From Reception Desk to Receiving Dock, Do You Really Know Your Customer?

Filed Under (OP Sales Training) by Don on 26-05-2011

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The ease with which we communicate to our customer via email, text messaging and other digital forms makes a lot of our customer contact very impersonal.  Of course this is widely accepted in our age but at what cost?  The result is we fail to reach all the potential purchasers and users of the products we sell.  Recent statistics show that 35% of the non-regular purchasers of business products go outside of the normal purchasing channels of their company and submit for reimbursement later.  By avoiding the personal customer interaction we are missing on opportunities to further build and strengthen our relationships within each of our customers/clients offices.  Not to mention keeping an eye out for the stray competitors shipping carton hiding out somewhere in the office.

What’s the remedy?  Sales people need to take the time at least once every six weeks at the most to physically visit the customers office and take time to meet and greet everyone possible so the staff knows who you are and what services and products you provide.  If possible hand out product samples and a business card and let the staff know you are available for product questions and support, presuming this is agreeable with your primary buyer.  On a recent field sales call with one of my reps upon ‘socializing’ with some of the office staff I learned that they were discharging their janitorial crew in favor of doing it with in-house associates.  This information allowed us to open a conversation on providing their JanSan products and dispensers.  The call ended up very productive and we landed a very nice piece of new business that we didn’t have before.  Remind your outside reps of the importance of really knowing your customers and you may find your sales increase and your business solidified.

The last word: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Helen Keller

United’s Vision 2011 Event Brings a Crowd

Filed Under (OP News & Views) by Don on 23-05-2011

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I was fortunate to once again attend United Stationer’s Vision show/event this year held last week in Orlando Florida.  Their previous event was held at the same location last in November 2009 and I must say that in my opinion this show had more attendees than previously.  The location at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resortis a beautiful facility and the grounds and golf course are second to none.  United does a great job on their event and this is the fifth United Stationer’s show I have attended.  I have not had the privilege to attend an SP Richards show so I can’t compare theirs to United’s but I have never been disappointed at the event hosted by United (USSCO).

I spent a lot of time this year speaking to other dealers from around the country and I’m never disappointed with the humble temperment and genuine good-heartedness of most dealers.  One very noticable difference this year was the number of attendees in their 20′s and 30′s.  I’ve thought for many years that our industry didn’t do a very good job of attracting workers in this age group but this year proved me wrong.  I heard very little negativity from dealers regarding the economy and most told me that they have learned to do business on a different scale than in years past.  They are reaching out utilizing different methods than before and don’t fear the big-box competitors.  I think the issues the last few years regarding some of the big-boxes have made many dealers realize that we/they can compete on price and when it comes to service we (independent dealers) blow them out of the water.  I’ll discuss some of the other things I learned during future posts so visit here again in the next week.

My compliments to United Stationers on a great show, excellent seminars, and to our host site for great food and a spotless facility.  Kudos to Hewlett-Packard for their Tuesday night party and to all the vendors for their support and participation which makes the event possible.

What was my biggest take-away from this years event?  Jay Baer and his discussion on social media.  Do you participate in Twitter of Facebook as a business?

The last word: “If you live your life in the past, you waste the life you have to live.” -Jessica Cress

Challenges, Disappointments, Opportunities

Filed Under (OP News & Views, OP Sales Training) by Don on 09-03-2011

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Such is life in sales.  Although the economy seems to be the biggest disappointment, we as sales people are our own biggest challenge.  With gas approaching four dollars a gallon it is easy to make the excuse “I can’t afford to go out and make sales calls”.  But sitting at home making excuses doesn’t bring in any new business, grow your existing business or continue to build your business relationships.  You need to work smarter, get better organized and remain focused on your goals.

