Specific target market requires careful aim
IN the old days selling computer systems was easy. You visited a company, determined its technology budget and filled it with whatever hardware and software happened to be around.
That was 10 years ago. Now financial directors are muttering phrases like "return on investment" and it is only technology suppliers who can confirm a positive effect that get the orders.
"The effects of technology on business are positive, there's no doubt, but it's difficult to quantify to what extent," says Jakkie Harington, national sales director at Oracle South Africa.
"Technology is a hard sell. If a company's results improve dramatically, how do you prove how much of that was due to technology?" she asks.
The spiralling cost of staying abreast of technology brings with it a tough task to any sales team. Computer systems need to be upgraded every two years or so to remain current, but company financial watchdogs are looking at technology cycles of around five years - saying that's all a typical company can afford.
So the industry has become creative. Larry Ellison, Oracle's chairman, has popularised the notion of the network computer, or NC. Essentially, the work station hardware remains the same - it is behind the scenes, where the network is run, that changes and upgrades occur. This saves the costs on work station hardware and limits any costs related to keeping up with technology to a few central machines.
"Companies like the idea of the NC," says Harington, "because it brings the cost of computing down. It's not just the hardware - maintenance and software distribution is less expensive. About seven months ago we changed our sales approach - we focused on tackling clearly defined markets. By determining what those were, we have been able to structure solutions more efficiently and with greater accuracy.
"It's an ongoing process - we look at companies we think we can work closely with and then build a relationship. It's not an 'us and them' situation at all. In fact, what other companies call customers, we like to call strategic partners, we work that closely."
With that in mind, the sales process at Oracle is sophisticated and very much tailored to meet the individual needs of different companies. Whereas many computer companies adopt a carpet bombing approach, Oracle's is close up and tightly targeted.
Says Harington: "We have to know exactly what a company does and what its customers expect of them. You can't just throw technology at a company and expect it to work - it has to be appropriate and requires constant fine-tuning.
"The only way you know if you can help a company with its technology is to understand the business environment it operates in.
"In the past, sales people would talk to the IT manager and that would be it - the company's fortunes hung on the whims of a technical staffer. Nowadays, technology is seen in a broader business context and managers at all levels are involved in its implementation."
Oracle has a high share of the markets in which it operates in South Africa and research house BMI-Techknowledge puts it at 60% - ahead of Oracle's 43% worldwide market share.