The times they are a-changin’
by Walter E. Tobin
The summer months are upon us. This is usually a time to look forward to getting away from the office and spend more time with the family, to travel to new places, fly on planes, check into hotels or resorts, eat at new restaurants …
Boy, have times changed!
When did we ever think we would yearn for the days in the office, getting up at 4:00 a.m. to get on a flight to a city, to attend a meeting, to visit a customer, to share a meal with old/new friends and then to do the same thing the next day or longer?
Why do we miss the old customs of our recent past? Are we really hoping to return to the old days or some combination of the old and the “new abnormal” of the past few months? What will we take with us into our new world when this new abnormal emerges? Are we already in it? Is this how we will be living our business and personal lives for the near term? Forever?
Let me take a few moments of your time to summarize what all of us have gone through these past few months and share some thoughts on what to expect going forward.
When our world changed in early March, none of us thought we would still be dealing with these issues four-plus months later. What began as a perceived short-term inconvenience morphed into a longer-term way of life.
What did all of you do to react to this? Plenty.
The initial two to four weeks looked something similar to this:
You immediately sprang into action and equipped your company with the hardware and software necessary to work from home. You installed various opportunity tracking software on your home computers so you could continue to update and report opportunities to your principals and maintain contact with your distributor partners.
You also wanted to ensure that you could still get in touch with your customers, both engineering and purchasing, at their home offices. Did you have their cell numbers or just their work phone numbers and work emails? Had you ever called them on their cell? Would they even take a call on their cell? How did they want to be communicated with, if at all? It was certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach to your customer outreach initiatives.
You established a working agreement with your principals on opportunity updates, how and how often to talk via Zoom, GoToMeeting, phone or email. You also established the same dialogue with your channel partners to communicate on supply chain issues with common customers and ongoing branch training sessions.
You began to establish a cadence. You eventually began to settle into a new daily and weekly schedule, while working from a home office, possibly sharing this space with your significant other and children at home as schools were closed. All of you trying to carve out your own space, all drawing off of the same WiFi connection …
We all began to feel good about what we had done, didn’t we? We seemed to have nailed it! We were even beginning to tell everyone that “we are not missing a beat,” perhaps even saying: “We are just as productive NOW or even more productive than we were before the virus hit!” We were so proud of our companies and our team members!
But are we really as productive? Most of us grew up carrying a bag, and still do, visiting customers and manufacturers, our channel partners, spreading the word about our principals’ products, managing our “book of business,” following up on leads, seeking out NEW customers and NEW opportunities for our principals.
How effective have any of us been on MEETING NEW CUSTOMERS, DISCOVERING NEW OPPORTUNITIES, WORKING ON NEW DESIGNS with engineers who are at home? I would argue that we may have nailed the “as productive” aspect of existing customers but may have missed the boat on developing new opportunities with NEW customers.
All of us need to pat ourselves on the back for doing a GREAT job in reacting and setting up our companies and holding on to our existing business. However, I sense that we are certainly not as productive as we were in the past. We should never confuse activity with accomplishment.
The past few weeks have really shown the manufacturers’ rep model to be the most optimum sales model, not only in these crazy times but at all times. Many manufacturers’ direct sales force has faced severe layoffs due to fixed cost of sales, limited customer reach and limited knowledge of the territory. These are strong advantages that the rep model brings to our industry.
As a rep, you have several different products and technologies to Zoom with an engineer on when you get him/her on a call. You can “package” the various technologies from one of your principals with other principals’ products to offer a total solution to the engineer. The rep’s approach of a total solution selling model versus an individual socket sale has certainly shown itself to be most effective over the past several weeks. The reps are our industry’s “canaries in the coal mine” so to speak – to get an early entrance into the customer’s design process and “light up the target” for your principals.
So, I give the reps a HUGE THUMBS UP! for the job that they have done since the virus hit!
Depending on where you live, we are now in Phase three or four of reopening and many folks might hope that they are “done” and will run in place until we get back to normal and back to business as in the past.
But I submit that we will never get back to those days. We cannot simply put the pieces of the puzzle back together as the total picture of the puzzle has changed and all of the pieces are now different. You cannot solve a new puzzle with old pieces or old thinking.
Do you think you can remain with this run-in-place model until we emerge into the new abnormal? Not if you want to keep your principals happy, your rep company competitive and stay on top of your customers’ design efforts and ahead of your competition.
While states are beginning to reopen, when will your customers? When will the distributor branches reopen? Will they even let you in? When will you reopen your own office? What physical changes will you need to make to your own office? What will your customers’ lobbies look like? Will they even allow anyone in? If so, they may limit your visit to the main lobby with social distancing in place possibly only fitting one or two visitors in the lobby at one time and scheduling time between visits to properly clean the tables and chairs. They may maintain a strict schedule that could result in your requested appointment being scheduled out MANY weeks beyond your requested date.
It is obvious that a “maintain” strategy is one of mediocrity and will set you up for failure.
What do you think the definition of face-to-face (F2F) will be moving forward? Do you think your customers will now define F2F as a Zoom call? It is hard to read body language or shades of intent on a Zoom call. However, we cannot reject this new way of supporting our customers. While we need to advocate for an in-person experience when times eventually allow, F2F will be a combination of Zoom and in-person meetings. Do not run from this new tool, embrace it.
