Lately, we are all becoming frustrated with what seems to be our inability at times to communicate effectively with our customers. Our territories are larger, and it seems like we have less time to cover them. We have more product, programs and promotions to talk about than ever before – but it seems that both we and our customers are too busy to take the time to talk about what’s going on. We are so busy with the activity surrounding our business that productivity suffers.
Recently, I had a chance to speak with one of our factory representatives at an inventory party. We discussed training. The rep said to me, "I like doing clinics because I learn a lot."
I responded, "Wait a minute – I thought you were teaching the clinic." He said, "Every time I do a clinic, I learn more. More about my products, my customers and my job."
What a concept, I thought.
He continued, "Which in turn makes me a more valuable vendor and employee."
"Uh huh," I nodded.
"Which also equates to higher job security and satisfaction," he concluded.
He talked about conducting approximately 150 clinics last year, 90 percent of which were held during the day – in the service dealers’ place of business, at the customers’ expense. The clinics last about an hour. That’s it.
That’s when it occurred to me: I like talking with customers, prospects and vendors because I learn a lot too.
I’ve always been a believer that we shouldn’t focus on taking the time to do things, but we should focus on making the time to do things worthwhile.
If I want to be a better outside salesman, I need to make more sales calls to learn my trade. If I want to be a better prospector, I need to make prospect calls to learn my trade. If I want to be a better clinic presenter or meeting holder, I need to do the things necessary to be better at it.
There is no manual that replaces the experience derived from actually standing across from a potential customer and overcoming their objections. Sure, the textbooks will talk about presenting features and benefits, overcoming objections and closing a sale. But it’s all just theory until it’s actually put into practice. A customer who says, "Your prices are too high," doesn’t want to hear a cheerful, "Yes, but our stuff is swell." They want to hear about your outstanding parts availability, multiple product offering, powerful marketing support, world-class logistical processes and customer-driven employee team.
So, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. But either way, take something from the experience and learn from it. Hone your skills. Develop your craft. You owe it to yourself.
I have a theory about being successful in sales – it’s fairly basic. Get up in the morning and go to work, learn your programs, do your homework, make the calls and follow up.
That’s what I call a "PowerHour." If we’re given a time frame – only one hour – during which we are required to present our sales pitch or our story, what would we talk about? We would focus on the 5 Ps: product, programs, promotions, pricing and people. And depending on our audience, we may focus more on one of the 5 Ps than another.
Manufacturer sales representatives are an untapped wealth of information. We understand we are all being asked to do more with less. Our territories are larger, meaning more windshield time, and it seems we have less time to do the job with an ever-increasing reporting and paperwork load.
I was asked to elaborate on my theory that we are becoming more efficient at being inefficient. For example, if you walk into many auto parts stores, there is likely to be a mound of paper stacked somewhere containing catalogs, price sheets, sales bulletins and product flyers. It seems there’s never enough time to go through the mound. Obviously, this is inefficient.
In the digital age much of our communication is becoming electronic – electronic cataloging, price sheets and information on the Internet. More information is available now then ever before – but there are no more stacks of paper. Today there are stacks of electronic paperwork. We’re efficient at being inefficient.
I believe one of the roles of the sales representative is to help the customer go through the stack – pull out the important bulletins, forward the catalogs and price sheets to the counter and discard the competitors’ information (ha!). Ultimately, the role of the representative is to help the customer decide to act – add a product line, category or new part number or take advantage of a promotion.
Regardless if you are a manufacturer, warehouse or jobber salesman, it’s basically a "potato chip" run. You have a set of customers who you visit on a regularly scheduled basis. Don’t forget to add the prospects to the run – they may just begin to see you more regularly than the representatives they’re doing business with, at which point the prospects may become customers. It has always surprised me that sales people making prospect calls don’t realize that they have to establish themselves as an individual, with presence, before they’ll actually become a serious vendor contender. It’s the "seven calls before the first sale" theory.
There’s a love/hate relationship between the jobber and the manufacturer representative. Each side has it’s justifications. When you get right down to it, wouldn’t we be better by working together? The jobber doesn’t want to do fieldwork with the manufacturer’s representative because "he slows me down" or "he sells to my competitor." The manufacturer’s representative doesn’t want to do fieldwork because he scheduled his time and ends up drinking coffee for two hours because "something came up," or he’s totally shot out of the saddle because "a driver didn’t show up." So, we’ve become accustomed to not working together. What a shame.
Why don’t we collectively decide to improve the process? Can’t we agree that given the opportunities – if we decided to work together – the manufacturer’s representative could teach us more about his product line and categories, new parts availability, technical information, product problem solvers, features and benefits, technical information, catalogs, promotions and programs? Wouldn’t that help us sell more product?
Can’t we agree that given the opportunity – if we decided to work together – the jobber could expose the manufacturer to a large number of pre-qualified customers and prospects – counter personnel, outside salesmen, service dealer owners and managers, service writers and technicians? Wouldn’t that help us sell more product?
As Ed Zalinsky stated in the movie Tommy Boy, "You’ve identified the problem, now work on the solution." I believe we should all be accountable and responsible for the solution. But first, we all need to state our goals, list the responsibilities of reaching those goals and become accountable for reaching those goals within some specified time frame. The goals should be "rigidly flexible." They will change as the company and the customers’ goals change throughout the year based on internal and external driving forces. In any case, continually establishing and stating the goals makes arriving at some specified conclusion attainable.
I think it’s fair to establish a list of expectations for customers and vendors. We have a "must see" checklist that clearly states our expectations. What are the expectations of a manufacturer’s sales representative?
- Check and update application catalogs;
- Check and update specification and technical reference materials;
- Check and update price sheets;
- Review and update counter technical training programs;
- Review and update counter sales training programs;
- Review and update sales, warranties and other policies;
- Review and update jobber programs and promotions;
- Review and update dealer programs and promotions;
- Review and update retail programs and promotions;
- Check inventory and update overstock and slow-moving product;
- Check inventory and update new lines, categories and part numbers;
- Work with outside sales representatives to call on key dealer customers;
- Work with outside sales representatives to call on key prospective customers.
Your "must see" checklist will be modified to help you accomplish your stated goals. You may, for example, specifically list your customers and prospects.
The manufacturer’s representatives’ expectations also include the opportunity to create value. If we schedule time to do an in-store call, fieldwork or a clinic, keep the appointment, and give the rep the opportunity to do his job.
There are plenty of clever acronyms and buzz statements supporting these arguments: "together everyone achieves more" and "together we’re better," for example. I’m sure we agree with the meaning. We know historically that we may not have met or exceeded our expectations, but going forward, let’s decide to improve these relationships. Our sales, profits, job security and our ability to pay and earn more wages will follow.