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  • Industrial Selling: Beyond Price and Persistence

  • Emma Brown 

    September 28, 2019 at 4:42 am

    By Clifton J. Reichard

    Industrial selling is a mystery to many executives. A tremendous amount of effort, thought, and interpersonal strength goes into a successful sales campaign, which begins with an approach to one purchasing agent and ends with a whole company’s commitment to buy. The process is so complex that it almost defies description. But creative techniques exist that move people to buy.

    In this article, I give suggestions for turning industrial prospects into customers. In no way do I want to belittle maintenance selling efforts, however; keeping accounts is important for profits. Creative selling costs money, both to make calls and to gear company plants to handle new business.

    Worthwhile business comes slowly. Selling effectively takes time, but if your company is working on enough potential accounts, you enhance your chances of obtaining new sales when you need them.

    Before discussing the sales process, I must emphasize that I am talking here about professional buyers who make their choices after considering a variety of factors, such as quality, service, and economics. I am not referring to buyers who are only looking for the lowest price. The best buyers want value for the long term; they know that a short-term price often results in costly production problems and inefficiencies.

    Inexperienced salespeople invariably start by thinking and talking price when money is the last thing they should discuss. They probably reason: “If a buyer bases decisions on quality, service, and price, how can I prove good quality and service when I’m not shipping anything? The only thing left is price.”

    I say to our sales force, never talk price with anyone before you’ve sold him on your company and yourself. The purchaser will generally guide the salesperson he or she really wants to do business with to the lower price. This leads to my first rule of selling: people buy from whom they want to buy and make price and all other decision factors fit.

    It has not been fashionable lately to talk about relationships in business. We’re told it has to be devoid of emotion. We must be cold, calculating, and impersonal.

    Don’t believe it. Relationships make the world go round. Businesspeople are human and social as well as interested in economics and investments, and salespeople need to appeal to both sides. Purchasers may claim to be motivated by intellect alone, but the professional salesperson knows that they run on both reason and emotions.

    Selling the Company
    In a planned sales approach, the seller appeals first to a buyer’s rational side. How does one do this? Since it’s what salespeople say that makes prospects want to buy, what are they going to say? Buyers need to be sold on the proposition that yours is the company they want to do business with. They have to be convinced that your company can and will supply them efficiently. This is a challenge because bringing in a new supplier usually creates some problems, at least initially.

    Salespeople must also persuade buyers that they will handle the new company’s business competently. Purchasers need to feel confident that all details will be handled as trouble-free as possible.

    Communicating these things before shipments are made is difficult. Thus most salespeople believe it’s sufficient to keep calling on an account and wait for a break. They think there’s nothing they can do to make a break happen and, therefore, they go through the motions of keeping in touch with buyers, waiting for existing suppliers to make mistakes. This can take an awfully long time, and a company may not be able to wait.

    To complicate the sales task further, sellers must win over not only their initial contacts but also, in most situations, their bosses and the manufacturing and R&D people. Salespeople should not try to go around initial contacts. They need to work through purchasing agents and eventually gain access to the other decision makers, with agents’ blessings.

    No one has ever claimed that the sales profession is easy. As a matter of fact, selling probably takes as much or more cerebral effort as any function in business. The reason for this is simple: businesses can choose whom they want to buy from. By contrast, if employees want to be paid, for the most part, they will do what their employer asks of them. Many executives forget that the world can get along very well without them and their businesses. Salespeople face this reality every day, and it is frightening.

    This brings us to rule two of selling: there is no business like no business. If executives accept this, it follows that all an organization’s members must commit themselves to customers and to developing new accounts. Successful companies are customer-driven, and executives should become so if they aren’t already.

    Make your Company Interesting
    I call the sales process that makes things happen the planned selling approach. It calls for detailing the sales points to make on every call over the course of a year or two, which leads us to rule three: an industrial sale results from the cumulative effort of many calls.

