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The foot in the customer’s door: don’t let it start to hurt.

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On all our Central European markets, we are newcomers. From the Hi-Tech energy-cost saving nozzles that are used by wise companies, and the high quality pneumatic tools that we have introduced on the market, first customers represent 20% to 70% of our turnover depending on the market. In our business, the “customer” is an abstract term: in larger companies, we always have several users and deciders who function sometimes very autonomously.

We know the expression “putting your foot in the door”. My definition of it is that you have done a first sale at the customer’s, although the share of your products compared to the total purchase of similar products is marginal.

I always welcome a foot in the door. I welcome a decision carried out by the customer to buy something from us. It’s the difference between thinking about doing something and actually doing it.

The thing with the foot in the door is that it can start to hurt, because you are actually supposed to go through the door, not to stay stuck in the middle.

Many salespeople consider the job done with the beginning of the first sales. They consider that the hardest part has now been achieved, that the products are referenced, and that the urgency on this customer can be lifted in order to focus on new potentials. That in fact is rarely the case.

What you achieve with a foot in the door is the right to pursue your efforts. It means you are “tolerated” at the customer. You are not a member, but you’re allowed to look around through the partially opened door.

Through that partially opened door, the salesperson can take a better look inside the customer, see new people, listen more closely to customer needs, understand how everything works, who’s using, who’s deciding, who he/she should be talking to. If not, at best the salesperson stays in that uncomfortable place of the marginal supplier, selling little but needing to deliver generous conditions in the hope of bigger sales. And hope alone never generated any revenue.

In the end, frustrated, the salesperson takes the foot away only to see the door slamming back shut and requiring a renewed effort to reopen, but without the visibility and access to people he or she had.

A salesperson should use the opportunity of the half-opened door to push it wide open and close it on the nose of the competitors outside. And that means using the limited access gained by being a supplier to obtain as much info and contacts as possible.

I ask our people to be able to “map” their customer. A salesperson should be able to draw on a piece of paper a schematic view of the organization chart there. The salesperson should identify the places of use of the products, the key people and their motivations, and the potentials in all these places. And I insist on the organization chart even if schematic: Knowing 20 people working side by side in the same office or production area is great, but they simply cannot open new places of opportunity if they have little contact with other potential users of your products.

So the first sale is always something to celebrate with the salesperson. It is a great achievement, but it can get painful if we don’t move on.

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How motivated is the hamster running in his wheel?

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I don’t like running, I do it for the exercise, and the best part about running for me is when it ends. As usual I went running Saturday. Usually, I do 10 km in a circle because I hate going back the same way I came, so I try to plan a circuit I can do and that is achievable without turning back. Yet this Saturday my friend wanted to come along, and 10km is too much for her, so we agreed on going somewhere else where she could do a shorter run and I could complete the distance I wanted to do.

It all ended up for me running around a couple of times a 800m circumference lake in the Ruzinov district in Bratislava. And it was extremely unpleasant. It was unpleasant because it was boring. And because it was boring, I found it physically harder to perform. And after the third tour and seeing the same swan on the shore, an image came into my mind: the hamster spinning in his wheel at the pet shop. How can you be motivated to do anything if you’re not moving! Well a hamster might be OK with it, but people?

There is a saying in France “metro, boulot, dodo” which means in child speak “subway, work, sleep”. This illustrates a state of mind when boredom steps in your workday. When that happens, motivation is much harder to feel and performance goes down.

There are many risks for a team to to fall into the impression that the days all look alike and that the work is always the same. It is quite a threat to the group in performance, spirit, and teamwork.

Perhaps that’s why it is important beyond all these fun team building activities to keep alive with the team the notion that we are on a moving train and the landscape from the window is changing even if the interior of the train remains the same.

It’s easy for a manger to be overwhelmed by daily tasks to forget these couple of minutes that can make such a difference. I occasionally myself realize at the end of the day that I took care of the team technically, but I did not manage to take those couple of minutes to point out how interesting the day, the week and the month is going to be.

I’m glad my Saturday morning run reminded me of this.

