Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Life and Times of an Elephant Hunter

Last week I had the opportunity to meet a real live Elephant Hunter. No, not the African Safari kind, this elephant hunter
was of the sales variety. After years of bouncing from manufacturer to distributor and back, he called me to help him find his next opportunity. During the normal introductory niceties, (contrary to my wife’s opinion, I am a nice guy,) he boasted about a dozen or so really big deals he had singlehandedly managed during his two decade career. Make no mistake, this made an impressive list. I was buying into his story hook line and sinker. Until, we reached the point where I asked him, why he was looking for a new opportunity.

For some reason he didn’t share upfront, he was currently “between jobs.” With this impressive list, one would wonder how such a rain-maker could possibly be out of work. I know lots of sales organizations and very few willingly separate ways with someone who can really bring in business. It made me scratch my head. I asked him about it and the answer was shocking, he said my last couple of deals didn’t come through and my business dropped off substantially.

For distributors in his industry, business can be divided into “project” business and flow business. Even during the darkest hours of the Great Recession, the flow business for most customers continued to roll in. The ratio for a healthy end-user customer looks something like 70 percent flow and 30 percent project. Things look slightly different for OEM customers, but even there most have some flow business remaining.

About fifteen minutes into the conversation, I explained my thoughts on flow business and asked if I was missing something. After a long pause, I heard a reluctant story of no time to build a solid foundation of long term repeat business. This guy prided himself on bringing every resource possible toward capturing the big deal. He felt pursuing what he termed as “piddle” routine stuff was better left for those small minded types who couldn’t hunt the elephants.

The truth about our kind of selling
One of the issues I have with many of the generic off-the-shelf sales training courses comes from the backgrounds of the instructors. Many industries thrive on “one time” sales. The sale is an event rather than a process. For distributors, it works differently. Our sales strategy is a continuous string of discovering customer needs, proposing a solution, assisting with implementation of the solution and repeating the process. Over the years, we develop customer trust, build loyalty and grow our flow. We strive for what some call “customer wallet share.” When things go well, our ongoing actions entice the customer to purchase more from us because they know we desire the orders.

Capturing projects has a place in our world, but only after we have built a solid groundwork of customer knowledge, relationship and trust. Chasing projects which just happen to come floating across our desks is often an exercise in futility. We waste our time and resources developing complex quotes for business with little chance of success. Further, negotiation experts like Anthony Perzow of SPASigma indicate some of our quotations are simply used as rabbits to drive down the price of the guy the customer really wants to buy from. The rabbit has zero chance of closing the order. In a day when most distributors are fighting to channel resources, time spins down the drain.

What should we be doing?
Targeting the right customer list for our efforts makes sense.
Building a relationship and trust takes time. If we spend our time on customers with little potential, the payoff never comes.
Asking the right questions and gathering customer data pays off as well. Nothing accentuates our relationship with a customer like understanding their business. The more we know about the customer’s unique situation, the better our chances of providing valuable solutions.

Understanding our competitors on an account by account basis helps us better position ourselves. We must recognize why the customer buys from others. This is especially important if you “split” the business with several competitive distributors at an account.

Harnessing the efforts of our supply-partners builds our portfolio of business. Very few distributors enjoy exclusive supplier relationships. Protecting business against cross-channel conflicts preserves our margins and frees supply-partners salespeople to work directly in building your position at the customer.

Focus, but don’t be an elephant hunter…
It’s our job to capture as much business from our territory as possible. I believe focus is important. For most distributor salespeople, this means focusing in on 30-40 accounts. Elephant hunters want a list of 200 accounts so they can search for the jumbo sized orders as they appear. Working to create a relationship with 30 or so accounts gives you time to develop the relationship, grow the flow and when the elephant appears take it down in the normal course of business.

What happened to my newly found elephant hunting friend? I am not sure any of this advice sunk in. His last words were something to the effect of... “When the economy picks up, the big orders will come back and I will be there.” I only hope he has enough money to survive in the meantime.  I have a feeling he'll be singing the old Hoyt Axton song "Where did the money go?"

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