Finding new opportunities during unusual times
by Kingsland Coombs, CPMR, and Greg Miner
The rep model is more relevant than ever and has been a shining success during the pandemic. As the rep model has shifted to a more consultative entity of engineering acumen over the past many years, reps have become trusted advisors to their customers. The frequency of engagement, enhanced by multi-line selling and multi-project activity across a single customer, have led to the ability to maintain powerful influence in the customer decision process during this crisis. More importantly, as the crisis unfortunately continues, we now turn our attention and this discussion to the task of identifying new opportunities, be that at existing accounts or new accounts, from a socially distant, work-from-home approach. New opportunities are the lifeblood of future business, so let’s dive in.
Finding and developing new opportunities in existing accounts during COVID-19 and beyond
The impact of COVID-19 on many businesses is unlike anything most of us have experienced in our lifetime. OEMs have cut back on staff, narrowed product offerings, and focused on/pivoted to only the most relevant new product developments that have the highest probability of success. Knowing that, reps can dig in deeper into customer projects offering more of their time and resources. The patience and support reps provide during this stressed time will be remembered by their customers and will have a positive, long-term effect.
Finding new opportunities with existing customers requires the same diligence now as in the past; however, reps have more tools and methods at their disposal than before.
The proven methods of phone calls and email communication to maintain the customer relationship and learn about new projects will continue to be the most effective. However, many customers are so strapped for time, that they may not pick up the phone or read their email so other strategies are needed.
Scrubbing first-time buy reports (FTBs) is essential and must be done often. Most distributors have their own FTB and are willing to provide them to reps, but only if they get value in return. Reps provide value to distributors on their FTBs by evaluating and reporting if there is a new project behind the billing. Reviewing and actioning from a FTB on a weekly basis (if fresh data are available) minimizes the task and makes it part of a routine. Performing the scrub on a monthly basis, as typically done in the past, can be an overwhelming task due to the amount of data. Also, working with older data risks missing the narrow window of opportunity to get in early on a project and could be too late to take advantage of a fresh new project in its incipiency.
The algorithms used in FTBs are important to understand because not all results will meet the criteria of an actual first-time buy. For example, distributor share shift, new customer contact, part number variants (spaces, hyphens), 12-18 months between buys, understandably show up on distributor FTBs. If the rep deems a particular line item of interest, some diligence must occur by scrubbing their existing customer billings history to confirm a true first-time buy.
Exporting distributor first-time buy data and analyzing it in an Excel Pivot Table is the best way to review these new billings. Reps can sort the data based on their manufacturer, but even better is to sort the data by customer. This way, reps can view several of their manufacturers shipping to a particular customer in a short time leading to higher confidence of new project recognition.
Creating a FTB using the reps own commission data is another impactful method for finding new projects. However, the data can be somewhat stale because reps’ receipt of data is usually linked to principal commission payments. Some principal payments are offset one month for direct OEM and two months for POS; others, longer. An alternative data source is Budde Marketing, which, if available, offers a fresher monthly in-territory shipment view. Data analysis using tools like Excel Pivot Tables or PowerBI is a business requirement for rep firms in today’s world. Fortunately, there are many tutorials available on the internet and reps can and should invest the time to learn these skills.
Other tools for developing new opportunities during COVID-19 and beyond have been virtual meetings and trainings. New product introductions via Zoom, Teams, WebEx and other platforms have become an essential tool to engage with customers. It is best when the customer agrees on the topics to be covered and the presentation is as focused as possible to the current or next program in development. A time allocation of 20 minutes max per one or two topics is usually optimal for the customer. Content presented by the principal’s subject matter experts (SME) is the most effective and recommended.
Maintaining existing customers
Because deeper project engagement/coordination is more time consuming, it is critical that reps are mindful of relationship falloff with other customers whose projects are not as front and center. Reps must check in with their customers routinely and create a cadence in which the customer is expecting a call. Customer’s time is limited, so providing a several bullet point agenda in advance of your call helps keep the call focused. A concise conversation providing value is paramount to the customer’s acceptance of your next call.