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Leadership: do not panic as your technical skills are surpassed!

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It passed by without me noticing it, but it now has been two years since I was given the responsibility to take the lead in the troubled Bratislava office.

I have recruited all but one of the people I have trusted to develop our sales. They all have made tremendous progress as I watch the month of February come to an end with a new record and an outstanding month of January.

I am beginning to work with people who know more things than me on the technical level however: they understand better how the tools work, they know where the switch for changing this setting or this setting is, they know the power output of the nozzles and can assess on the power of the previous customer installation…I fold as their concrete experience has grown and turned them into skilled sales technicians.

Smoking a cigar at home the other day, I wondered how someone like me needs to envision the coming months or years to keep the organization tidy, functional, and successful as my output no longer includes higher technical knowledge or experience.

In general, the manager needs to bring something more to the table than simply a more detailed knowledge, or info, or capacity to do a higher discount.

Here is how I prepare my complimentary cocktail:

1) I stand by the company and my upper management any minute even when I disagree with their paths. Once something is decided, it needs to be applied. I explain and we go ahead. Playing any other game might make you sympathetic to your team when the decision taken is unpopular but it does not help leadership at all. On the contrary, you look like a “loser”.

2) I take decisions quickly and explain my reasons to the team member when a situation arises. I take full responsibility for it and should it be a mistake or should that decision be challenged by my upper-management, well so be it. Once I am convinced, my team can take my decision to the bank.

3) I encourage personal responsibility and return many of their requests to their own personal judgment.

4) I encourage them to review the situations they are in from a different perspective and share experiences I have had in the past. I tell many anecdotes of my work experience, of my business relationships, of my personal readings and research and my “gut feeling”. In short, I try to help them see things through a “people” perspective.

5) I am not afraid to keep my rules valid. It is not because a salesperson starts to be successful that that person can play outside the rules of the firm. You still come on time, you still help out your colleagues, pick up the phone, take down the bin to the container (and I do so myself as to set an example) and there is no eating in the office outside of break hours. Actually for the last one, I wish that was 100% true, but I still have to raise my voice.

There are no guarantees in this business, and you can always be challenged. Perhaps one last thing I see important might be discutable. I work with the opinion leaders of the team and always try to have them as ambassadors and help them understand the reasons of doing what we do. More generally, it is important to listen to each and every one. As a sales manager, you are still selling them the motivation to do their job well, the promising rewards of personal and permanent self-improvement, and the potential enjoyment of working with you and their colleagues. And we all know selling is listening first.

In one word, perhaps one of the pillars of leadership is to demonstrate you care: you care about the company and you care about the people you work with and you want the best for both. And you demonstrate that every day, with your own personality, your own life experience, and your own dreams.

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Involvement requires taking a chance every day

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One of the skills involved pointed out in management is “involvement”.

For me, that latter skill translates as not being afraid to take a risk.
If you get involved in the work of your team, your opinion, your explanations and your advice all become material and are put to the test. If it works, you win, if it does not…you lose. But you do not lose as much as if you had not taken that chance.

One of the deeper impressions your management should project is credibility.

When I started out, I viewed credibility mainly as proving to those I managed that I was capable of doing the same things they were. I personally remember my first 3 months of managing among other people a salesperson over thirty years my elder who had total disrespect for me. I got my lucky break by being able to do a sale he had described me as impossible an hour earlier. And he begged me to put the sale on his salesperson code as one of the products sold came with a hefty bonus. From that day on, I told him how it was going to be.

Perhaps that is one of the original aspects of the quest for credibility: you cannot learn it, you can only seize it.

With time, your management position might go up and even if that does not happen, the needs and expectations of the team members grow as fast as their skills. They require new input, require new motivational goals, and require understanding better their point in the overall organization.

This year, as I am starting my third year on full time with swepro, I know that there will be new challenges for me just as for my team. From one company with one employee (I fired three a couple of weeks after my arrival), we now have three companies on the Central European market with ten salespeople introducing products beforehand unknown to this region. We are profitable on our older operations (Slovakia and Czech Republic), although much still needs to be done to reach the profitability we enjoy in competitive markets such as Germany where our products reduce production costs.

