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Laptops, BlackBerrys, GPS help make the sale Devices ease communications, order processing

Kathi McEvoy Crowley toured the rooms with flatscreen TVs, a mini movie theater with leather chairs and the marble fireplace lobby of the Williamsville senior residence where she sells $100-a-day rooms, keeping her laptop with her, carrying it casually in her arms, like a notebook.

The laptop has dramatically changed the way she does business, letting her check e-mail and send nursing reports to office staff for immediate review as she makes visits to hospitals, where cell phones are banned.

"My laptop is my lifeline," said Crowley, at the Hamister Group's newly expanded Brompton Heights residence. She first worked for the firm, which owns three assisted living- style residences, about eight years ago, just as cell phones were becoming de rigueur.

A year ago she came back, accepting a job to manage a sales staff of six, and laptops were the new staple. "That just turned my world around," she said.

The speed of new technology - from Wi-Fi-connected laptops to BlackBerrys to printers that run on dashboard cigarette lighters - lets people in sales beat the competition and clinch deals.

"Rather than have people wait for me, I can come to them," said Crowley. She now wants extra help on the job from the latest car navigator - a portable TomTom mapping system costing $400 to $600 - so she can better find her way around Rochester, home to one of three Hamister residences.

"So that's a Valentine's Day present," she said.

For Mike Diati, a vice president managing the sales team for the Town of Tonawanda shipping company Speed Global Services, it is the BlackBerry that helps them make better connections with clients.

He keeps the gadget that lets him read e-mail and take calls clipped to his waist. This way, when one of his firm's clients gets in touch, he doesn't make them wait for a reply if he is out of the office. "Our strategic advantage is our personalization," said Diati. "It has improved our customer service, which eventually effects our bottom line."

Local manufacturers hire Speed Global to ship and store goods by the case - such as fragrant boxes of Yardley Lavender soap made by Tonawanda's Lornamead - from its 450,000- square-foot Kenmore Avenue warehouse.

When soap orders come in, Speed Global ships them nationwide to stores like Walgreens and Wal-Mart. Another client, New Era Cap Co., may want to get in touch when World Series-deciding baseball games end.

"They want to be able to get to us and say, 'We need hats in St. Louis on the street, Wednesday morning,' " Diati said.

The company's service is also aided by an account management software system that will send staff reminders of dates important to clients, such as the days factory orders are ready for shipping. This way Diati can write an e-mail, or call with an offer to assist.

"It makes it appear that you're the most important customer to me," he said.

He believes such attentiveness helps distinguish Speed Global, which started as a small trucking company in 1946, from big-name competition like United Parcel Service and Fed- Ex. The firm is now in the midst of expanding. It is relocating from its Military Road offices to bigger ones in space being converted at the company's Kenmore Avenue warehouse.

A few months ago the company launched a new Web site with an order-tracking system that lets clients receive shipping confirmation swiftly by e-mail instead of the old-fashioned way. Staff used to fish the paperwork from a file and fax it.

"It just makes my job easier," said David Galante, sales manager. "It makes customers a lot happier."

His BlackBerry has made vacations easier, too. A 15-year sales veteran, Galante said he has a hard time taking time off. With a BlackBerry, he can relax, see that his team is taking care of things and know that he won't be cut off from important messages.

"You almost get addicted to it because the information is so easily accessible," he said.

Since Dominic Ventresca opened a CertaPro Painters franchise in Niagara Falls last year, he thinks his laptop with a screen that twists so he can write on it like a notebook adds to the appeal of his professional style.

It may be part of what persuades people to spend a little more on his service. "We're never the cheapest. We're never the most expensive," he said. "The customers we get are the customers who want more than the cheapest paint job."

CertaPro software inside the laptop helps by making swift estimates - with Ventresca's tallies of window panes, porch spindles and room measurements.

"I come back in here," he said, sitting in his truck with a printer that plugs into the dashboard cigarette lighter, "I print out two copies of the proposal, and walk back into the house and present it."

Other franchise guidelines, such as dressing professionally and arriving five minutes early, help him stand out, too. The estimates, which appeal to clients, also help him make the business work. He hires crew based on the time the computer allots for the job. If someone takes longer, the fixed wage doesn't change. This way Ventresca won't lose money when he sticks to his original bid price. "That protects me as we grow," he said.

Ventresca is a recent college graduate with a degree in business who says CertaPro's formula of technology and protocol is working well so far. The company, which has about 300 franchises nationwide, ranked Ventresca fifth in sales out of 110 new franchises. He's finished more than 225 jobs since he began in December 2005. For every 100 estimates, he gets about 42 commissions. The norm is about about 35, he said.

"Sales is a whole package," said Ventresca, 23. "You just have to find ways to make them like you."