says. “Knowing what’s out there, and who has what and what they need saves our time. The proof of the pudding is that we use it.”