Six Steps To Better Sales

Improve your selling power as a distributor—and your value as a partner to your suppliers.

Many specialty gases and welding distributors have superb salespeople who practice tried-and-true sales systems that work, and they produce very profitable business as a result. But others are still stuck on selling price rather than benefits. Here are six areas to focus on to improve your sales and profitability and make sure your distributorship is providing the greatest value to both your customers and your manufacturer partners.

Pre-Call Preparation
Are your outside salespeople prepared when they go on a sales call? I once traveled halfway across the country to make sales calls with a distributor’s salesperson who spent the day visiting customers. Not selling—visiting. He had done no pre-call preparation: He didn’t have appointments with decision-makers, had not done any research on the customers’ needs, and wasn’t knowledgeable enough about the products he was trying to sell.

It was widely reported a few years ago that the average cost of an outside sales call was $329, and that number likely is even higher now. How much of a salesperson’s day is filled with expensive visitations just to shoot the breeze? Don’t get me wrong—personal contact is important. But when they make that contact, they should have something productive to talk about.

When salespeople prepare to make a sales call, they need to make a plan. First, learn about the customer and identify that customer’s unique needs. Then be sure that the aspects of the product or service being sold that address those needs are part of the discussion with the customer.

Product Knowledge
Anyone can sell commoditized products that are cheap and low margin. It’s products with features and benefits and solutions to welding problems that customers need to hear about, and those benefits and solutions are where you make your money. If your salespeople just sell price, they’re leaving a trail of profits behind.

But salespeople can’t sell features and benefits unless they know their business. How much study have your salespeople put into learning about the industry, and how much of that information have they shared with customers and co-workers? Do your salespeople work with the new guys, teaching them the ropes? Experience is a valuable asset in any company.

Salespeople should be informed about—or, better yet, adept at—every aspect of welding. After all, this is where we make our living. Take advantage of training opportunities from your manufacturers whenever possible.

Every question from a customer can be an opportunity. If your salespeople don’t know the answer, they should make it a point to get an answer.

Personal Contact
Take a minute and look at your customer list, not from a dollars-and-cents point of view, but from a relationship point of view. There’s a gold mine right at your fingertips. I’d wager that a salesperson’s top 10 or 15 customers see him or her way too much, while the next 10 or 15 don’t see him or her enough, and the bottom 50 percent probably don’t see that salesperson at all. Small customers tend to buy only what they need as the need arises. But who’s generating that need in their minds? All they need is a little personal contact from a salesperson who is ready to talk features and benefits.

An effective but not often used technique is to make sure there’s follow-up. Most small customers probably never hear a word of thanks from management. When’s the last time you got a thank-you card from a vendor? If you did, I bet you remember it. What would happen to your profitability with just a little effort? Send your customers a sincere thank-you for their patronage. The point is personal contact—although future sales might be the result as well.

Ask the Right Questions—and Listen and Observe!
When salespeople talk to customers, they should use “what” and “how” questions. These provoke a response in a way that isn’t threatening to the customer. Avoid “why” questions because those can be perceived as threatening. Use open-ended questions to gain information, but closed-ended questions to confirm what the customer is saying.

Inside salespeople need to know product features and benefits probably more than anybody else in your organization.

Most important, when salespeople ask a question, they should stop talking and become listeners. Salespeople tend to be lousy listeners. They’re often Type A personalities who want to jump into the conversation because they think whomever they’re talking to is going to think the same way they do.

Salespeople should be talking 20 percent or less of the time and listening the rest of the time. An old saying points out that God gave us two ears, two eyes and one mouth; which ones do you think we’re supposed to be using more? One of the best sales techniques is letting a customer talk him- or herself into the order, rather than the salesperson trying to push them into it.

Inside Sales: Your Secret Weapon
Too many distributors do not recognize the unique and very important position of inside salespeople, who have more contact with customers than most outside salespeople do. When something goes wrong, they’re the ones who hear about it. In my opinion, when a company has to perform, that’s the person who makes it happen. If a customer calls the inside salesperson and the situation demands an outside salesperson, the inside salesperson contacts him or her; if the situation calls for a delivery, they get hold of the driver. Their job is to perform for the whole company, and they’re crucial in making the system work.

Most inside salespeople don’t participate in commission sales like outside salespeople do, although maybe they should. At the very least, they should be compensated well and participate in some kind of merit or bonus plan.

Inside salespeople should participate in manufacturer training. When a customer comes into the store asking, “How do I do this?” or “I’ve got this job to do—what do I need?” it’s the inside salesperson who is serving them—and quite often selling for list price! They need to know the product features and benefits probably more than anybody else in the organization.

The above is true of manufacturers’ inside salespeople as well. In fact, this is an area many manufacturers could improve on. Distributors need knowledgeable technical help when they call in—often their customer is at the counter or on the other line needing information, perhaps with an order pending.

Everyone’s in Customer Service
Every single person in your organization is involved in customer service, but do all of them know it? Your company has outside salespeople, inside salespeople, drivers, distribution personnel, credit collections personnel and everything in between, and every one of them contributes to the overall picture your customer has of the company. Don’t squander all the hard work and personal contact your salespeople put into getting the order by letting the customer be alienated by a surly driver or a gruff credit collections person. If your employees work together as a team to provide best-in-class customer service, all of you will be able to share in the company’s success.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association

Bruce Belk Meet the Author
Bruce Belk is president of Universal Wire Works, located in Houston, Texas, and on the Web at