Salespeople: Don't waste a contractor's time

April 10, 2000
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It’s easy to determine how well your people are selling to your contractor-customers. That’s what sales reports are for. But your customers are more concerned with how well they are being served by your salespeople.

Why is that important? Because you don’t want to just sell something to a contractor; you want to build a relationship that lasts over time. You want to establish reciprocal loyalty.

In order to survive, your hvacr wholesaling business must be a relationship-building business.

And when it comes to developing these relationships, it is not how well your salespeople present features and overcome contractors’ objections that counts, but how well they serve these customers’ needs.

First, what does it mean for a salesperson to serve the contractor-customer? And second, how do you know that it is happening effectively?

Clearly, you know what it means for your company to serve your customers. On-time deliveries, competitive prices, reliable service, technical assistance, etc., all come into play.

But what do these customers want from your outside salespeople?

In denial?

The problem is, few companies have a consistent description of customer service. I have yet to meet a salesperson that did not believe that s/he provided excellent customer service.

Not once has a salesperson told me, “You know, Dave, I really do a poor job of serving my customers.”

The result? Inconsistent service, and lots of unmet customer expectations.

I recently worked with one of my clients to gain a deeper understanding of what service means. We gathered six of this client’s brightest customers together for a half-day focus group. Here’s what they said:

  • Don’t waste their time.

    Don’t come unprepared. Have something of value to share or don’t come. And when you do visit, make sure you have all the answers. Know what the product does or doesn’t do, what the pricing and terms are, and be prepared to answer all their questions.

  • Be empowered to handle things now.

    One customer talked about the salesperson as “victim,” as one who spends time explaining how the truck broke down, or the manufacturer back-ordered the product. In effect, the salesperson was saying, “It wasn’t our fault.”

    These customers don’t really care whose fault a problem is — they only want solutions.

    One customer pointed out that the Ritz-Carlton authorizes its maids to spend up to $2,000 to make a customer happy, while the salespeople who call on him can’t resolve a problem over a blower motor without several phone calls and days of approvals.

  • Know the customer’s business.

    Don’t waste their time or insult their intelligence by presenting products or services they can’t use. Salespeople should know their customers’ processes, goals, markets, and strategies.

    “The best salespeople,” one said, “are like extensions of my business.”

  • Bring them solutions, not problems.

The customers did not want to discover after the fact that a purchase would be back-ordered or short-shipped. Find the problems before the customers experience them, then bring solutions. Describe the options and let your customers decide what to do.

Sorry about that?

The salesperson who says, “I’m sorry about last week’s back-order,” is not serving the customer.

The salesperson should say, “Next week we’re going to short-ship this order. If you need the balance right away, we can do any of three things to help. Here are your options ….”

If you’re like most of my clients, at this point you may be doubtful that your sales force is really serving your customers. Here are five initiatives:

1. Make sure your salespeople are prepared to present any new product or program.

Don’t think that just because someone presented a new product in Friday afternoon’s sales meeting that the salespeople are fully equipped to thoroughly present it.

Role-play a customer asking questions. Don’t stop until everybody gets it right. Think through every possible question that may arise, and make sure every salesperson has an intelligent answer.

2. Insist that each salesperson have a plan for every sales call, and something of value to bring to the customer.

Spot-check sales call plans and reports. When you or your sales managers are traveling in the field with salespeople, check their preparation.

3. Empower salespeople to fix problems on the spot.

Create some guidelines for the level of authority the salesperson has. For example, you may decide that a salesperson can issue a credit of up to $500 on the spot to fix any problem s/he needs to.

Instill information systems that allow the salespeople to have on-line access to order status, inventory, pricing, etc.

4. Train and equip them to “know their customer’s business.”

Create detailed account profile forms, either electronic or paper, and require the sales force to use them. At sales meetings, instead of only discussing your products and processes, educate the salespeople on a typical contractor-customer’s business.

5. Teach and equip them to become proactive problem-solvers.

Make sure they have the right information tools to proactively discover problems before they hit the contractor-customer. When you and your sales manager ride with them, watch to make sure they are using those tools effectively.

6. From time to time, personally visit some of your contractor-customers, and ask them how your sales force is doing relative to other salespeople, and to that customer’s expectations.

Take a form to make sure that you are thorough. Use that input to refine your system.

Do these things and you’ll begin to field a sales force that the customers view as valuable. You’ll take a huge step forward in developing the kind of relationships you’ll need to survive and thrive in the 21st century.

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