    No one call convinces a person to buy. A series of calls and an accumulation of respect and confidence built up over a long period of time make a sale. Calls might be made every four to six weeks, or geography might dictate calls every two to three months. In any case, calls should be frequent enough to maintain continuity, but not so often as to be aggressive.

    How do salespeople decide what to say on every call over such a long period of time? I have already emphasized that buyers must be sold first on a company and that a salesperson is the right person to handle their business. Thus the first source of material for devising sales points is the selling company. My company, for example, Ball Corporation, is a packaging company with a high-technology base. Nearly three quarters of our sales come from glass, metal cans, and barrier plastic packaging. One quarter comes from industrial product lines and items used in space technology. Our salespeople explain this in their first call.

    On subsequent calls, our sellers tell buyers about our four product groups. To build buyers’ interest, the salespeople start with our Technical Products Group, which involves primarily aerospace. This helps establish our company as technologically competent and credible.

    We can build a sales call around each of the following facts about the Technical Products Group:

    1. Helps produce guidance systems for space vehicles.

    2. Supplies antennas for space vehicles.

    3. Produces the Ball process known as VacKote, used to lubricate moving parts in the aerospace industry.

    4. Built and launched seven orbiting solar observatories.

    5. Built and launched the Infra Red Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), an observatory for exploring the farthest reaches of the universe.

    6. Built and launched from the space shuttle the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, which will help predict long-term climate trends and improve long-term weather forecasting.

    At the conclusion of a series of calls based on each of our four groups, our salespeople summarize what they talked about on each call and explain why they are recapitulating. After their presentation on the Technical Products Group, for example, they might say, “The reason I have told you all this is because we are a high-technology company in the packaging business. We have a history of making the impossible possible and turning dreams into realities.”

    The real reason or repeating the material, though, is for the sellers to demonstrate subtly to the buyers that they have an organized, businesslike mind. It also shows that the sellers have planned each call and proves how much they want the business. The summation is the first time buyers will be aware that our salespeople have a plan, but by that time they are beginning to enjoy the show and becoming impressed with the caller.

    Remember, you must sell a buyer on the company and on the salesperson before any sale can be made.

    Move the Script Along
    For the second series of calls, Ball Corporation chooses its Metal Container Group, which is the quality, service, and productivity leader in the metal beverage container industry. Ball wasn’t even in this business 15 years ago, but we dedicated our fifth new can plant in 1982. We have been successful in part because this group is run by former aerospace engineers, not traditional container manufacturers. They didn’t know reasons why something couldn’t be done, so they went ahead and tried it. Now we see big can companies diversifying into other product lines. Our sales force emphasizes how space technology has been applied to an old business with remarkable success.

    The next series of calls focuses on the Industrial Products Group, which supplies copper-coated zinc blanks to U.S. mints for making pennies and which is developing technology for coextruded barrier plastics used in food and juice containers to help extend their shelf life. Included in this group is the largest independent metal-decorating business in the United States. Once again, our salespeople make a summation because they are selling themselves as well as their company.

    By now, you are probably wondering what we are trying to sell to whom. It may come as a shock, but we are going to try to sell commercial glass containers to a food packer. Note that we haven’t yet talked about glass or price, but the Glass Container Group will be the subject of the next series of calls.

    How can we arouse any interest in a product like glass? The truth is that glass is, in many ways, the most exciting medium of our packaging family. Glass in its pristine state has a tensile strength three to five times stronger than steel. If you can protect a glass surface from being scratched, you can make a container that is virtually unbreakable. We have plans and patents for doing this. At present, the glass industry wastes 60% of the energy it consumes; we have plans for recouping this energy. The glass industry today is inefficient; we make one bad container for every six or seven good ones. We are working on solutions for this too, through computerized process control.

    Because this industry is so inefficient, it is also very labor-intensive. Thirty-five cents of our cost dollar go to paying for labor. We are solving this through automation.

