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SSC Laser
7th September 2020

How Are Business Relationships Changing and Evolving In Today’s Modern Era?

At SSC Laser we aim to provide our customers with a laser cutting service that is second to none. We are continually improving our service offering and further developing how we work with our suppliers, customers and prospects.

Prior to the UK wide lockdown in March, we sat down with Andy Hume, Group Sales Manager at SSC Laser to discuss how business relationships have evolved over the past 20 years and how he has developed with the changes in order to give our customers the best possible service.

How has professional selling changed?

Having worked in sales for SSC Laser for the last 17 years, I have seen the role of the Professional Salesperson constantly evolve and change.

Back in 2003, as SSC’s first ever sales representative, we had a handful of competitors within the laser cutting industry and hardly any of these had anyone “out on the road” representing their business.

Getting appointments was pretty easy, everyone wanted to see you. Yes, I was offering something new, a relatively new technology and opening up new opportunities in simplifying metal manufacturing, but almost everyone you called for an appointment said “Yes, pop in” and rarely did you need to be overly specific about a time.

Customers would always make time for you. Being young and energetic, some wanted to educate me in engineering and sheet metal, some felt sorry for me knowing I was trying to make an impression in my career and at SSC and I think some just agreed to see me so I would stop pestering them and getting on their nerves. However, regardless of their reasons for seeing me, as a sales representative you were the main link between the customer and your business and industry. Customers relied on salespeople heavily.

In the days of receiving faxes of components and assembly drawings, customers required meetings to show you the actual components they needed making, bounced ideas off you, showed you engineering drawings that were too big to fax, asking if you could make the parts on your laser, they asked your opinions and advice as to whether you could laser cut parts that they previously used to Guillotine, drill, mill or machine, and then once quoted, they negotiated hard to get a good deal, no doubt taking advantage of my youthful exuberance and desperation to win an order.

Once there and my foot was in the door, I built relationships on finding a common interest. Lunches, dinners, social events, football and rugby matches, you name it…I did it all to get to know the person, not the business. My thought was people buy from people. I even personally paid for a Bolton Wanderers weekly draw ticket to show one of my best clients I was supportive both in work and out of work – that reminds me…I’ve been paying that £1 a week for about 10 years…I must cancel that!…I don’t even support them, I support Middlesbrough. It was all done to build a rapport and show the clients I was just like them, I had the same interests and as a result they could talk openly and freely and be comfortable in my presence, never any uncomfortable silences and we just got on and ultimately became friends and I have made some very good friends as a result. The return I was initially looking for…a customer, not just an order, but a customer for life, and at the time it generally worked.

As the years progressed and there were major advancements in the internet and technology, people have become accustomed to seeking instant answers on everything. We want things and we want it now. You want an answer on a fact? Go on your phone. You want to buy something urgently? Go on your phone. In fact, mobile phones now account for approximately half of web traffic worldwide. We no longer need to go to the shops for our weekly shop, it can come directly to your door. We no longer need to go and sit with a travel agent while they trawl the databases and brochures looking for that perfect holiday, we can do that on the laptop at our own leisure, getting excited in the comfort of our own home instead of sitting the other side of a desk feeling pressured to book something there and then. Ultimately, technology, the internet, mobiles phones, they have all impacted the way we operate. They have driven up demand for companies to increase delivery speeds and service levels. If you don’t offer a next day delivery with e-commerce you are almost cast aside. Companies such as Amazon have created a standard that has meant the buying process in our everyday lives has totally changed, and people are taking this into their working lives. As a result, when you get to work, you start to expect a similar simple way of operating.

Expectations are far higher nowadays. It is now far easier for customers to source new suppliers and products at the touch of a button. Transportation cost and links mean sourcing locally is no longer the main driver for businesses and therefore it opens the opportunity of increased competition and therefore drives expectation and standards.

With everything available after a few taps of a finger on a screen, buyers are now very well informed. When a purchasing expert agrees to see you for a meeting now, they have nearly always done their research prior. Where they once relied on sales representatives for information about a product or service, they can now access product or service information and review data, product or customer reviews etc via the internet and they can do this before they see you. They form opinions and make decisions based on the whole of what they know about a brand and the business this includes all channels:

  1. Website
  2. Social media
  3. Contact with sales and other departments
  4. Customer reviews

Buyer relationships today

Buyers want a consumer experience in a business setting, including personalisation but are less willing than consumers to pay for a bespoke service.

We are also entering an era where Millennials are taking up senior leadership and decision-making roles in organisations, and they have different expectations and ways of working to their predecessors. 28-year-old Gymshark founder Ben Francis is a prime example of this. Setting the company up in 2012 whilst at Aston University, Gymshark was last month valued at £1 billion. Young, driven, ambitious, but with a young and modern outlook that influences the strategy of the business.

