Production – Sales = Scrap

Virtually every manufacturer will be familiar with the concept of Lean and the idea of taking waste out of processes.  Can Lean principles be applied to selling?  Across the manufacturing and engineering sectors we place a huge amount of emphasis on principles such as production values, quality, research & development and innovation, and quite rightly so. But, if engineering excellence is to be turned into real commercial success there’s another element that is too often overlooked – sales:

Business guru Peter Drucker and IBM founder Thomas Watson are just two of the many people alleged to have coined the famous remark, “nothing happens until somebody sells something”. Whoever it was, they were at least partly right. Yet time and time again we see engineering companies, or any company with a strong technical background, failing to take sales into consideration when developing new offerings.

In part that’s a legacy of a time when innovation really was king and, to make a sale, technical sales engineers simply had to present an elegant piece of engineering to equally technically-minded buyers. But times have changed.

Increasingly, the once successful technical sellers are forced to deal with non-technical buyers and, worst of all, procurement professionals. These are conversations technical sellers are less comfortable with. So what are the key sales strategies that ensure great production achieves commercial success?

Technical sellers find it easy to sell to technical buyers because both can immediately see what the elegantly engineered solution can deliver.  Both understand the innovation is better/quicker/cheaper/more reliable etc. and can easily quantify the value such improvements bring. And that’s the first key point: people buy what they value, they always have.  In the ‘good old days’ the seller didn’t have to demonstrate the value because the customer could see it for him or herself. Now, because buyers are less technically aware, they need it spelling out to them.  The product can no longer speak for itself and the seller has to explain what value their innovation brings.

Even then it’s not that simple. Value is a buyer perception and what each individual customer values may be different. For example, a production manager may value, say, ease of installation, whilst a procurement manager values low cost of ownership.  And, just as importantly, what each customer values may be different to the value the seller sees. The key for sellers is therefore to ask the customer about their challenges and needs in order to understand what each individual values.  The seller must then tailor how they present the solution to demonstrate it meets each customer’s specific needs and hence delivers what each customer values.

Then there’s the sales process.  It’s a process like any other and, while some of the stages and outputs are quite hard to measure, it is possible to identify and eliminate waste. So what does waste look like in the sales process?

Visiting customers who are not in a position to buy is waste. This may sound obvious but how many sales people have visit plans based on frequency, spend or routine that take no account of the probability of an immediate sale?  They make the call because they always visit once a month. It’s done under the guise of ‘relationship management’ but is it really worthwhile or is it wasteful?

Perhaps even worse is visiting a customer who does have a desire to buy, then failing to uncover and develop their needs; in effect failing to do the things outlined above.  This is doubly wasteful because not only is the seller wasting his or her (and the customer’s) time, they’re also wasting a sales opportunity.  By going along and talking about themselves and their products or services and failing to uncover needs and build value, sellers miss real opportunities, and actually open the door a little wider for their competitors.

So, effectiveness comes from understanding what your customers need and value, particularly uncovering additional value that your competitors haven’t identified.

And those sales organisations which do that at each and every customer contact will turn great product innovation into commercial reward. Production + Sales = Success!