What new tools will you be arming your sales folks with? What new training are you putting them through now so they can be ready when the lobbies reopen? How can you gain an advantage over the competition?
Let’s look at one example.
Over the past few weeks, I am sure that you have tried to support your favorite restaurant by ordering takeout food. What have restaurants done overnight to secure your takeout business? What changes have they made to their websites to secure your business? They have posted a takeout menu, provided an automated process to order, to select a time to pick up food and pay online. They have provided no-touch delivery to your car. They implemented this almost overnight and made it easy for you as their customer to buy from them. They reacted immediately to your needs.
What changes have you made? How will you support your customer or distributor moving forward? What changes have you made to your company website? What does your website say about your digital image? Does it have hot links to your manufacturers? What does it say about your team? Your technical abilities? Your design in capabilities? When was the last time you visited your company website?
Manufacturers’ websites often have hot links to your company – what will it tell a perspective customer who is looking for information when they land on your home page?
What about your distributor training? Many of the branches may not open for a while. I recommend that you get on the branch training schedule NOW. It is easier and quicker to conduct distributor training on Zoom than to get an audience in front of the entire sales team at the branch. The branches are scheduling their training session now, get in the queue!
How are you handling samples? As you know, we have always used sample requests as an early indicator of a new design or redesign. However, the delivery of these samples becomes a bit complicated in today’s times. Some manufacturers are beginning to ship samples directly to the customer at his/her home to avoid an extra set of hands touching them and thus bypassing the rep. You used to insist that the samples be delivered to YOU so you can deliver them to the customer, either at their home or at an off-site meeting. However, you may support these samples “drop shipped” to the customer and following up with a video demo call.
You then get a chance to review this design, get a sense of the block diagram and possibly ask, “What else are you working on?”
Continue to use samples as a Trojan Horse to get a Zoom call or in-person appointment when allowed.
What about buddy calls with your distributor? Of course! Get aligned with your lead distributor salesperson at EACH ONE of your accounts and set up Zoom buddy calls with engineering.
How about design reviews? Look at upgrading your customers’ designs by offering newer and better products. Now is the time to do preemptive strikes and look at EOL parts or “not recommended for new design” status parts. Be proactive. Your customers will thank you.
How about some non-solicited price reductions? Are you selling them parts that may be legacy devices and that your principal and distributor are realizing an extra-ordinary high-profit margin? Why not approach the customer with a price reduction? Have you ever done it? Was it ever done to you? I can assure you that your customer will never forget it! The price reduction result is so much more impactful than if the customer goes out for a bid and you then give them a substantial price reduction. They may feel that you were ripping them off all along! If you do a preemptive strike, you will win a customer forever, often at a very small cost.
NOW is the time to “sharpen your skates” for when things reopen.
Here are some suggested action items that you need to do NOW to have a solid advantage:
1. Look into Microsoft Office 365 and SharePoint — a powerful tool for your rep company.
2. Upgrade your company’s software solutions — make sure it links to your internal database and is updated.
3. Upgrade your LinkedIn account to Premium/SalesNavigator package – this may cost each individual approximately $800 per year, a small investment in your business; rep owners may be able to get a group discount. We held an ERA Water Cooler call focused specifically on LinkedIn Sales Navigator tips. The call was recorded and is available on the ERA website to both ERA members and not-yet-members.
4. Tips on Google search tricks of the trade. ERA featured a session on this topic at our most recent conference. Presenter Sam Richter offered some pretty amazing information. Look into it.
5. Review/upgrade your website. You can do this with a relatively small investment. ERA can lead you to companies to help you if you are interested.
6. What sort of internet service do you have at home? Look into adding a second modem for your business that is separate from your home use and keep your family off of it! This may be perhaps at an additional expense of $200 per month — your business is well-worth this investment.
7. Upgrade your IT platforms in the office. When were they last looked at? Get your IT provider to do a review of your service.
8. Upgrade your laptops. How old are they? Do they have video/camera and hotspot capabilities? Arm your sales teams with the best weapons, NOW!
9. Upgrade your online video conferencing account. What sort of Zoom, Teams or GoToMeeting account do you have? Many free video services are crashing due to the lack of a solid backbone. Upgrade to a higher level paid package. It is well worth the investment
10. You are getting bombarded with emails on virtual training, software, etc. Look into a few of them, some are really worth the investment
11. The ERA Water Cooler calls and ERA Talks podcasts are open to all ERA members and not-yet-members. You may pick up some great ideas from your peers. All past sessions are archived on era.org. Give them a listen!
12. Use some of the monies that you are saving on T&E and gas today on sales training and these new tools so you can stay ahead of your competition.
13. YOUR company will be recognized quickly as BEST-IN-CLASS in the market, allowing you to beat your competition.
We will come out of this … someday … but the world will look different. Our customers will expect more from us. Your principals will expect more from you. Your employees are looking to you to take action now to ensure their long-term viability. We all need to act NOW.
As always, ERA is here to help you as needed. We are out there advocating a strong relationship between the rep and the distributor to work in partnership to deliver a strong product offering from the manufacturer — the three legs of the stool working together to deliver service excellence to the end customer. This is a pretty simple formula and magic happens with all of us working together. Frankly, it’s an unbeatable combination.