At SSC Laser we noticed companies were already moving with the times and modernising their production, their buying patterns and ordering profile, increasing their expectations and shortening their lead time requirements and we feel COVID will only accelerate this. Potentially fewer staff in many businesses, reduced cost and the need for ultimate efficiency, with little room for error. People are utilising the technology available as time is becoming ever more precious. Inboxes are getting fuller and internal meetings are becoming more commonplace as we are finding that fewer people have the authority to purchase.

An organisations spending has become more concentrated in senior management, director roles and the buying functions, yet, decisions are increasingly consensus-driven with more parties’ views considered. As a result, the following questions are constantly asked by senior management on both the selling side and the buying side:

More informed buyers with a drive to self-serve are increasingly resistant to being sold to and shut down old fashioned and out of date selling tactics. Buyers look for salespeople who demonstrate a genuine passion for and belief in their products and services and who can help make their roles easier, support their business and in many cases, support the buyer in their own development. By extension, the salesperson almost becomes part of the business that they are selling to.

Today, the business interaction comes first, with the relationship being the reward customers give sellers who work for it. That doesn’t mean the personal connection is any less valuable.

Insight Selling

Source: Schultz, Mike, and John E. Doerr. Insight Selling: Surprising Research on What Sales Winners Do Differently. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

As insight sellers establish themselves as trustworthy sources of value, buyers open up to an exchange of information and ideas. If the buyer likes and trusts you, they’re more apt to take your advice. This increases your business value, along with the frequency and depth of interactions with the buyer. That’s a solid buyer-seller relationship. It just happens in a different order than in the wine-and-dine-the-client-before-they-buy times.

Personal connections and being liked helps the seller become essential. In fact, our research found that sellers who weren’t liked lost sales. However, being liked alone was not enough to consistently win sales. Sellers who were only liked and did nothing else still lost.

Source: https://www.rainsalestraining.com/blog/is-relationship-building-in-sales-dead

Relationships & KPI’s

In my opinion relationship building in sales occurs in two ways.

  1. A personal connection (based on common interests, aligned personal values and people liking one another) and,
  2. Business value (a connection based on the strength of business impact).

In the last 3 to 5 years, I have seen a major shift towards the latter. People are busy. People have less and less time as they cram so much into their daily lives and working lives. Companies are demanding more and more from employees, and technological advancements have made it far easier to measure output, setting realistic KPI’s in business and hold people to account in all areas of a business.

Everything is monitored. Go to a Starbucks drive-through and look at the screen behind the window…green and red numbers. On track or off track for time taken to serve customers against set criteria and KPI’s.

At SSC Laser we are no different. Alongside the normal business financials, we measure phone calls, call duration, quote numbers, quote response time, quote to order conversion rates, OTIF (on-time & in-full delivery), laser sparked up time, press brake times, quality and lots more.

Why, you may ask?

Because we want to drive performance for the customer. We want to give the best, most accurate and consistent level of service possible. If we say we will do your quote in 4 hours, we are going to make sure people are driven and focussed to do that quote in no more than 4 hours, and we are going to measure it. Then, once we have the data, we can spot trends and take the appropriate action based on the data. It may be training so we can do quotes faster and more accurate, it may mean recruitment, it may mean more investment in laser cutting machinery, but the important thing is that you act upon it and you make your business perform better, which in turn allows our customers to perform better.

You may be thinking, well what’s all that KPI stuff got to do with a business relationship? Because simply relying on a friendly relationship, where both parties don’t value their performance, won’t get you anywhere with today’s high expectation market. If you don’t deliver on your promise to the customer, the likelihood is they won’t return to you again.

Customers want to know you have the processes in place to enable high performance. If you promise a quick quote, they need a quick quote. If you promise lead time, or if they need quick delivery, it has to happen on the day you agreed. It doesn’t matter if you are a customer’s best friend, in the world of business when people are fighting for every order, you have to be the best or you will leave them no choice but to look to other suppliers. As companies become leaner to add money on that bottom line, most roles have KPI’s and fewer buyers are managing bigger spends and dealing with more categories. Some buyers are time poor and frugal with their time and so need to deal with companies who they can rely on. If they place an order, it is off their desk and they move on to the next, they don’t need to be having to check if it will be on time, they need to just have an amazing supply base where the data tells then the likelihood is that the orders will be delivered on time, every time.