    Our salespeople build an exciting series of calls around preserving glass strength, reducing container weight, using wasted energy, solving inefficiency, and reducing costs through automation. They then point out that because the raw materials needed for glass making are among the most prevalent resources on the earth’s surface—sand, soda ash, and limestone—they are selling what could be the most economical packaging product on the market.

    These series of calls include enough material to cover easily a year’s worth of visits—each interesting, educational, concise, planned, and purposeful. The salespeople have appealed so far to the buyers’ reason, and at the very least, they have convinced the buyers that Ball is a supply source worthy of consideration.

    At this point, our salespeople invite prospects and their fellow decision makers to visit our research labs and corporate headquarters in Muncie. The guests also have the option of visiting a glass plant and our research and development plant for barrier plastics. Our glass prospects are very interested in plastics too, as you might guess. Remember, we are selling a company and a salesperson, and if a customer wants to think about buying plastic or metal cans from us in addition to glass, so much the better. Our glass division works closely with its competing packaging mediums. Our main goal is to get people to buy Ball.

    Visit the Headquarters
    If the salespeople have done their job well, the prospective buyers will want to visit Muncie and will encourage their colleagues to make the trip. We make it easy for them by offering the use of one of our company planes. Sometimes exploratory groups come first and, based on favorable reports, higher echelon groups come later. We treat them all the same.

    Our guests arrive in time for cocktails and dinner at our corporate guest house, which is a renovated mansion built by one of the founding Ball brothers. We invite all our top corporate and group executives and their spouses to come and honor our guests. A main attraction is Edmund Ball, the retired senior officer of the corporation. Anyone from our top management who is in town attends these affairs, because we have a corporate commitment to marketing and because we want to get to know our customers and prospects well. In addition, our executives learn from the visitors’ observations and reactions. Since we are truly customer-driven, this interchange is vital.

    The next day we take our guests to our research and development center for a series of talks on our present and future technologies. We share with them our strategic plans and our ideas for the future. Since some of our guests have not heard the planned sales calls, we give another sales presentation that covers the same material in a different way. For those who have heard the story, this reinforces the message. The repetition also indicates that the company speaks with one voice. We involve as many of our managers in these presentations as is appropriate.

    The visit ends with a lunch in the executive dining room of our new corporate headquarters, where we discuss issues prompted by our presentations and other items of mutual interest.

    The trip to headquarters not only gives us the opportunity to sell other decision makers in a company on doing business with us, it also lets us make the initial contacts look good. These are the people who recommended the visit to the others, and we don’t let them down. Our program provides an enjoyable and instructive trip. We constantly change the material and refine the presentations so that people aren’t bored if they come back. Our visitors are usually fascinated to find us a packaging company heavily involved in aerospace. Some follow-up visits, therefore, include a trip to Boulder, Colorado, where potential customers can see what we are doing in space technology. We tie this technology to our packaging business as much as possible.

    The corporate visit concludes phase one of our planned selling approach. By this point, we have communicated all the conditions necessary to set the stage for being accepted as a supplier.

    1. The salesperson demonstrated that we want the account’s business so much that every call was well planned and meaningful.

    2. The salesperson presented an organized and businesslike approach.

    3. The salesperson also indicated that he or she can handle details by presenting the complete story of our company.

    4. The sales calls introduced us as an exciting company with vast and diverse areas of expertise.

    5. All the staff together has shown that we are a creative, imaginative, innovative, and solid company—desirable traits in a supplier.

    6. We have communicated, through our conduct, that we are a company an account can trust—one that will do a high-quality job.

    7. We have made the initial contact look good in the eyes of his or her superiors.

    8. We have communicated to the original prospect that he or she needs our combined talents and skills to continue to look good in the future.

    9. The prospect’s purchasing people have become more involved in their company’s planning process, and they can appreciate the planning we have done to secure its business.

    Since we’ve said everything we wanted to say, all we need to do now is sit back and wait for lift-off as the orders come in. Right?