Email blasts should be done with careful consideration of your contact list. It is easy to become irrelevant by marketing products to the wrong target customers who will either remove themselves from your list or will learn to disregard your content. Email blast contact lists must be maintained by product interest. Also, keep in mind that some of the most effective marketing is done by individual emails from salespeople to customers. Specific NPIs targeted to a customer known to design with similar components/assemblies is key to keep customer attention. Providing application-specific studies or white papers written by a rep’s principal or even a market SME is very effective, creating a lasting impression toward enabling the role of trusted advisor.
Most of reps’ medium to large-size principals have marketing departments. Reps must be vocal with their principals to let them know what material and medium their customers require to obtain and maintain attention. Besides NPIs and white papers, virtual day-long seminars with multiple topics during the day are proving to be effective. Customers can pick and choose the topics and tune in accordingly. Also, participation in industry-wide seminars like the recent Thermal Live provide an excellent platform to showcase talent and knowledge which leads to future engagement.
Creating meaningful and topical industry-related content on LinkedIn is very effective and encouraged. Not all reps are comfortable creating and posting original content. Alternatively, reps can share posts from various sources and add relevant content in the share process. For example, a rep can share a principal NPI post and add a brief comment on why they think the post is important to their followers. This is a much stronger approach than simply liking content on LinkedIn.
For new project development, customers routinely require samples to aid in their design. If the territory size and customer allow, hand delivering samples is an effective way to maintain relationships. COVID-19 has enabled creative ways of delivery. With masks on, visiting a customer in the company parking lot, or just outside their office building helps keep the relationship moving forward. Going the extra mile and visiting a customer in their home driveway will also leave an impression.
With customers being strapped for time more than ever before, getting attention, and engaging in a phone or email conversation can be difficult. Never assume that a single communication method will work for all. Reps need to figure out the preferred communication method for all their customers who they want to engage.
Texting can be effective; however, reps should always ask for permission to communicate via text. For those customers who do allow for text communication, limit the text message content and maintain brevity. For example, texts can alert a customer about an email sent or a recent voice mail requesting a phone conversation.
If attention via email is not successful, sending a calendar invite for a 15-minute phone call with a several point agenda is often effective. Invites typically are actioned one way or the other. Be careful to not overuse this method if the customer is not engaging.
In addition to face-to-face and phone conversation, emails are the most effective communication method. Personal email styles vary but a bullet-type format is often preferred as it is easier to digest. Even very experienced salespeople must continue to adapt, learn and improve.
New opportunities, new accounts
It’s a changed environment when it comes to engaging new customers with new opportunities. Many of the tried-and-true methods still apply but amplifying those methods and combing some new approaches will serve you well.
First, look to the data. Whatever CRM tool you use, there is likely the ability to run data analytics over the top of aggregate sales data. Similar to looking for new programs in existing accounts, here you’re looking for data that would coalesce on meaningful activity from a new account. Recency is everything when engaging with a new account, so establish a dashboard view that can be updated every week, two weeks, or monthly at the very least, is important. One part, one unfamiliar customer, may be a repair, whereas nine parts from three different lines might be a project. Prioritize the latter and turn your attention to making personal outreach. That’s one example where data might lead to new opportunity.
Second, now is the time to invest in more homework behind new activities being pursued and funded in this environment. Venture capital and entrepreneurs are placing their bets more carefully during challenging economic times, so what is being funded should be of very high interest. Following VC funding in the region, projects crowd-funded on platforms like Indiegogo or Kickstarter, or even following the start-up scene in your state will lead to some interesting opportunities.
Finally, when it comes to finding new opportunities, generating new opportunities, and engaging prospective new customers, now is the time to step up the digital side of your business. More effective and frequent e-marketing campaigns, a stronger presence via social media platforms, and offering up more compelling virtual activities can all help in this regard. For example, tech seminars on specific vertical segments rather than single technical solutions are effective — “Artificial Intelligence Applied to Autonomous Vehicles” tends to draw more potentially new customers than “64-bit Microprocessor roadmaps.” Also, don’t neglect your own e-tools at hand. Step up your LinkedIn activity and membership level to expose more contacts, reach new customers, and make you and your firm more present in current times.