Thinking of working smarter, we rolled out to our group not long ago a data mining program that I am truly impressed with.  If I would have had such a program years ago when I was an outside rep it would have made my life and job so much more productive and easier.  After many months of discussion and consideration we added the Sales-i program to our back-end system.  Sales-i sorts and extracts customer and product information from our system we could never access before.  We always knew this information was there but didn’t have a way to extract it, Sales-i does that and much more.  It is more than a usage report, it categorizes the product categories and tells you how much business potential you are getting or missing in each account.  It shows you your margins on products and you can set up alerts that will email you when your customer hasn’t made a recent purchase, or about anything else you can imagine.  If you have a sales team I highly recommend that you take a look at Sales-i.

I would also like to give two thumbs up to our Salels-i trainer, Jeff Gardner from Maximum Performance Group. I had Jeff come to our office for hands-on training for our team and it made a huge difference.  Jeff is more than a trainer, he is also a sales person at heart and understand the challenges the OP sales rep has.  Jeff was a worthy investment and a fine person to have support your team.

There are many opportunities out there as there are challenges to meet them.  Disappointments, well we all have some.  Customers don’t seem to have loyalties much any more, sales people want all the commissions without doing the work, and I still hate selling copy paper.  However, I’m spending more time coaching and field training our reps which I love to do.  It gets me out of this miserable office (I hate being tied to a desk!) and I love to meet new people and help the reps with prospecting and developing new business within existing accounts. Remember, work smarter not harder and utilize the tools available to help you get new business and remain at the top!

The last word: “You are the only person on earth who can use your ability.”Zig Ziglar

Toughest Question Ever!

Filed Under (OP News & Views, OP Sales Training) by Don on 20-09-2010

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Some reps have said I’m a demanding manager.  Not a tyrant by any means, nothing of the sort.  I simply have high expectations.  I have high expectations of myself so it stands to reason that I have high expectations of others.  I’ve learned over the years that if you expect the best from yourself and from others, people will typically make the extra effort to be successful and do a good job.  No matter what the job is.  I discovered that owning a small business was very demanding and it was challenging meeting my personal expectations.  Those days have gone and now I’m on the other end of the ‘food chain’ again. :)

A manufacturers rep told me one day that I was a demanding customer.  I asked him why.  Because he (the mfrs rep) failed to follow-up with a request I had made not once, but on three separate occasions in an effort to get some information to help one of my staff help with a customer sale.  That makes me a ‘demanding’ person?  I simply smiled and told him that if I was as tough a customer/manager as he implied then I would have called his superior after the second request was ignored.  If this makes me a demanding person, then I’m proud of it.  If you are like me then you can relate to how much emphasis I/you place on giving outstanding customer care/service.  You can’t build long-term personal relationships on crappy customer service.  You don’t build loyalty with crappy customer service.  Instead you bust your behind doing what other people fail, or refuse, to do to give your clients the service they deserve.  Don’t you think YOU deserve that same level of service from others?  How about from the company you work for?

How does this relate to the topic of this post?  Oftentimes when I talk to other sales people I like to ask a tough question. 

Here it is: Would you buy product from your own company?

Many, many times the answer is “no”.  The reason is not usually because of a defective or faulty product.  It usually stems from poor service from other areas in the business out of their control or influence.  Their internal customer service fails in some way, or sometimes their accounting personnel has poor people skills or worse yet, unprofessional collection procedures.  Sometimes it is the delivery or warehouse staff or some other distribution issue directly attributed to their company.  While a one-on-one with the reps manager may bring attention to the issues, most often the problems are never corrected.  If you have, or currently experience these kinds of problems then I’m preaching to the choir so to speak.

So I ask you again, “Would you buy products from your own company” and still feel confident that you will have a great buyers experience?  Think about it.

The last word: “Success means doing the best we can with what we have. Success is the doing, not the getting; in the trying, not the triumph. Success is a personal standard, reaching for the highest that is in us, becoming all that we can be.”-Zig Ziglar

Are You Suffering From Margin Creep?

