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The Other Side of the Desk

Aug. 1, 2011
To really understand what makes your customers tick, you need to first put yourself in their shoes.

Our lives take unexpected twists and turns, and we don't often recognize a life-changing experience at the moment it happens. For me, it happened while I learned how to survive as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. What I learned can help you in your sales career.

In Jan. 1968, I was undergoing Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training prior to assignment to the U.S. Navy's Mekong Delta Mobile Riverine Force. The training included an exercise in a simulated POW compound. We were given a taste of what to expect if we were captured and were instructed how to resist pressure to divulge anything other than name, rank and serial number, and how to maintain the U.S. Code of Military Justice.

The training was tough and realistic. We were slapped, beaten, threatened, stuffed into small boxes and subjected to extreme heat and numbing cold. We had so little food and water that my throat made involuntary noises due to dehydration. Several times while standing at attention in the hot sun I passed out, only to come to when I crumbled to the ground. Oriental music played over loudspeakers, permeating the barbed wire encircled camp. I lost weight and was sick with bronchitis for weeks after the training. I also had difficulty walking, because my leg and back muscles cramped during the bitter cold nights. A bulletin board covered with Communist propaganda was prominently displayed in the center of the camp. There were approximately 100 of us in our group. Whenever possible, we defaced the bulletin board or tore the propaganda down. We were very proud of ourselves.

At the end of the training, we were given a critique on how we did as POWs. We did well, but one area received considerable criticism. We were told we should not have torn down the propaganda. Instead, we should have studied it. We were instructed to get inside our captor's heads so they couldn't get inside ours. It was important that we understood how our captors thought. The wisdom of the idea hit me immediately, and I felt foolish that we didn't think of it ourselves.

Years later, as a branch, district and region manager for a large national electrical distributor, I had been through many sales and sales management training courses. Most sales training focuses on controlling the sales situation and manipulating the customer. Many of them took the same old ideas and principles, put them in new packaging and recycled them.

But I wanted something different, a fresh perspective on what it takes to succeed in sales and business. I was tired of the old, time-worn tricks of using the customer's first name, frequently, or asking “yes” questions. In 1991, I enrolled in a six-week community college seminar sponsored by the Purchasing Association of St. Louis that was focused on value, supplier partnerships, quality control and issues specific to companies in attendance, such as leveraging a large national supplier base for the best in price and service. The instructor never spoke in derogatory or demeaning terms of sales personnel or suppliers. He never spoke of ways to manipulate or outwit the sales personnel. To the contrary, he always seemed to be respectful of suppliers and never suggested cheap tricks to outwit them.

Six years later, I became director of purchasing for a large national electrical contractor. It was a refreshing opportunity to expand my knowledge of the electrical industry and to do something different. I was not only switching from distribution to construction, I was also moving from selling to purchasing. It was an opportunity to gain insight into an electrical contractor's problems, wants and needs. My knowledge and perspective from my experience in electrical distribution enabled me to help the electrical contractor and to help the electrical distributors who were our suppliers. I understood their profit structure and policies, as well as what they may or may not be willing to do on an order.

It was exciting to sit in on project bid discussions and see an electrical contractor's strategies, concerns and actions during the bid process. At the same time, it didn't take long to quickly tire of the old sales techniques from some distributors' salespeople, especially as someone who had previously used them and even taught them. I grew weary of hearing my name in every sentence. I heard all of the bad jokes and tired of the question as to whether or not price was really important to me.

I came to appreciate supplier personnel who worked hard, earned my trust, solved problems and seemed sincere. As I came to know purchasing managers at other electrical contractors, I noticed how many other people had migrated from electrical distributors to electrical contractors. I could not imagine any of them being swayed by a salesperson using their first name in a sentence. Ask your contractor customers about their background. If they have had sales experience, ask them what sales tips they would have for someone selling to an electrical contractor. You may be surprised what you hear.

While working for this electrical contractor, I gravitated to the sales personnel and companies that earned my trust and knew my concerns, spoke with sincerity, and had a genuine interest in a long-term relationship. The contractor's employees in estimating, purchasing, accounts payable and in the field saw the best distributor sales personnel as extensions of the company.

It was particularly enlightening to attend the annual NECA conventions. I enjoyed seeing old friends in electrical distribution, dining out with electrical contractors, soaking up the problems they faced and learning what made them tick. One morning, I attended a terrific seminar on forming supplier partnerships that had approximately 50 electrical contractors in attendance. At the start of the seminar, the speaker asked how many suppliers were at the session. Even though hundreds of owners and employees of electrical distributors, manufacturers and manufacturer's reps attended the convention, not one hand went up. This was a seminar aimed at promoting the idea of forming closer, mutually beneficial relationships with electrical contractor's suppliers, yet not one supplier attended. It appeared that only one half of the potential partnership had interest in the subject. The speaker noted the simple marketing value to a supplier if they had been there to be recognized as one company interested in forming improved partnerships with the electrical contractors.

To see the value in switching roles, either as a mental exercise or in actuality, you don't have to go through the Navy's SERE training. There are other ways to appreciate the concept. If you have ever played chess, you know that the game looks completely different if you move to the other side of the board. Opportunities and risks become clearly visible by changing your perspective.

In his book, The 100 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws of Business Success, Brian Tracy says putting yourself in the other person's situation enables you to prepare and negotiate more effectively. He is a big proponent of the legal training law students receive where they prepare for the prosecution or defense of a case by first studying the case from the opposing attorney's viewpoint. Only after they know the case backwards and forwards from that perspective do they prepare their actual case. This is a great technique that can dramatically sharpen your negotiating skills.

Electrical distributors spend enormous man-hours every year in training sessions to improve their ability to persuade or manipulate customers to do more business with them. They need to spend more time learning customers' hot buttons, and how they can best service their wants and their needs.

Embrace every opportunity to learn the business from your customer's perspective. In future columns, I will offer tips on what I learned “on the other side of the desk,” on such issues as making appointments, e-mails, cellphone etiquette, leaving messages, presentations, letters, proposals, integrity and courtesy.

Terry Sater has 26 years of experience in electrical distribution sales and management, including six years in outside sales and 20 years as a general sales manager and as a manager at the branch, district and regional level. He also was director of purchasing for a large national electrical contractor for nine years and is a past-chairman of the Electrical Board of Missouri and Illinois. His editorial columns have appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Investors Business Daily and Chronwatch. Sater can be reached at [email protected].

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