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> From the Floor – Productive paranoia: Understanding what customers value

by Tom Wichert
Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing
TDK-Lambda Americas

Tom Wichert, executive vice president of sales and marketing at TDK-Lambda Americas, has extensive experience in managing a complex multi-tiered sales channel, as well as executive experience in international and domestic sales. He specializes in strategic relationships, business plans and new product development.

Wichert enjoys managing and mentoring people to perform to the best of their abilities. He has an MBA in marketing from Hofstra University and a B.S.E.E. from West Virginia University. You can reach Tom Wichert at

The phrase “trusted advisor” has been used frequently. It takes the value of a salesperson well beyond just selling products and makes him or her indispensable.

“Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” It’s a famous quote by Andy Grove, one of the founders of Intel Corporation. He described “inflection points,” the key points when your business model changes. These transitions could be driven by technical shifts, social forces, economic conditions or service disruptions. This voice of paranoia was extended and evangelized by author Jim Collins, described as “productive paranoia” in his book, “Great by Choice.”

Both authors emphasized a productive paranoia approach, where awareness, preparation and proactive activity helped their companies not only stay ahead of the changes, but gain a better position for their companies as a result of them.

For sales representatives, to truly understand the value they bring to customers has been an area of continuous change over the last 30+ years. These changes have been driven by the market inflection points Grove described in his 1996 book, “Only the Paranoid Survive.”

For evidence, one only needs to consider the shifts in the way we communicate and interface with customers. Frequent and welcome in-person visits have morphed into text messages. Friendly lunch-and-learn visits with engineers have dwindled in favor of independent surfing of the web, scouring the sites of high-service partners late in the evening to discover new products and study their specifications. Product cost has become the top priority, with product design features second, and supplier credibility lagging behind, a distant third.

Furthermore, larger customers often employ a team of supplier commodity managers, many of whom hide behind “strategy”and create barriers. These impediments block technical experts and supplier advocates from engaging directly with suppliers. This behavior causes these relationships to become transactional and impede the one attribute all good salespeople bring to a customer — trust.

This weakened bond between sales and end user has its drawbacks for customers as well. A lack of commercial and technical support may strike during times of crisis, reduced expediting and delivery support may materialize when markets swing from down to up, and there may be a failure to adequately share detailed product roadmaps or collaborate to identify and support technology trends.

So how do salespeople manage to stay in front of their customers and demonstrate their value? The need to do so is great, but the challenge is formidable.

Design engineers, huddled in their cubicles, are hard at work. Management requirements for blazing speed and minimal cost can cause engineers to miss essential specifications, cut design and testing corners, and choose lowest cost solutions without fully factoring in end environments or product life cycles. An engineer in a pressure cooker environment will not make time for a sales call, but he or she will make time for a trusted advisor.

The phrase “trusted advisor” has been used frequently. It takes the value of a salesperson well beyond just selling products and makes him or her indispensable.

For sales representatives to build customer trust, they must expect and prepare for change (technical, social, economic or service). Salespeople must adopt a “productive paranoia” approach and embrace change by monitoring and adjusting their traditional ways of doing business. It is crucial for representatives to address key elements within their control: collect cell phone numbers of key contacts; support engineers outside of core business hours; highlight only those products relevant to the engineers’ needs; demonstrate the ability to pull in the second wave of field application engineers, suppliers’ design engineers, quality group or other reinforcements as needed, to solve a problem; provide facts and quantitative data regarding the value of longer-life components and cost of ownership; ensure your sales team is trained and highly knowledgeable on products; understand your supplier’s escalation procedure; and communicate the status of your project to your key contacts.

Finally, anticipate your customer’s engineering development and production needs based on your history with the customer!

The last item is essential and highlights one of the bigger benefits of the sales representative model: a local relationship with knowledge of the customer. Your commitment can and will help them be successful.

An interesting example from another industry where local customer knowledge helped a small company achieve success against a large company, can be found in True Value Hardware’s comeback against Home Depot and Lowes. Home Depot and Lowes are big-box retailers focusing on cost. True Value Hardware made a conscious effort to focus on service. It hired employees who deeply understood their products, had local customer knowledge and relationships which allowed them to anticipate their customers’ needs. True Value Hardware used this model to out-service the large chain stores and achieve success.

The visionary ability to prepare for the unexpected is what separates a great selling organization from the mundane. What never changes are the two essential characteristics found at the core of every successful selling relationship — trust and commitment.

For the representative sales model, a rapidly changing environment of technology, service and social disruptions will continue to occur with little warning. Grove’s and Collins’ messages still prevail and offer up this great business advice: Beware. Only the productive paranoid will survive!



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