Conclusions

What does this mean for a field sales professional and the relationships they foster with customers? Some things have not changed; however, their importance is greater:

  1. Taking all the above into account; what is it that really makes that supplier and customer relationship work in today’s busy world? Is the need for a relationship dead or is it greater than ever? Buyers want to deal with salespeople who can influence their own companies. This influence is not always readily given, while you can argue that it should be, salespeople can help themselves by engaging more fully with their organisation – maverick, self-centred sales personas will not prosper.
  2. Salespeople need to demonstrate domain expertise; professional selling skills are not enough; salespeople must be able to help buyers choose through contextual knowledge and experience. A salesperson should be curious and invest in both internal and external networks to support and develop their knowledge and expertise. Salespeople need to embrace training and development opportunities.
  3. Trust, openness and honesty; slick salespeople who do not underpin sales skills with honesty will not be trusted and will not succeed. Grudging respect for salespeople who can ‘sell ice to the Eskimo’s’ is not enough to create loyal customers. This aspect is really tested when things go wrong; salespeople must be able to deliver bad news as well as good. Deliver the news early and help support the customer with options and solutions.
  4. Professional standards – In a business casual world, polished shoes, buttoned-up collars and Windsor knotted ties may or may not be important to your customers, “Doing what you say you will do, when you said you would do it” is! If you can’t, letting them know builds rapport and enhances loyalty, trust and shows you have integrity. You have to make customers feel like they can’t afford not to use you for fear of not getting that high level of service.

How to adapt

As previously mentioned, many things have changed recently, and as the rate of change is increasing, salespeople will need to adapt.

  1. The salesperson’s role now, is to guide buyers to a decision. Think of this change as one of ‘curating’ the sale, providing the right information and facilitating relationships. Closing sales will rely on evidence; reviews, quality and performance data – ‘Show, don’t tell’ will win over powerful rhetorical persuasion.
  2. Salespeople need to live in a multi-channel world and be active on social media, creating and distributing content that buyer’s value.
  3. Salespeople will need to be businesspeople – for buyers to look forward to and want to spend time with salespeople, a discussion on football (I do still do this 😊) and interest in their hobbies will not be enough. A real in-depth knowledge of a buyer’s company, their strategy, their market and full supply-chain, linking this to your industry and then traditional relationship and rapport building skills are needed. Link them all together and you have differentiated your business from the competition. You need to be able to have open conversations around their needs, wants, pains, trends, forecasts and the economy and then support them. Without this rounded approach, salespeople will find it increasingly hard to arrange meetings and hold the attention of customers when they do meet.
  4. Buyers and Purchasing professionals want a trusted advisor. The importance of collaboration cannot be understated. This is where you increased your value to the company you’re selling to. In laser cutting, this can be support with designs such as tab and slot for flat parts, whether to utilise tube laser technology, design cost-saving opportunities or it could be as simple as giving advice on the best materials to use for the application needed.
  5. The salesperson must have influence within their business. There will be times they need to make something happen for the good of the customer and the customer must know that they can do this. If not, they will look for other stakeholders within the business or in the worst case, alternative suppliers. With this in mind, use your network to your advantage too. Introductions of like-minded successful people who can offer value goes a long way.
  6. You must be authentic. Don’t try and be someone else. Be who you are and accept others who they are. If you try to be something you’re not, you won’t be believable and trusted.
  7. Be the ultimate professional. Always have a specific need for a meeting. Ask yourself the question, is a meeting needed? Don’t just have them for the sake of it. They must add value to a client. Set a clear agenda and stick to it. Formulate clear outcomes and actions in the meeting, professionally follow up and then ensure you do what you said you would do. Do the basics well and do them consistently! Customers appreciate and value this.

These are just some of the challenges and potential remedies for selling and account management in a modern business context.

If you are a business owner or sales leader, how might you help your sales team?

  1. Give them influence in your business.
  2. Take away the non-selling activities that so often pollutes salespeople’s focus and robs them of time.
  3. Train them within an inch of their lives to sell, to be product and service experts and be business people.
  4. Help them with a clear strategy and focused target customers and sectors.
  5. Spend time with them in the field to see their world and get customer and competitors intelligence first-hand. Use this time wisely. Field accompaniments aren’t new, they don’t use technology, but they are an amazing way to really coach and develop your sales team.
  6. Create and focus your marketing and sales collateral around the buyer’s journey:
    1. Problem research
    2. Solution research
    3. Solution selection

Is there a prompt or model that will help salespeople conduct sales meetings taking account of these changes? There are likely hundreds, the one I like I call ‘The three e’s of account management’:

Strategic Engagement:

What business goal can your product or service help your customer and or their business achieve? Agree on it and share it. Set some measurable outcomes to chart success.

People Engagement:

Who do we need to build trust with, in both our businesses, to influence and make changes, secure resources and gain decisions from to deliver our agreed goal(s)?

Tactical Engagement:

What is the plan? Who will do what, by when?

The changing buying and selling landscape offers enormous opportunity for professional salespeople and companies to create a clear differential in the way they engage, retain and develop customers. The choice is down to the company and individual and how much they want it.

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