Distributors

Learning from a veteran salesperson: Using ‘old-school’ methods to make the sale

By Jack Keough

Over the years I’ve attended hundreds of sales seminars, workshops, presentations, webcasts and podcasts. I’ve learned a lot from these sessions but I don’t think I learned more about selling than when I went on the road for a day many years ago with Bill, an outside salesperson who had been selling industrial products for more than 60 years.

I was reminded of’ Bill after I talked to a friend of mine, a sales rep for a medical supplies firm. He had lost an important account and wondered whether he could eventually get the business back. My thoughts went back to Bill.

Bill, who was in his ‘80s, patrolled the Midwest in his Cadillac seeking new customers and filling orders for old ones. Bill might have been called a throwback to another era in many ways. Heck, he still bought doughnuts on the way to one call so the guys on the plant floor could munch on them during their breaks.

Going on a call with Bill was an experience. When Bill walked into an account, he was greeted like an old friend. On one such call (which he had access to the plant floor) he eyed the inventory, took out a well-worn notebook and wrote down what was needed.

A machinist came over and described a problem he was having with a piece of equipment and Bill told him how to resolve it. Other similar requests were made and Bill was busily taking notes.

We met with the purchasing manager and Bill told him what supplies were needed.  “I checked the bins and you really need some new safety gloves,” he told the manager. He listed a variety of other products and the manager asked a few questions and approved the orders.

Later, I called the manager and asked him why he was so agreeable to all of the things Bill recommended. “Bill’s been selling to me for years now,” he said. “I trust Bill without reservation. I’m open with Bill and he is with me. He’s helped me out of more jams than you can imagine. He’s even told me of a product that he doesn’t carry that will help up operate more efficiently.”

As I said earlier, Bill was a product of the old school selling. Here are some of the tips Bill offered as we drove from call to call. I realize that some might not be applicable to your specific situation today but here they are for what it’s worth.

  • “I sell with my eyes.” As we traveled, Bill said whenever he went on a new call at a plant or construction site, he constantly looked at the products being used. He looked for openings where his company could make an impact. “I never have a specific product I want to sell; I want to sell what my customer needs.
  • Always look to selling up. Selling a product is great but look for the add-ons. That’s where the money and repeat business is.
  • Strong business relationships. Bill said it takes a while to develop a solid business relationship/trust with a customer. He didn’t try to sell a product on his first call with a prospective new client. He listened and found out that company’s needs. In interviewing buyers after our meetings, each person at one time or another used the word “trust” when they talked about Bill. In their minds, Bill was the company. After each call, he took notes of the conversations that had taken place.
  • Believe in your product-and your company. This sounds simplistic but Bill truly believed-or at least he convinced me-that he was selling the best product in the market. And his company, he told buyers, would stand behind the products they sell. He also never criticized his competiti0on but focused on his own products.
  • Learn from the accounts you lose. Bill also wondered what went wrong when he lost an account or didn’t get a new prospect. He often sent a letter thanking the buyer for the time and asking a few brief questions such as “did you make your decision based on product? Was my price competitive or do you believe I presented the information to you in a comprehensive way?” Many of these potential customers took the time to respond and Bill ended up, in some cases, eventually getting the business back.

Bill died a while ago but he taught me a lot of things. The most important comment: “I just love selling.”

Jack Keough was the editor of Industrial Distribution magazine for more than 26 years. He often speaks at many industry events and seminars. He can be reached at john.keough@comcast.net or keoughbiz@gmail.com

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