    Wrong! What we might hear is, “You people are great, and if we ever need another source of supply, you’ll be it.” Most worthwhile accounts have good suppliers and are loyal to them. No one likes to tell an existing supplier that he’s placing his business elsewhere. A prospect might want to do business with you, but he might resist breaking off with his present providers. He could do that more easily during a growth period and add suppliers without penalizing anyone. But companies need to make sales most during slow business periods. Anyone can be a super salesperson during a high-demand period. The truly super salesperson comes up with new business during oversupply periods. Despite our effective sales job, we may still have no order.

    How do we move the account to buy?

    The Idea Stage
    Phase two of the planned selling approach begins with another series of calls. If we did our job well while we were describing our product groups, we were also gathering information about the accounts. We know, for example, how many glass molds they use, the type of corrugated carton the glass is packed in, the number of carton printings for each mold, the type and size caps used to seal the bottles and jars, and the types of equipment and number of people on the production lines.

    We use this data base to come up with ideas for either increasing customers’ market shares or lowering their costs.

    In the glass container business it costs more to make a tall, slender jar than one that is short and squat. If an account is using a tall jar, the salesperson points out the economies in changing to a squat jar. If a prospective customer already has a shorter jar, the salesperson promotes the addition of a taller, more slender jar to appeal to today’s weight-conscious consumer.

    Companies make different marketing-cost decisions every day; salespeople should present all possibilities.

    Here’s another example: most glass container customers use glass delivered in corrugated boxes. They take the jars out of the boxes, fill and cap them, then repack them in the original cartons. Since the box makes up about 17% of our packed glass price, we gain great savings by shipping our glass in bulk to accounts. Then our money is not tied up in corrugated boxes in our warehouses while we are waiting to ship. Further, we gain 10% in warehouse space and we dispense with carton damage connected with warehousing and shipping packed cartons. We can get more glass on a truck in bulk, and thus reduce the shipping cost per container and the number of trucks we need. Shipping in bulk also eliminates concern that the carton printing a customer needs will be in our inventory.

    The customer benefits by receiving more glass per delivery, and the glass arrives clean and ready for line use without much, if any, preconditioning.

    Bulk glass also gives the customer the option to use a tray with a shrink-wrapped plastic cover that makes a more cost-effective, rigid unit for shipping. The supermarket saves too, because the plastic is easily removed and much easier to dispose of than a corrugated case. The crisp, newly formed tray can also be used for end-aisle displays.

    The strategy in this phase is to come up with as many new ideas as possible, even though most of them will not be implemented. What’s important is continuous creation of ideas and bombarding of accounts with them. You are expressing your intense desire to be their supplier and at some point they will have to give in to you.

    If salespeople make up their minds they are going to sell an account, and think and work hard enough, they’ll eventually succeed. Prospects can do nothing to stop them and the sales will likely come when the sellers want and need them.

    Even if your company is completely sold out, your salespeople can sell and create business. They work their plan just as if they didn’t have a single order. If an account decides to buy before the company can handle the business, the salespeople explain the situation as nicely as they can. Successful companies like to deal with other successful companies, and if your company has done its job right, the buyer will understand and appreciate that you are sold out. The “we can’t take your order today, but we are creating capacity for tomorrow” approach invariably will lead to a decision on timing that suits both parties. Most important, the sales force must never stop selling, no matter how loaded the plants are.

    Most salespeople believe that their great personality gets the order after they have used their expense accounts to gain customers’ attention. But they shouldn’t put the cart before the horse. They need to sell prospects first, using their brains, then use the expense account to solidify and foster good relations. Smart purchasing people don’t accept entertainment unless they are doing business or expect to buy from a company. People won’t buy from someone they don’t like, but brains, not personality, make the sale.

    The Art of Selling
    What if, after all this effort, you still have no order? You have given the account every reason to buy. Now what do you do?

    If this happens at Ball, we move into phase three, which involves what we call the art of selling. Selling becomes an art because people don’t always act rationally. For example, how many more reasons do people need to stop smoking? The evidence that smoking is lethal one way or another is massive, yet many intelligent people continue to smoke. What generally stops them is a shock—a close friend or relative dies a painful death. The emotional experience inspires change where reason has failed.