Filed Under (OP News & Views, OP Sales Training) by Don on 08-09-2010

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I suppose you are familiar with price creep.  This is when a retailer takes a product and places it on sale and when it comes off sale the price has ‘creeped’ up higher than the original selling price.  For example if the product originally sold for $14.99 and the sale price was $10.99, when the item comes off sale the new selling price is now $15.49.  This is the most subtle way stores increase selling prices to an unwary buyer.  This type of price increase is especially popular in grocery stores.  So price creep is when the price gradually ‘creeps’ up at a rate nearly undetectable.

Margin Creep is similar.  For my definition: Margin Creep is a gradual downward trend in profit margins due to several causes.  Margins are gradually creeping downward as reps try to be more competitive and gain new business, or the marketplace has become much more competitive and margins have creeped down as a dealer attempts to hold selling prices while his costs (direct or indirect) are rising.  The danger in this is obvious in most ways but what I’m beginning to see is reps are selling products at lower margins for no justifiable reason.  I discovered a rep actually lower an already quoted price that had been accepted by the buyer simply because they discovered that the manufacturer had a ‘special’ deal on that item for the period.  What could have resulted in a 40%GPM unfortunately wound up with a 21%GPM.  I don’t know about you but when I was a commissioned rep I would much rather have commission on a 40 margin than I would a 21 margin!  When I asked  “Why?” there wasn’t a valid reason but it was too late to back out because the customer had already been informed of the price change.

In this case special pricing from manufacturers are designed to help gain new business, introduce new products and obviously support and drive up new sales.  So as managers and owners, how are we supposed to deal with these kinds of issues?  Do we not inform the reps until after the billing is done and then show them the extra dollars they made or do we take advantage of how special pricing deals are designed to work?  I did a little experiment, I let a rep quote and win a furniture job that had an extra margin discount from the manufacturer and I intentionally did not tell the rep of this extra margin that was available.  The rep did a good job selling the customer and won the business.  The job was quoted at an 18%GPM.  The customer was satisfied with the quote and the work after the install was completed.  When the billing was generated the result was a 35%GPM.  More money for the rep and for the dealer.  So, what does the future decide?  You make the call.

The last word: “Don’t lower our expectations to meet your performance. Raise your level of performance to meet your expectations. Expect the best of yourself, and then do what is necessary to make it a reality.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ask and Ye Shall Receive!

Filed Under (OP Sales Training) by Don on 30-07-2010

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I am still amazed that one of the biggest issues with sales reps is the fact they still don’t ask for the prospects usage/favorites/top 10 or 20 items list when prospecting.  I asked a rep one day why she hasn’t been able to quote a prospect on any products after calling on them multiple times.  The answer I got was “I’ve given them our flyer and catalogs”.  I asked, “Did you ask for their favorites list?” obviously the answer was no.  I would wager that the flyer or catalog she left the prospect went straight to the circular file without a second thought.  One of my loyal customers tells me that when my competition calls they always ask for a favorites list or a usage report.  ALWAYS! 

You will never get to first base if you don’t step up to the plate.  Asking for a list is just as important as asking who the decision maker is.  Why waste time handing out expensive catalogs when you don’t know what your customer is buying!?  It isn’t rocket science but you have to at least make an effort.  The next step in the “Asking” process is to ASK for the order.  You’ve gotten past the introduction, you have their list and given them your quote.  Do you really think they are going to order from you if you don’t have the guts to ask for the order?  I remember a call I made many years ago and the price I quoted for the product was higher than what the prospect was paying.  He told me up front that my price was higher than his current supplier.  This prospect had inferred earlier that his current supplier was slow to deliver.  I didn’t have anything to lose at this point so I told him that  it was worth a few dollars more to know that he would always get his order the next day, even if I had to deliver it myself.  So, could I have his business and the order?  After a long look from him he said yes.  Some time later in our business relationship he told me that the only reason I got his business that first time was because I wasn’t afraid to admit my price was higher and still ask for the business.

Point is folks, you will not get the information you need and you certainly won’t get the business if you don’t ask!  Conversation is a two-way street and you have to engage people in conversation.  You do that by asking open-ended questions.  In case you don’t know what that is, an open-ended question is one that requires a reply other than a yes or no answer.  Engage your customer in conversation and ask for their list.  This is a critical part of your selling process.  Without it, you fail.  Never give up and never give in, the business is out there if you will simply ask for it!  Good luck!

