Today’s guest post is by Chris R. Pownall, author of eight books, including Funny How Things Work Out.
Having spent nearly 40 years working in technical sales, I feel reasonably confident about passing on some of what truly worked for me. I believe good, sustainable business can be built only on the basis of truth and honesty.
I recall my interview in 1967, when I was applying for the role of a trainee technical representative with a very well-known engineering manufacturing company. The interview was conducted by the area manager, and following the usual questions about qualifications and experience, he asked me how I would react if one of my major customers experienced lost manufacturing product because I was unable to supply a critical component when required.
“What would you say to your customer?” he asked. Without hesitation, I told him I would tell the truth, and I would explain what actions were been taken to rectify the situation. The area manager gave a big smile and commented that it was company policy to always tell the truth, and that was a strong indicator to me that I was applying for employment with a reliable company that had the kind of values with which I could identify.
Well, I was successful with my application, and as this was my first job in sales, I had to prove myself throughout a probationary period, and then I was tasked with maintaining existing business and developing new business across a wide range of industry sectors. I very soon discovered that I wasn’t selling the cheapest products on the market but some of the most expensive; therefore, I had to develop a sales approach built on honesty, trust, and product reliability.
From the very beginning, I never made any false or misleading claims about any of the wide portfolio of engineering products. Instead, I did my research, looking into many case histories, and built a catalogue of successful product applications that I could use in support of my sales pitch.
When I was cold calling, I would generally ask the potential customer to give me an opportunity to resolve any difficult sealing requirements, and I would attempt to provide a viable solution. Time after time, this sales technique proved to be successful, and many a door was opened in this way.
As my career progressed and I was promoted into sales management, I carried with me the same values regarding honesty and trust, both with my customers, as well as with the sales team that reported to me. I provided a lot of training – both technical and sales training – and I expected all my salespeople to study and work very hard in the pursuit of increased sales. I suppose I was a hard boss, but I never asked them to do anything I wasn’t prepared to do myself, and I always tried hard to support them when things weren’t going according to plan.
I required them to maintain customer records and operate an individual activity plan, which set out their sales strategy to grow the business within their area of responsibility. This all started before the advent of computers, and it was a little labour intensive, maintaining and updating ongoing sales activities. Some resisted, but the better salespeople bought into it, and they were the ones who proved to successfully advance their careers. I used to say to colleagues that I would rather have a brilliant salesperson for two years than a mediocre one for 10 years. The trick was to keep the good ones, and my record shows that a fair proportion of those I recruited advanced within the organization.
As my career progressed further, I became an industry specialist, and this required a great deal more study into products and applications. I attended many training courses both offered within the company and without, including the Cranfield School of Management. While I learned a great deal about professional sales techniques, I always held on to my basic philosophy that simple is good, and integrity and honesty is always the best policy.
Later in my long career, I was asked to work overseas, and my travels took me to many corners of the world. I remember the first time I was required to go to the United States, and while I relished the challenge, I realized that, in breaking new ground in the United States, where there are many indigenous manufacturing competitors, I would need to take something to the party. The first thing I did was research the key US competitors and do some product matching, and at the same time I looked for some unique selling points within my products that I could use to good effect when pitching against the US competition. I started using “value in service” and “cost of ownership” to promote my products, and I was able to demonstrate projected cost savings based upon quality and value rather than price.
On my very first visit to the United States, I had an opportunity to present to the chief engineer of a steel plant. He listened intently to my pitch and then set about questioning some of the statements I had made, and in all cases, I was able to substantiate the claims using third-party references of similar applications.
Toward the end of my career, when I became an industrial marketing director with responsibility for the global metallurgical industries, I started using return-on-investment (ROI) plans to introduce more advanced products. If I could substantiate projections from the customer’s operating data, I was able to put a value to the service advantages of the products I was promoting (value in service).
I have attended numerous external sales courses, where I encountered many gimmicky sales techniques that I considered to be designed to outwit sales resistance from potential customers. They were not for me. Of course, you have to have a good employer behind you, and I was extremely fortunate to serve almost 40 years with a company that had a very strong brand identity, plus the necessary values and standards to move the business forward in line with shareholders’ expectations.
I stick by my simplistic approach, promoting value and honesty.