IBM is quietly working to further split its “Blue Suit” sales team along product, geographic or vertical-market lines, sources said last week. The moves continued amid a week of turmoil following John Akers’ announced plans to resign as the company’s CEO (see story, Page 14).
Much like the increased autonomy being given to IBM’s product units, dividing the sales force will give IBM’s developers more freedom to sell their own products instead of relying on one group to peddle everything from Token-Ring adapters to mainframes.
The single sales force — once a driving force behind IBM’s success — has become an albatross because it lacks the training and motivation to sell customers PC- and LAN-based products instead of higher-profit mainframes and minicomputers, observers said.
“The local IBM marketing guys … had to have a broad knowledge of everything and not a specific knowledge of anything,” said Steven Verne, a PC specialist at Tree Top Inc., a Selah, Wash., fruit-juice company. “It just hurt our confidence in them.”
IBM won’t disband the direct-sales force entirely because the group’s relationship with large corporate accounts is “one of our fundamental strengths,” said David Thomas, general manager of marketing for IBM U.S. in White Plains, N.Y.
But Thomas acknowledged the need to focus more on products, saying his greatest challenge in 1993 is to increase the number of “marketing specialists” within the sales force. Those specialists will be trained to sell specific products, he said.
IBM U.S. is now devoting one-third of its sales force to the account representatives who have overall responsibility for a customer’s needs, one-third to increasing the product-specific marketing specialists and one-third to sales representatives whose job it is to sell services, said Thomas.
The segmentation of the sales force has been under way for two years and will continue to evolve, an IBM spokesman said.
Sources said the sales force could also be restructured to focus on vertical markets, a move taken last month by Integrated Systems Solutions Corp., IBM’s systems-integration subsidiary.
Several IBM business units have already begun narrowing the focus of its sales teams, a move that IBM watchers see as a natural progression.
“The more autonomous you become, the more the lines of business will want to control their own destiny,” said Bill Grabe, a former top executive in the IBM U.S. marketing and services organization, which runs the direct sales force. For example, Pennant Systems, a wholly owned subsidiary of IBM that makes high-end printers, has had its own sales force since early 1992.
The IBM Personal Computer Co. is represented by an unspecified number of marketing specialists known as “fighter pilots,” officials said.
And the Networking Systems line of business is rolling out nearly 500 marketing specialists who have received specific training in IBM’s networking products, said Steven Joyce, manager of APPC market enablement at Networking Systems in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
The job of those salespeople will be to sell products such as IBM’s APPC (Advanced Program-to-Program Communications) protocol. “We have done a miserable job of teaching [the sales force] about how to sell APPC,” said Joyce. To address that, the APPC developers have stepped up efforts to teach IBM sales reps — and customers — about the protocol.
Joyce’s 32-person “market-enablement” group talks up APPC at trade shows, runs a CompuServe bulletin board and lets vendors bring their products to the Research Triangle Park development site for compatibility testing.
IBM’s Toronto software laboratory also sends marketing teams to trade shows and distributes a customer newsletter about its C Set/2 C compiler and debugger, said Development Manager Hester Ngo. “Products like ours always received the least amount of attention from the IBM [sales force],” Ngo said, “because they always focused on hardware, [which] brought in the most incentives.”
One customer said IBM “missed the boat” with its reliance on a single sales force.
“What’s important to the customer is they get top-quality service,” said Lee Batson, computer systems manager for Habif, Arogeti and Wynne, an Atlanta accounting firm. “I don’t care if I have three or four IBM sales reps, as long as … they know their products and their industries.”