Death of an Outside Salesman

If you have any of the symptoms of bad salesmanship discussed in this article, it's not too late to find a cure. Read on.

It seems impossible in today's market that we as salesmen could even think of losing more business than what we currently have. After all, we've wined, dined and become friends with our closest customers — only to find they are awarding another line to one of our competitors.

The business we worked so hard to get is now being given to someone else. Why? We always think it's price. We say, “I can't believe they would do that to me! After all these years of good service and lunches. I thought we were friends!”

In reality, it's not always price that gets the order. When you try to save your customer money or teach them how to use a product more effectively it can have more of an impact on who they decide to buy from. After all, they are fighting for every drop of business, too, and in today's environment it's a battle for every order.

It's war

In today's market every dollar counts to us and to our customer. It's no less than war when a battle is fought to get every order we can. As in any battle you have two choices: Be on the offensive, or be forced to be defensive. How many times have you heard the same story from co-workers: “There is no way _____ (fill in the name of your toughest competitor) is making more than one or two percent on that order. It's not worth my time.”

But perhaps the competition has taken the offensive by doing their homework on what the customer does, how they use the product, and how to apply cost savings to the end result. We may think only a few percent exists in the order, but in reality there could be much more. Remember that if your customer is asking you for a quote on material that you didn't present, you're probably under attack by a competitor who has negotiated with a manufacturer long before you came in. They are protected and have already shown your customer the benefits and uses a particular product can provide. You are on the defensive. The first shot is fired and all you can do is duck and cover. You've been out-performed, out-maneuvered and yet you blindly say, “There is no way I'm taking that order at such a low percentage.”

Friends forever

We tend to rationalize lost orders this way, convincing ourselves there's no way to get to that cost, mainly because we find it so hard to believe our customer wouldn't be upfront with us and that someone else could out-sell us. How could your customer (your “friend”) even think of giving an order to someone else after all of your good service? The truth is you have forgotten how to sell.

When you were first starting out, you were the salesperson who would dig to find something to benefit your customer. You would find new items that would save him time, money and locate hard-to-get items for him. You would negotiate pricing to keep his costs low and then you became friends.

The problem is you let your friendship override your common sense and your salesmanship. You thought that customer would always buy from you because you were his friend. But what you forgot is that he has a business to run as well. Oh, and although you are good friends, another distributor presented a great solution that he hadn't thought of, and now you can't believe you didn't see it coming.

Get back on your horse

Even though you might have lost the battle and a little pride at the same time, you didn't lose the war. You can learn from being out-maneuvered by being the salesman you used to be. Remember that you were at one time the attacker and that you earned the customer's friendship and trust. It was not because you were being the nice guy. It was because you were concerned enough about the customer's needs that you wanted to make him better. Get back on your feet and forget about holding a grudge because your “friend” chose someone else. Learn to sell again.

Get Back to Basics

  1. Take new product samples and brochures to customers to ensure they are up to speed on the latest trends

    Remember that even if customers don't buy a product today, they will remember that you presented something that would work for an application prior to their actual need.

    This is one of the first things that a salesman stops doing after he starts being a friend and stops being a solution provider. When your defenses are down the enemy has an inroad to success. Nothing scores more points than being proactive enough to understand a customer's business needs before they arise.

  2. Bring the manufacturer to your customer

    Many factory reps are looking to forge relationships with your customer. They need to log calls and show that they too are presenting products. Bringing the factory rep to their doorstep is invaluable. It shows the customer they are important enough to have a manufacturer show an interest in solving their problems and puts a face with the products they use. Of course you are the primary salesperson, but the manufacturers' salesperson has a single focus. He is dedicated to moving his product from the line and into your customers' hands. He will look and listen for an application. He might even think of something you haven't, because you weren't aware that it was available for a particular purpose.

    Bringing the manufacturer to your customer shows you care about his needs and that you understand his business. You have relationships he can count on for help. If you have to fight for the order, then beat the enemy with the best weapons. Who understands the products better than the manufacturer?

