Fable Friday: The best sales lesson I ever had

In 1980 I left banking to join a manufacturing firm as National Sales Manager.  The company made office supplies, mostly plastic index tabs, label holders and loose-leaf products, which were advertised in the catalogs of a few national wholesalers.

looseleafThe largest of these was United Stationers in Maywood, IL, just outside of Chicago.  United had carried our products for many years and were a critical distribution source for us.  If you were not in United Stationers’ catalog, your opportunity to sell to dealers in the U.S. was severely limited.

I had only a general understanding of how catalog sales work in a national market so one of the first things I did was ask United for a meeting to discuss our relationship, which they were happy to do.

Some background first.  Generally, the wholesaler will ask the manufacturer to come and make a presentation to discuss catalog space, ad design, graphics, photography, specs for the catalog, and then storage, handling, shipping and other inventory and delivery agreements, which is an extensive discussion and complex.  As the relationship is co-dependent, the wholesaler asks the manufacturer to defray the cost of the catalog production and distribution, which the manufacturer is happy to do.  Catalog space is then allocated based on sales volume and velocity, as well as past history and performance in other areas.

But I didn’t know all this stuff when I visited Maywood that day.  My goal was not to make a presentation, argue for more space and negotiate costs. It was to learn the catalog business from the experts and that’s how I opened the meeting.

I explained that I came from banking, and specifically bank marketing, that I knew our relationship was important, and that rather than talk about my products, I felt I could do a better job building our relationship if they would give me a tutorial from their point of view on how the wholesale catalog business was run.

The United buyer said, “Stay here. I’m going to get some others,” and when he came back he had two more people with him, and they spent two hours with me going over every aspect of catalog sales, how manufacturers can best work with wholesalers, and finally, what my best next steps should be.  One of them said, “We never had anybody come out here and tell us they wanted to learn about our business, so this is kind of fun for us.”

I left that day with more ad space, a new product inclusion and a recommendation to update our photography, all with just a modest price increase. It was a home run all around, as were all my meetings with them after that.

What’s the lesson here?  If you’re a sales manager, what message do you give your team when you send them out in the field, no matter your industry?  Do you remind them of their goals, tell them what products to pitch, what brochures to bring with them?

Or do you constantly reinforce that the best way to sell is to add value to the relationship, try to understand their customers’ business and the challenges they face and let them know they’re there to help.

It shouldn’t really be that difficult to…

Think Like Your Customer