01 February 2003
Good old days of smokestackin' are over
Not only is smokestackin' a mere memory, but these days, walking into most companies without an appointment results in abrupt dismissal.
I've got a buddy in Ohio named Charlie. Charlie is almost old enough to be my grandpa, and he's been selling industrial computers, I/O, and instrumentation for a long, long time. He told me this story over a sandwich.
"You ever heard of smokestackin', Perry?"
"Can't say that I have."
"It's when you drive into town, look for some smokestacks, and walk through the front door. You give the receptionist your card and ask to see the engineering manager. He shows up, you open your sample box and sell him something. That's smokestackin'."
"I suppose the reason I've never heard of it is that it doesn't exist anymore?"
"Totally extinct. But a lot of vendors still believe in it."
"They still think customers are that easy?"
"Sure do. The sales manager of a company we represent calls me up on Friday, says he's coming to town on Tuesday and wants us to go visit some customers. I scrape together some appointments.
"So on Tuesday, the guy says, 'Hi, Mr. Customer, I'm John Doe from ACME Co., and we're the world's premier manufacturer of industrial computers. ACME is a global solution provider of the most robust, scalable, value-added, next-generation products in the marketplace today, and if you want to fully leverage your assets, we're the best-of-breed answer to all your problems.'
"The customer says, 'Your $2,000 flat screen monitor is nice, but I can buy one at Office Max for only $300.'
"Mr. Vendor replies, 'General Motors is putting 500 of these in its new SUV plant next year.'
" 'I'm not automotive; I'm semiconductor. Do you have any semiconductor customers?'
" 'Volvo just gave us a purchase order for a whole bunch of these same monitors.' "
WHERE'S THE PROOF?
You can see where this conversation is going. The flat screen monitors are on trial, and the salesman is the defense attorney. He must present his case and back it up with facts. The customer wants proof-proof that the extra $1,700 is justified, proof that the product really is superior and that it does, in fact, "leverage his assets."
Charlie's complaint is that most manufacturers won't prove anything-and worse, they feel insulted when the customer asks them to.
Not only is smokestackin' a mere memory, but these days, walking into most companies without an appointment results in abrupt dismissal. And cold calling is hardly any better. About 20 to 30 years ago, it was relatively easy to contact buyers, but today they use technology to protect themselves from intruders.
So when it's time to make the presentation, in addition to furnishing proof, you'd better figure out how to become an invited guest instead of an unwelcome pest.
About seven years ago, I was failing to meet quota in my sales job. The situation was bad and getting worse. My frustrated boss asked me, "Perry, why can't you just stop trying to solve people's problems and just sell some connectors?"
Push eventually came to shove. Eventually, I realized that in a company selling mostly medium- and low-tech components, there was no place for a technical, problem-solving, solution-oriented guy with an engineering degree.
Things changed dramatically when I found an opportunity to take customers by the hand and help them move to the next level of technology. But don't think educating customers about new technology was easy. Eventually I discovered that doing free "lunch & learns" was a waste of time. They always perceived the information to be "tainted."
PAY FOR PLAY
Paid seminars, in which we delivered really solid information, turned out to be far more successful. And customers respected what they paid for.
A magazine editor told me about writing a tech feature on a certain application. He contacted all the vendors in that category and asked them to provide 200-300 words of application notes, tips, anything that would be useful to the readers. "Most of them did a really nice job. But a couple of them didn't do what I asked at all-they just sent propaganda extolling the virtues of their software.
"All I asked them to do was not show up in a clown suit."
Customers want real knowledge, not platitudes. They want solid information, not fluffy advertising slogans. Editors give generous airtime to vendors that provide real problem-solving information and application stories. And most of us are willing to pay more for expertise and superior service if someone will prove it to us.
Many companies in the industrial market are suffering these days-but not all. Several companies I know of grew 10% to 20% in 2002; one grew 66%; and one saw triple digits. Is there a common denominator?
Absolutely. They're all doing an exceptional job of thoroughly proving that their product delivers a whole lot more benefit than what it actually costs.
Mr. Vendor, I don't care if you've got offices in 46 countries. I don't care if you're a publicly traded company. I don't care about your buzzwords, techno-latin, or gigaflop processors. I've got a job to do, and I want you to prove you can make my job easier. If you can do that, I'll be happy to sign the purchase order.
Any takers? IT
Perry S. Marshall is an author, speaker, and consultant in Chicago. Get a free copy of his book, Industrial Sales & Advertising Tactics, by sending your street address to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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