Monday, March 20, 2017

Understanding your Customer – A simple tutorial

Most distributor salespeople identify themselves as solution sellers.  Yet, experience dictates only a few dedicate the time and resources to truly comprehend the drivers behind
customer decisions.  When questioned, most struggle to understand customer issues outside of their own products.   Truth is, their version of solution selling is mostly service and support wrapped around the technologies they sell.  While this wrapping of service and support probably does justify the “solution seller” mantra, I believe we, as sellers, will soon be obsolete if we don’t move our attention to providing solutions which push beyond supporting our line card.  Many agree with this opinion, but just don’t know how to get started.

For years, I have advocated for distributor sales professionals reading the trade publications covering their customer’s industry.  Because so many of our readers are actively calling on manufacturing facilities, I thought I would share some comments from Plant Engineering Magazine.  But before we launch into the meat and potatoes of this piece, allow me a few word on the magazine. 

Plant Engineering focuses on things a broad-based plant engineer, maintenance manager, facilities supervisor and others responsible for keeping the facility running.  Each month there are articles covering product technology; mostly basics, but containing enough meat for a newbie seller to gain some insight into the products.  For instance, the latest edition (March 2017) contains an article on selecting the right LED lighting system, a short bit on thermography and a story outlining the expenses associated with leaking plant air lines.  But the feature story is a survey of plant engineers (called the Maintenance Report.)  And, that is the real deal for all of us in sales.

Let’s explore some of the findings….

The average survey participant has 22 years of experience with 32 percent having over 30 years of experience.  This means something like a third of these folks are fast approaching retirement.  The average facility has 406 employees with a quarter of the plants pushing over the 500 employee mark.  The industries represented are a representation of manufacturing in North America.  Everything from fabricated metals and pharmaceuticals to automotive and aerospace is represented.

Unscheduled downtime is ripe with selling opportunities…
The leading causes of unscheduled downtime is aging equipment at 42 percent and operator error at 19 percent.  Lack of time for maintenance and not maintaining equate to another 24 percent.  When asked how these would be addressed, the answers indicate a number of selling opportunities:  

Sixty (60) percent of the survey respondents point to equipment upgrades as part of their strategy.  Here might be some questions for a seller:
·         Do you know which pieces of equipment at your customer’s facility are the most troublesome for unscheduled downtime?  If not, why not ask?
·         Do you know the financial impact of loss time from the troublesome equipment?  Most facilities fix the machines which have a high payback first.
·         Are you calling on the people responsible for machine rebuilding and repair?  As strange as it may seem, your “normal” contacts in engineering and maintenance may not have a handle on the process of equipment upgrades.

Fifty (50) percent of the respondents point to improved training and more frequent training in their plant.  Again, this opens the doors for a salesperson.  Here are some questions:
·         What are your customer’s training needs?  Many don’t actually know what exactly would drive greater uptime (and more revenue) to their facility.
·         What training offerings could the technical people tied to your organization provide?  Typically, the local community colleges, who are often working to get training dollars, have neither customer specific knowledge nor real world fundamentals tied to the equipment in place.
·         Could you offer training to “non-technical” people to bring up the level of competency of machine operators on the plant floor?  Typically, this is not something the plant engineering people have a handle on.  Instead, this comes under the purview of production and HR personnel.  Do they even know who you are?

Between 45 and 50 percent of the facilities are looking towards preventative maintenance and remote monitoring strategies for attacking unplanned downtime.  This is another selling opportunity.  Continuing with questions:
·         Do you have products with monitoring capabilities built in?  Looking backward, if you know the machines which might be updated and you have products with monitoring capabilities, you could position your company to partner on the projects.
·         A few very progressive distributors have added services to their product offerings.  Are you one of these companies?  If so, now might be the time to fine tune and relaunch your offering as a customer driven service.

The average facility is outsourcing nearly one fifth of their maintenance work.   For distributors who have embraced the fee-based service model, this could result in added revenue.  For those who do not sell services, it probably means you will be called on to provide added services for free, and that drags down profitability.  Decidedly against working fee-based services?  I suggest locating and cultivating a relationship with an outside source.  Acting as a conduit for new business will position you for making new sales. 

Where to start?  A real life strategy…
We started our conversation on the topic of reading customer-centric publications as a tool for understanding customers.  Let’s continue this thought. 
·         What would happen if you scheduled an appointment with the Plant Engineering Manager or Facilities Manager of your customer and showed up with this survey in hand? 
·         What would happen if you shared a copy and asked how the findings aligned with her location? 

There is an excellent chance the following conversation would result in a better understanding of your customer’s situation.  During the conversation, remember to follow this time tested set of guidelines:
·         Prepare questions ahead of time so they are on the top of your mind.  Many of the points outlined above can be morphed into great customer questions.
·         Avoid launching into “product spiels.”  The time for selling is later.
·         Whenever possible direct the conversation to money.  What are costs associated with downtime and how could improving productivity affect the bottom line are good questions.
·         Listen for the names of people in the production department who might benefit from training.
·         Take careful notes and ask if you can repeat back important points.

And for future reference, the website for Plant Engineering is here.  I recommend you review the report which is listed under research.  It’s free and I believe will drive business.  How cool is that?


Anonymous said...

From a recent article in Industry Week Magazine...
"The more you can minimize downtime, the more you can improve throughput and quality,"
2016 Industry Week best plant winner.

The whole article is here...

TQMI said...

This information is impressive..I am inspired with your post writing style & how continuously you describe this topic.
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