    Voters usually choose a candidate based on such intangibles as style, tone, and charisma. They have an emotional experience, then they rationalize the emotion.

    Buyers sometimes do the same thing. In addition to giving prospects every reason to buy, salespeople should be prepared to move them emotionally. The art of industrial selling is very delicate and holds as much risk of failure as it does promise for success.

    Let’s return for a minute to the planned selling approach. How salespeople deliver a message is perhaps more important than what they say. The first goal in communicating is getting the other person to listen. If salespeople talk mechanically or deliver a canned pitch, buyers aren’t going to hear them. If salespeople believe deeply in what they are saying, however, and deliver their message with feeling and conviction, buyers will listen. Don’t send your sales-people out with a mechanical box loaded with visuals and a voice. Don’t give them brochures to hand out to buyers. Master salespeople do their own thinking and communicating.

    Sellers can learn a great deal from other professions about playing on people’s emotions. Great trial lawyers not only research legal precedents, they practice oratory. They know that to convince a jury they must present facts persuasively and eloquently. So they dramatize them in order to move people emotionally.

    I can best illustrate this point by quoting the following review of a Frank Sinatra performance many years ago: “When one speaks of great singers, one is not speaking of technique, timbre, pitch, range, or any combination thereof. It is necessary to have a nodding acquaintance with these matters, but they are, of course, only fuel. The fire must burn from within, and I never realized the intensity of that blaze within Sinatra until Thursday night. Every flicker of the eyes, every vein, every expression and passion is naked. Only then is it inescapably apparent what sets Sinatra apart from others: he lives, rejoices, and suffers every word he sings.” And so it is with the best salespeople, who live, rejoice, and suffer every word of their messages.

    How sellers make their presentations can excite buyers to action in ways not possible via any other means of communication. At the same time, sales-people should not be slick; a fine line lies between excitement and slickness. Not everyone has this talent. Whatever salespeople do to cause purchasers to react emotionally must be honest and sincere. Simply trying to appear honest is not good enough. Veteran buyers can spot phonies because they meet them every day.

    I mentioned earlier that Edmund Ball, the corporation’s patriarch, attends the receptions and dinners for all visiting customers and prospects. A truly gentle man, Ed still plays an important role in the company even though retired. His name is on every home-canning jar and lid we manufacture, which makes him something of a celebrity. Yet he is such a modest, interesting person that people always like to meet him.

    Other members of the Ball family are active in our company’s management, which helps perpetuate the family atmosphere that is part of our corporate style. We thus naturally include spouses in our customer visits. When we had two bachelors coming once for a visit, we worried that they might not be comfortable with this, but we decided to be ourselves and not make special arrangements. Later these men wrote to us, saying how much they enjoyed the spouses’ being present, and commended us for including them. The moral of this story is that people should not try to be something they are not; including family members can rouse positive emotional responses. In the same way, people respond favorably to our respect for Ed Ball, and they admire us for it.

    In case there is some misunderstanding, I am not talking about anything false or contrived. The process whereby two companies decide to do serious business together is not unlike courtship and marriage. The positive feelings each party has for the other can make great things happen. A marriage devoid of feelings holds little promise for the future.

    To highlight, then, our successful industrial sales approach:

    1. Plan calls.

    2. Convince through facts.

    3. Bombard with ideas.

    4. Appeal to emotions.

    Who sells the account at Ball? We all do. The salesperson is the quarterback, but doing the job right requires that the whole management team sell other management teams on doing business with us.

    When does the sale occur? It can happen at any point during the sales plan implementation. Vince Lombardi once said he could send his playbook to anyone in the National Football League and his Green Bay Packers would still win, because the execution is what’s most important. Attention to fundamentals and team spirit win ball games in the business world as well.

    And after a company becomes a customer, we keep selling it as if it were a prospect. Selling has no ending. It is an ongoing love affair.


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