The last word: “There are no mistakes or failures, only lessons.” -Denis Waitley

Are You Surveying Your Customers?

Filed Under (OP News & Views, OP Sales Training) by Don on 09-07-2010

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This is a busy time of year for me as I’m busy planning our marketing strategies, catalogs and flyers for 2011.   I typically use my past experience(s), seek the input/opinions of my field reps, and listen to suggestions from our first call wholesaler regarding any new programs they offer plus my various research throughout the year to create my plan.  While I’m comfortable with these procedures I decided this year to do things a little differently.  I normally survey our customers via email survey at least once per year and this has always been very revealing and provided much feedback.  This year I decided that I would visit some customers and ask them what kinds, or types,  of marketing materials (catalogs, flyers, emails, etc.) they prefer.  The results were most interesting.  Let me explain.

I’ve been in this industry since 1985 therefore it is easy to guess my age.  Age is important because most people our ages do not shop and make purchases the same way many of our customers do.  Since I’m a bit of a computer/technology geek I don’t necessarily fit this description.  If you’re out in the market you soon realize that buyers of business products are getting younger and the age group is usually between 25 and 40 years of age with the majority of orders being placed by someone in the front office or the receptionist.  This age group grew up with computers and the internet, this is their comfort zone.  Have you noticed that most, if not all, cell phone advertising is directed toward the 18-30 age group?  Does it not stand to reason that if this is the age group placing orders for the products you sell, then it makes sense to target that age group in a form and fashion they prefer?  Absolutely!  So, I went into the field and talked at length to customers and asked them specifically how they shopped; do they look at catalogs, do they prefer to shop online or in a book, what catalogs they liked or preferred, and how did they want to place their orders?

This line of questioning was the basis of my visit and obviously there were more questions directed at their responses but in the interest of time I’ll make the results brief.  Many of the replies were expected, and suspected, but they made valid much of my previous research.  Here are the responses:

95%, preferred only a single (yearly) list-priced full line reference catalog.  98% preferred a monthly sales flyer over a quarterly flyer.  86% preferred to place orders online.  94% preferred to shop and/or search prices online.  82% found the mail-in rebates in flyers created a desire to purchase the product to receive the “Free” item.  When specifically pointing out a mail-in rebate for a toner cartridge that required the buyer to purchase two cartridges to qualify for the free offer, 97% chose to buy two just to receive the free offer and 99% of those who send in for the free offer take the offer home for their personal use.  98% said they wanted to recieve at least one email sales flyer per month while at the same time noting that our big-box competitors email them weekly.

On a final note I also showed many of the 25-35 age buyers my catalog cover choices for 2011 because I wanted to see what they specifically found attractive.  100% said they didn’t like covers with ‘people’ on them.  100% didn’t like covers with a cartoon because they said the cartoon is only funny once.  95% didn’t like covers with animals/pets because they didn’t think it was professional.  One cover selection I personally liked (and was my #1 choice) because it looked like a magazine cover was turned down by 99% of those polled.  Why, I asked.  Their reply?  We don’t read magazines and it looks like a magazine. I was disappointed, but enlightened.

There were other questions and replies of which I made many notes and I’ve made some changes to my plans for next year based on these replies.  I’m still hedging on the social media stuff like Twitter and Facebook but I’m busy studying up on how these channels can improve our business.  The point is to actively engage your customers in whatever means appeals to them.  Not one single customer refused to talk to me and all of them were delighted to be a part of the process.  I took the time to explain what I was doing and why and I encouraged them to speak their mind, there was no right or wrong answer.  I found the time to be well spent and extremely valuable.  I encourage you to do the same, to actively engage in surveys and polls to your customers and I can assure you that it will be a learning experience. 

The last word: “Life’s up’s and downs provide windows of opportunity to determine your values and goals.  Think of using all obstacles as stepping stones to build the life you want” -Marsha Sinetar