Subscribe to our newsletters & stay updated
The sales profession is a lot like golf. Anybody can play the game — amateurs and professionals — and they can all talk about it. Opinions and suggestions about sales are freely proffered by many, but not everyone is good at doing it.
LinkedIn and other social media platforms are replete with alleged sales experts, with their podcasts leading the way and shining their light on the subject. They pontificate with buzzwords and acronyms: CRM, CX trends, ecommerce, transformational, process, data this and data that, and how the old ways of sales don’t work in this modern era.
I created lots of sales and satisfied customers in my lengthy career. Keeping the ones I had while pursuing new ones was how we grew our business. New customers are not really that hard to find. The magic in the relationship between customers and sales is realized when they thank you for being there for them.
I’ve been retired for three years; every day, I get calls from customers asking for advice. Relationships don’t retire. The other day, I called a customer whose account I opened in the 1970s. At that time, he worked for another customer but wanted to start his own contracting business. I coached him, opened an account and asked key manufacturers to help train him.
His business started to grow. I taught him how to mark up his materials and labor and to make a profit. I went to his wedding and, over the years, watched his kids grow and get involved in the business. I shared the pain of his wife’s passing.
Contractors keep it real
I never needed a consultant to tell me how our company was doing. All I needed to do was call any of my touchstone customers, who were my key market indicators of the good, the bad and the ugly. I love contractors. Time isn’t their friend. Stuff breaks and their phone rings with another 911 emergency. And they immediately engage their preferred suppliers and rely on the people they entrust to acquire the materials, advice and urgent deliveries to jobsites.
They keep it real! They aren’t easily impressed with how big your company is. They want to feel important. “Money talks and bullshit walks!” During their very busy day, the only time they really feel in charge is when they control the decision of which supply house they will drive to in an emergency. When they walk in, they can sense by how they are greeted and prioritized if they made the right choice.
There is a large social component to their daily counter visits. They expect to see familiar faces of other contractors and their favorite counter salespeople. They love to bust balls. They can ask other tradesmen about technical applications. They want what Rodney Dangerfield wanted: respect.
I start my day at Starbucks right when they open at 5 a.m. I frequently see a customer who heads up the service department for a very large mechanical contractor that services all the big buildings in Boston. I love this guy. He’s cantankerous, brutally honest and sarcastic. He was telling me the other day how much he really likes and depends on one of our senior inside sales guys — who, by the way, is also sarcastic and cranky.
He asked me what the heck are we going to do when the sales guy retires. I asked him who he deals with when the senior inside sales guy is on vacation location. The customer said that he calls a competitor and talks with a specific person there. He added that he doesn’t deal with companies; he deals with people because he doesn’t have time to waste.
Continuous Improvement and Quality
Another example: We hired a consultant once to teach us all about continuous improvement and quality. We were in the corporate boardroom, and the consultant was presenting a protracted PowerPoint dog-and-pony show. Our company CEO listened for a while, stopped the presentation abruptly, and recommended that we follow him through the warehouse and to our very busy sales counter.
There were many customers in line. He walked up to one, said he was part of the company’s management team, and would the customer tell him how the company was doing. Without hesitation, the customer replied, “Well, if you really want to know, most of the time, you guys are OK, but today, you guys suck!”
He went on to relate that he has asked several times for us to stock some specific items, and nobody listened. The boss took out his pen and notebook, asked what the items were and made a list. Then he walked over to the branch manager and told him to get the items on the shelf now. He thanked the customer for sharing the information, assured him that the stuff would be there next time, gave him his business card and said if he had any more suggestions to stop by anytime and share them.
We went back to the boardroom and revised our approach to quality and continuous improvement. The customer spread the word about his encounter with the boss; I think he feels respected now, and I think we have improved.
Moment of Connection
I was chatting with a group of customers about technology, apps, ecommerce interface, bots and artificial intelligence. They can’t predict their specific product needs because they are in the service business; the clarification comes with the panicked, early morning phone calls from their clients demanding an immediate response for whatever emergency: no heat, no hot water, leaking pipes, HVAC equipment malfunctions on the roof or in the basement, pumps and boilers and controls that aren’t working, etc.
Their client base can be a mix of residential, commercial and industrial; hospitals, colleges, high-rise property management, manufacturing plants and power plants. As I noted earlier, time isn’t a contractor’s friend. The salespeople they rely on are their most important conduit to stuff, expertise and fulfillment. Even more important are social interaction and connection. The concept of a company is realized at this moment of connection.
Whenever I call my doctor or local pharmacy, I get the artificial intelligence answering device: “Thank you for calling; you are very important to us. If we put you on hold for a half hour, your call is extremely important. We apologize, but we’re very busy helping other valuable clients, so be patient and listen to some advertisements. You can also help yourself by going to your patient portal on our website and trying to remember your patient number and password.
“We will send a text to your phone with a code to enter on your portal. By the way, if this is an emergency and you’re still alive, please hang up and dial 911.”
I don’t think my contractor friends prefer this efficiency over real live salespeople! I can only hope my competitors think this is a great way to do business. Oops, I must end this missive and answer an incoming call from another grateful and cranky customer. I know he likes me a lot: he swore at me because he could. He knows that making his day makes my day! Another great day in the life of a salesperson.
Ernie Coutermarsh spent 50 years at F.W. Webb, retiring in December 2019 as senior vice president of industrial business development. Today, Coutermarsh is a wholesale distribution expert, advisor and mentor in the distribution arena. He can be reached at email@example.com.