My personal objective is not to lose the edge over the technical aspect of selling. There is still a lot to do regarding the basic sales skills. We will work on reformulation and better reaction to objections. But with those that are the most ahead, the challenge will be to improve our strategic approach with our customers: managing time better, mapping the firms not forgetting people, processes and potential.

January has always been the month where I sometimes started smoking again. Because there is always a little stress factor taking a look at the challenges of the coming year. And evidently the risks that need to be taken from getting involved in the work of the team.

I hope they will look up to me. And they will if they know that I put what I tell them on the line and that I test it in real life.

In short, it takes energy not to retreat behind a computer and manage the daily issues. But there’s no other way than jumping in and sharing what you know, and sharing your vision even if it requires you to be occasionally wrong.

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Keep it simple.

Fotosearch_BUC_154In the film “Margin call”, actor Jeremy Irons calling an emergency meeting of his top staff and the young whizz kids that discovered that something was very wrong in the evaluation of their bank’s assets, asks to be spoken to as if he was a child, or better yet, as a Golden Retriever.

I loved that part. And it is a lesson for all those salespeople who want to make it big out there talking to the big chiefs.

Big chiefs want it to hear it simple. Not that they cannot manage the complexities of their trade, but they want it simple because it forces the ones giving them the info to think through what they want to say and see the idea more clearly than when swamped into technical jargon and overformulated rethoric.

For me, the clearer the language, the clearer the idea and the clearer the sales speech. There will be ample time to go through the details later. When you want to make it an impact, the point is to make what you can offer your customer crystal clear and self explanatory.

In our trade, there’s nothing complicated really: we sell air nozzles that are coupled to open pipes blowing compressed air. The nozzles just orient the flow where you need it with the adequate force. Instead of wasting air by blowing all around, you blow air where you need it. Less air means less energy costs and less noise.

How much exactly are those savings? What noise abattment are we talking about? At what strength and in what pattern will the air coming out of the nozzles impact the required area? And what are the advantages of using our own metal or hi-tech plastics products instead of the gloomy cheap plastic ones available in every industry supply catalogue out there? Well we can expand our sales speech for that.

So in conclusion, as Jeremy Irons said to his junior team, I would say that salespeople should approach their customers for the first time as if they were Golden Retrievers. No offense: Golden Retrievers are quite bright.

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Let’s put “soul” and “care” in customer attitudes

Family-owned companies try harder

In May, I took a group of Slovak entrepreneurs on an “Armagnac”, “Wine” and “Cognac” tour in Southwestern France. We enjoyed great wine, great small hotels and great restaurants.

I took my friends only to small places, well rated, but not at the top “Michelin” level. And often, we asked the locals where we could go for lunch or dinner.

There is something about these small family owned restaurants. They want you to feel at home, they talk with passion about the special of the day, they offer you a last drink “on the house”. And they were genuinely honored to host Slovaks (many places for the first time) and they made it felt.

It showed the benefits of small operations when it comes to customer attitude. Like others, small entrepreneurs also make mistakes, but it always seems to matter less somehow because they are not just doing a job, they are living their lives.

Customer attitude needs “soul”

I like procedures when it comes to customer service because it helps, especially the newcomers in an organization, to understand how to materialize customer service.

That being said, “soul” is what is the most missing in customer/supplier relationships. The customer is just behind someone doing a job, and following some procedures.

You cannot train “soul”. This comes more or less naturally. You can tell an employee that the customer is important, that the customer brings money in the company, that it’s the customer’s money that is used to pay salaries. All of that is fine, but there is no “soul”, there is none of that committment that is going to result in a real customer/seller relationship.

And worse of all, it stops working as soon as there is the slightest problem.

“Soul” does not equal communication

I have seen many “communicating with customers” trainings. Companies that seeked to improve customer satisfaction worked on communication. Countless programs were invented, countless employees were subjected to speeches, role plays and what not in a very theoretical customer relationship policy.

