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

Five Selling Skills for a Down Economy

Filed Under (OP News & Views, OP Sales Training, The Competition) by Don on 22-06-2010

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Greetings!  First off, let me apologize for my absence these past few months.  Work has been hectic, frustrating, sometimes rewarding and always challenging. 

Our big box competitors have turned up the heat on the independent dealers trying to capture new business in this down economy.  The result has been margin depletion’s and buyers are using multiple vendors in an effort to get the best price on every product they procure.  Service seems less important to many buyers and price is the driving force behind where and from whom customers make their purchases.  I’ve been spending more time out in the field with reps making cold calls and spending time with long time customers.  I’m finding that the long-time customer/buyer that has been loyal to you is now being directed, and sometimes forced, by management to base their buying decision solely on price.  Even when the loyal buyer wants to continue to buy from you their managers are holding them accountable for finding and procuring the cheapest price.  Don’t take the loyal customer for granted.  They are being pressured to buy on price, not service.

Getting in the office to see new prospects is even more difficult.  Cutbacks in personnel is causing employees to do the jobs of two, three and even four people.  Tensions are high in many offices and a cold-calling sales rep walking into the office is not welcomed.  Here are my suggestions for selling in 2010 and beyond. 

Pre-Call Permission- Don’t walk in unannounced off the street.  Spend a day in the office and make your prospecting calls and ask permission to stop by the prospects office at a convenient time to leave your information.  This breaks the ice when you walk in and gives you a name to ask for in the prospects office.  You can gather more information while you’re there.  Be brief and respectful and make an appointment for your next call after you determine the decision makers identity.

Patient Persistence – It is a rare thing to open a new account on the first or second call.  Where it used to take five calls on average to open a new account it now takes eight or ten calls or more.   Nearly 80% of reps quit after the fourth call.  Persistence pays dividends in the form of new business but it is the persistence that wins the business.  Don’t be a quitter, be the winner! 

Network the Customer – It is increasingly important that you network within your customers office.  When you call on your customer(s), greet and introduce yourself to everyone in the office.  From the front office to the warehouse be on a first name basis with everyone.  Not only will you gain more sales but you will create a rock solid relationship with the people that will give you insight into their business and keep you in-the-know when your competitors come knocking at the door.  The cost? Minimal.  The result? Priceless!

Survey your customer – Easy to use products such as Constant Contact make it simple and affordable to survey your customers.  Your customers are a wealth of information.  Information you need to know to be more successful.  They can tell you about changing buying habits, preferences, and other valuable information.  Keep your survey limited to ten or fifteen questions (to keep your survey brief) and be certain to include a comments field on every question.  This is very important because not all questions are so cut and dry “yes or no”.  We all love to share our opinion and you will be surprised at the depth  of information you will get with this simple add-on.  I can bet some of the replies you receive will surprise you!

Know your customer- If you can’t tell me in one minute what your customers business is, then you are going to fail.  Be specific, such as if your customer is a law firm don’t just tell me they are lawyers.  What kind of lawyers are they? Civil, litigation, divorce, children’s, criminal, traffic, insurance, what kind of practice is their firm?  Why?  Because each of these have common items and also unique items based on their type of practice.  Same thing for a doctor’s office or and accounting firm.  This depth of knowledge will tell you what kinds of products they use or may provide a solution to a problem they have.  For example we recently visited an accounting firm that used open file storage and I noticed that many of their files were beyond their capacity and falling out of the file folders.  Although they used box bottom files they used a crude form of end-tab filing that didn’t perform.  So I suggested a Smead End Tab Expanding File Pocket.  I volunteered a  few samples for them to try.  As a result they loved the product and it was a considerable upsell from their previous failing folders.  Be observant, ask questions and provide solutions.  Stop being an order taker and be an order maker!

There’s my nickels worth and I hope you get at least one good take-away point.  How about you?  What has changed in your market and what works for you?

The last word:  “You were born to win, but to be a winner, you must plan to win, and expect to win!” -Zig Ziglar

Balancing the Scales of Achievement & Development

Filed Under (OP Sales Training) by Don on 04-06-2008

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In the June edition of Independent Dealer magazine there is a great article by Krista Moore on sales management.  One area in specific caught my attention and that was the personal, not group, development of sales reps.  In my current role I am sales manager and marketing manager for the company.  In the 23+ years I’ve been in the office products and equipment industry I’ve filled the roles of sales rep, business owner, delivery guy, service man (laser printers), controller, sales manager, warehouse manager, janitor and cook.  Although I consider myself as being successful in my rolls I enjoy the marketing and sales manager the most.  I am a research and reading fanatic and these rolls always offer many areas of personal growth and knowledge development.  I’ve sold the office products, printing, ad specialty and equipment for years so I am comfortable with the products themselves.

What drew my attention to Krista’s article was individual growth goals and personal development.  I always had my own goals and development and never had anyone else to set them for me.  I’m to much of a perfectionist to ever allow that to happen anyway!  Krista’s message made me realize that I set group and individual goals but train as a group and not so much as individuals.  What I have not done is considered the individual strengths and weaknesses of the rep and made any adjustments to their personal training and goals based on their needs.  I simply tried to hard to accommodate the group needs and forgot to consider how the individual needs of each rep must be addressed.  I do have weekly sales meetings and one-on-one’s with my team and seek to discover areas of improvement but I haven’t gone so far as to have written personal development plans.  Krista was spot on when she states, “For development, you should have a list of core competencies that successful sales reps in our industry must possess in order to succeed and score your reps on a scale that you can share with them.”  Therein lies the area I need to improve in for my teams sake.

I work hard to coach, reward, recognize and give constructive feedback to my team and I hold them accountable for their successes or failures.  Ultimately however, I am the person that must accept success or failure for them and recognizing my own weaknesses will better enable me to meet their needs and develop an achievement plan that will yield successful results for the company and the reps.  Do you have individual plans for your reps or do you apply a broad brush to your company goals and set your quotas/goals as such?  Do you have a step-by-step system to drive your company sales growth and personal growth development?  Do you balance achievement and development?  More information regarding Krista Moore can be found on her website at www.opwebinar.com with information regarding her online training classes specific to our industry.

The last word: “There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation – veneer isn’t worth anything.”– George Washington Carver