  3. Get involved with your customer's accounts receivables

    This is one of the most overlooked of a saleperson's responsibilities. They tend to be only interested in forging relationships based solely on the purchase. Customers have little time to resolve returns, pricing discrepancies or negotiate terms. Make life easier for him by taking away the pain. If you're not familiar with their accounts receivable department, introduce yourself. The last place you want your name mentioned is in the customer's boardroom for recurring invoice issues. Salespeople fail to realize the power their customer's AR department holds. If they are constantly talking to the project managers and engineering, or for that matter the owner about recurring problems over invoices, no friendship will outlast a failed credit line due to your lack of follow-through in getting it right. The one thing a soldier should never have to worry about is looking over their shoulder when they are trying to move forward.

  4. Never badmouth the opponent

    This is a line we say many times, but in the heat of battle we tend to lose sight of this. We feel violated that they are taking the business. You think, “They fired the first shot and I'm shooting back.” If your customer truly wants to know about your competition, he'll ask, and if he does, he's asking because he trusts your judgment and he's checking to see how you respond. Handle the situation with grace and stick to the facts. Either state a better solution if you've taken the time to do the research, or agree that your competition's solution suits their needs.

    Your professionalism in this matter will far out-weigh the fact you lost the order. You have history with your customer and you are showing his needs are more important than your pride when you lose an order.

  5. Always remember your day does not start at 9 a.m. and end at 3 p.m.

    All too often when we are not punching a clock, we feel the time we spend working is our time, when in fact it's our employer's time. We tend to rationalize that we work hard for the customer and that no one is doing a better job than we are, especially before 9 a.m. or after 3 p.m.

When you choose to work out in the morning and get in at 9 a.m. or go home early to cut the grass, you're letting your customer and your employer down. Whether you are paid straight commission or not, your employer expects you to develop, establish and grow business. You can't fight the war from home. You have to be in the battle to win it. Why do you think a soldier is always paired with another soldier in the field when it's time to rest? Someone stays awake to do his job while another sleeps. The enemy never sleeps. Working less and expecting more is not a realistic scenario. The enemy wants it so bad he will work whenever necessary to win the war.

The next time you go to your customer with a price you had yesterday at 2:30 p.m. but didn't call them with it until after 9 a.m. the next morning, remember they got the price from someone who understands service is not a 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. job. If you work harder than the competition, your customer will notice. They'll appreciate the fact you are working to make them better.

If your sales skills have been dying then you need a cure. Ask yourself if any of what you just read here is true. If you can't recognize any of the symptoms discussed in this article, ask someone you trust to be straight with you. Generally, if you recognize this style of selling, you have already sold yourself on the fact that this is the way it should be.

Try to remember the next time you see material show up on your customer's doorstep that didn't ship from you. It's not your customers' fault. Don't be angry with him or her for placing that order. They have a business to run. Start by being honest with yourself and take the steps to become the person you need to be. Get fit again. Work harder, be concerned and be the solution provider that you once were.

If you need a reason other than losing business, remember those that count on you just to live. Remember they need their jobs to pay bills and that they too are affected by your work ethic. The war goes on and the battle is always being fought. So get in there and fight.

Brett Patterson is assistant branch manager of Becker Electric Supply's Cincinnati location. He has been with the company for 34 years, spending 10 years in its Dayton location before moved to Cincinnati in 1996. He has 30 years of experience in sales and account management. Patterson took a familiar career path, starting in the company's warehouse and working at the counter, inside sales and outside sales. He has assisted with the selection, implementation and training for the company's Activant P21 ERP system and Pathguide automated warehousing system, and assists with Becker's pricing strategy and SPAs. He is a member of the Vistage Group, a consulting network, and is a Red Cross volunteer who helped out during Hurricane Katrina. You can at reach him at [email protected].

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