In the end, and even in large firms for which we expected better, communication with customers just became a training on automated and pre-chewed responses to customer inquiries and remarks. No organization can really improve its customer service if it only thinks that it’s just a technical issue with communication.

Do not get me wrong, communication will work, but if there is something to communicate.

Do the employees feel that the customer is a respected person in the organization? Can the organization renew itself and admit when it is wrong? On what does the organization focus when talking internally to its employees, how does top management set the example, and how are concrete cases debriefed internally and learned from?

Does of any of this exist? Let me blunt, in some companies that thrived from their dominant position, noone even thinks about the above because as long as revenue comes in, it must mean that customers are happy. And if revenue does not come in, it’s the fault of the employees who do not communicate well. Let’s train them with the most expensive firms on the market.

And in the end it does not work. Surprised?

It’s all about care

In those small restaurants I was talking about in the beginning, “soul” is there because people own the place. It’s their creation, they want it to work, they want it to be successful, and they make no charts about it, they go with a feeling.

And the employees follow suit, because they feel part of the family.

That family is bond by the commitment of the owners to make the small operation a success. The owner is also very present, cooking, serving, talking to customers, making those small decisions such as offering a second round of coffee or a drink. Employees see that, they relate to that, and for the most part they start to understand how much the owner cares, and how much it is important to provide to customers the experience that they need.

In such firms, there is no hiding behind some customer satisfaction charts or an empty speech.

What firms need is an exemplary message from top down showing great care about the customer experience.

Given the challenges shown in the latest “Global Competitiveness Report, it is more than time to rethink how we are going to give to every customer a great experience and modernize our customer approach with fresher and more critical thinking.

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Comrades and Business owners!!! Unite for competition!!!

I am quite interested with Orange and T-Mobile not wanting to pay the fee to the Slovak telecommunications regulator for the extension of their license because they see it as too expensive. To be honest, I have no idea how it should be priced, but I found one of the arguments given by Orange Slovakia very interesting.

Orange claims in today’s (August 25th) edition of Hospodarske Noviny that  it is unfair that o2 (the newest competitor in Slovakia who started operations in 2007) paid 8 times less a couple of years ago when it acquired the license. It considers the measure discriminatory.

From where I stand it looks fair: you use more bandwidth, you pay more. It will be interesting to see o2’s reaction when their license comes up for renewal, but until then, it would have been outrageous to ask for a comparable cost for the license. It would have also been a blow to a free market system.

Competition is the cornerstone of our economies. It is competition that leads to innovation, to better customer experience, and to lower prices that benefit the entire economy in return. Competition is only a problem for companies seeking revenue by doing none of the above.  I am not discarding the need for firms to have strong financial results and reward shareholders (I am one myself), but a free market system must be associated with a strong competitive environment.

As there are now the first heated discussions in our four party coalition about next year’s budget, there are some talks on lowering payroll taxes in regards to keeping Slovakia labor costs competitive.

There should be in fact discussions about maintaining or strengthening Slovakia’s competitivity, but not without taking a broader look at all factors leading to increased costs for firms in this country.

Labor costs have been influenced by a rise in salaries (especially in western Slovakia) that was out of control until the first financial crisis of 2008. And these salaries are being pushed up by high real estate and mortgage costs, food costs, and gasoline costs. The best potential employees are on the lookout for better salaries because they need them for their families, and this drives costs for companies up just as much as the payroll taxes.

Let’s take the example of gasoline costs in Slovakia. I tank in all of Europe for my job and Slovakia’s prices never cease to amaze me. Data confirms (according to the webportal natankuj.sk) that even without counting taxes, Slovakia has 0,9 Eurocent more expensive gasoline than the EU average, and 2,6 Eurocents more expensive diesel fuel. Each time I fill up now, employees of the gas stations started giving me window tissue wipers. At current gasoline prices, I feel I would be eligible for stock options to be honest.

In conclusion, I don’t want government controlling prices. We should ask however that our governments (and the EU) make it as easy as possible for new players and innovative ideas to take hold in our markets. And in the case of Orange in Slovakia which finds its license expensive compared to that of a newcomer, well so be it. A market is not some organization’s property.

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