Reprinted from the 2009 November Business column in Metalforming magazine.
By: Michael Bleau
If you are heading to the show in Chicago, then by the time this issue hits your desk you’ll most likely be in one of two camps; an exhibitor rushing through a last minute checklist for booth and sales prep or an attendee finalizing meeting and symposium session plans. Either way, you have a full schedule as this year’s combination of the FABTECH, AWS and METALFORM shows in Chicago is going to be huge. At press time there are already over 10,000 pre-registered attendees with the opportunity to visit some 3,400 exhibitors. Shows like this are the equivalent of a huge feast of candy to a kid; an almost endless spread of tooth-rotting deliciousness. So, just like a kid with candy, the temptation is to pack in as much of the show as possible into a few days. Naturally, you want to experience it all, but remember that time as a kid when you were left alone with the Halloween candy? I do. At first, eating a wrapper or two in the rush wasn’t a problem but it did not take long before I realized that quantity didn’t equate to quality. Actually, at that time I only ended up with an aching stomach and didn’t come to any intellectual realization until much later in life. My point, if you want to be more satisfied on the plane ride home, cut your ‘to do’ list in half, prioritize, make the hard choices on what you must accomplish, then leverage the remainder of your time to focus on networking. Of course, while you are in symposium tracks and visiting booths you will have the opportunity to meet new people, but while these casual contacts made throughout the daily rush can lead to more meaningful interactions they do not equate to the opportunity to really connect with peers at networking events.
Networking events, whether scheduled hospitality suites other sponsored business gatherings or the chance meeting during the plane ride or at the show during a cafeteria-style meal is where you have an excellent opportunity to exchange real, valuable information and start the foundation for new business relationships. So take these opportunities to build your social capital. Where else will you potentially cross path with thousands of like-minded individuals? This is where you can find a wide variety of peers who can help your business and whom you can help through the exchange of ideas, discussion of problems, etc. These few days are your best opportunities throughout the year to make such valuable, career affecting contacts before heading home to the daily grind, so don’t let the scope of the event bog you down.
Structured hospitality events are designed for the ebb and flow of mingling guests, making this is a perfect place to make connections. Such gatherings can be the genesis of real, lasting business relationships. If you sense a valuable relationship for both parties and feel it’s worth spending more time exchanging ideas over a meal, suggest dinner that evening or breakfast or lunch the next day.
When engaging new people be relaxed, open and genuine. It’s understood that we are all at these events to make business connections, but jumping from one person to another based on how you perceive their value or the weight of their title will quickly label you in an unfavorable way. There can be a fine line between mingling and coming across as being an opportunistic phony. So approach the prospective relationship from the standpoint of NOT trying to sell them anything. Engage conversations looking for mutually beneficial connections by leveraging one another’s experience and business resources. If you are looking for sources of new business, consider that you may do well to focus on gaining business through referrals of whom they know—this represents a bigger opportunity.
Ask these questions of yourself when meeting and evaluating new contacts…
Remember, the quality of the connection outweighs walking away from the event with a pocket stuffed with business cards. Accomplishment can be found by making it home having made half a dozen solid connections, with one or two becoming lasting professional friendships.
Reprinted from the 2009 October Business column in Metalforming magazine.
By: Michael Bleau
As the economy continues to ramp up, sales coverage becomes a more pressing issue. Due to recessionary layoffs, you may have been forced to cut some of your direct sales people, which is a good way to reduce your fixed cost-of-sales; unfortunately it also has a negative effect on revenue. Conversely, if you’re one of the growing numbers of stampers who are growing their sales ranks through independent reps then you are already seeing the upside of such relationships during market downturns and the potential for revenue growth with variable costs-of-sales. If you’re not there yet, take this opportunity to expand your coverage and effectiveness by building a network of sales representatives.
Service Stampings Incorporated (SSI), a PMA member company since 1973 is 100% dependent on commission-based sales reps. The Company works with nine reps that blanket the Midwest and Eastern portions of the US, including Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. Established in 1957, SSI has been a leading supplier of short- and medium-run metal stamping services used within the electrical, transportation, and numerous other industries. Rob Stohlman, vice president of sales, sums up his philosophy in how he works with their rep network, “Keep it simple and get out of their way.” Rob continues, “We treat our reps like valued business partners, akin to customers. It’s my job to be an enabler; to do everything I can to make it easy for them to want to sell our products and services.”
It’s this attitude towards their sales network that has allowed SSI to stave off potentially huge business losses during the worst recession in our lifetimes. SSI has seen only a 17% drop in revenue during the harshest months of the recession and is now enjoying a business boost as the economy improves. Furthermore, with a variable cost of sales tied strictly to commissions, SSI is able to maintain a full, active sales force to sustain strong relationships with their current customers while prospecting for new sales.
When Rob started with SSI almost three years ago he immediately hit the streets to meet with their existing reps. “I needed to understand what motivated them and how the relationship had gone so far. So I drafted a list of 20-questions to ask during these initial meetings. I asked questions like, what is SSI great at and what does SSI suck at, which really gets them to open-up. After other probing questions determine how together we can improve and leverage market opportunities I finish by asking them to describe in 10 words or less how can we make each other more money?” Rob continues that the response from the reps was overwhelmingly to make the rep’s job easier. Having myself established rep networks for European manufacturers wanting to enter the US marketplace; I understand exactly what Rob’s reps were communicating.
Among other forecasting, product training and strategy meetings, many manufacturing companies require their reps to submit daily, weekly or monthly sales activity or ‘call reports’. Time-consuming paperwork quickly erodes your reps available selling time and willingness to engage you with one of the their customers. In sales, time with customers truly equals money, so anything that takes away this time is considered a waste. Sales reps will take the path of least resistance in representing their manufacturers. If each engagement with you means more paperwork, then less engagements for you means less paperwork—do the math. Reporting requirements also challenges the issue of trust. Your reps are business people, sales professionals who recognize the value of their time and the relationships that they bridge between you and their customers. If between the two, you can establish a trusting, transparent level of collaboration, then you will consistently know what the other is doing to compliment your mutual sales efforts. For the manufacturer, this means taking a concerted, active role (out from behind the desk) in supporting your reps and making sure that any roadblocks within your organization that may hamper their success are removed. If for lack of performance the manufacturer feels the need to ‘clamp down’ and make the rep accountable, then there are deeper issues at hand that needs to be addressed. Simply throwing paperwork at the problem will not resolve these issues. Granted, both parties need a level of accountability, which can be gauged by the end-customer. This can simply be quantified by the most accurate customer satisfaction survey that I’m aware of; repeat purchase orders.
SSI applies a few simple, but effective approaches as they grow their sales network. Key to this is leveraging their membership with the Manufacturers' Agents National Association (MANA). When seeking out new reps they search the MANAonline.org database to find suitable candidate within a geographic area of interest. A concise letter addressed to the principles of the rep agency describes the business proposition, and is quickly followed by phone calls to determine levels of interest and compatibility to narrow the list of candidates. Ultimately the decision to work together has to make good business sense for both parties.
If your business development strategy involves an expanded sales network, then now is the time to act, at the crest of the economic recovery. Apply the lessons learned from companies like Service Stampings Incorporated, begin to establish relationships with independent reps and watch your sales grow.
Served in various capacities within capital equipment engineering, robotics, project management, sales and marketing.
L&A collaborates with Industry Scope, Prior to L&A Nancy was Vice President of Public Relations for a full service B2B agency.
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