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Computers Help Sales Force Keep Foot in the Door

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AT first glance, Ron Van Orden's office of the future looks a lot like his Chevrolet Celebrity. Nothing special about his car. Mr. Van Orden, a salesman with American Telephone & Telegraph Company, doesn't even have a car-phone. But a laptop computer and a portable printer have catapulted him into a new way of doing business. ``In the course of a day I end up doing a lot more than I used to,'' he says.

AT&T calls this concept the ``virtual office.'' Its aim: Move sales people out of the office and in front of the customer. AT&T's push into portable computing is part of a general move by American business to change the way people work. In a Computerworld survey last month, 86 percent of top corporate executives said that carefully targeted computer projects are re-engineering their workplace.

Low productivity gain

In the 1980s, businesses in the United States invested heavily in desktop computers with disappointing results. Office productivity barely moved up. Thus these companies are targeting their computer investments a lot more carefully these days.

``People were starry-eyed a couple of years ago,'' says Joe Maglitta, a senior editor with Computerworld. Now, ``people are becoming more realistic about what they can accomplish with information technology.''

The results can be surprising.

On this particular Friday morning, Van Orden drives to the Wallace College Book Company in Lexington, Ky. He carries no briefcase inside, only a black carrying case with a laptop computer inside. The call is routine. The company has been billed incorrectly. Van Orden corrects the bills, popping open his computer at one point to retrieve the correct tax rates for various classes of calls. Back in his car, he types a reminder on his computer scheduler to mail the company literature on a new toll-free serv ice. ``If you don't have a desk anymore, you don't have the incentive to go there and sit,'' he says.

The technology shines best when the unexpected occurs. On a recent visit to one of his customers, a local catalog merchandiser, company officials suddenly asked for an AT&T proposal to expand their telemarketing center. They needed it that day.

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