Taking orders is out. Selling value in a commodity-based world is in.
Back in the day when Lisa Pryor worked for a printer, she bought lots of paper. She made sure to purchase from a few different distributors, always trying to spread the orders around equitably. After all, paper was paper. Fast forward 20 years and it’s a whole new world.
Pryor now works as a division manager for Millcraft. Paper is still paper. But in today’s digital world, the orders are smaller, the margins are tighter, and the sales are harder for everyone—printers, paper distributors, and paper mills—alike.
The changing industry landscape calls for a drastically different approach to selling (without abandoning certain classic sales techniques). Here, two long-time paper industry sales professionals share their secrets to selling value and creating strong relationships in this brave, new world.
Looking beyond commodities to find value
Commodities, by their very definition, are indistinguishable. “All of our competition can do the same things that we can do,” says Pryor. “They have the same price, they have the same delivery platform, [and] they have the inventory. It comes down to whom the customer trusts.”
Trust, she says, earns you the first call. “They know we’re going to follow through, that we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do, and that we’ll have a solution,” says Pryor.
Meanwhile, value is what keeps a customer coming back. According to Alan Pohl, an account manager in the corporate solutions group at Millcraft who has roots in the paper industry dating back to 1978, value may be quality, performance, on-time delivery, or a host of other added benefits. “You provide value to the customer to the point where they’ll agree that the price is not the primary focus,” he says.
It requires a keen understanding of a client’s or prospect’s business. “Our challenge is to analyze the whole process and look to add value to that process, viewing it through a different set of lenses, providing ideas and suggestions perhaps in an area the client hasn’t even thought about,” says Pohl.
Redefining the customer-salesperson relationship
For salespeople to get in and really understand customers’ businesses, they need a healthy relationship [with those customers] built on mutual trust and confidence.
Rather than the transactional relationships of years past, “I think customers are more open to building relationships where they can bundle their [paper and packaging] spend for time-savings on their end, which makes the process faster,” says Pryor. The relationship itself becomes part of the value proposition.
According to Pohl and Pryor, healthy customer-salesperson relationships share many common characteristics. A salesperson can be most valuable to your business when:
- You look to them for new ideas. You recognize them as a subject matter expert who can bring you solutions to problems and opportunities to grow your business.
- You grant them access to you and your organization. You openly share information, and, in return, the salesperson respects your time and the sensitivities of your business.
- You involve them early. The sooner you get them involved, the more options the sales reps have to deliver exactly what you need.
- You trust each other. You can rely on each other to do the right thing.
- You both find it economically rewarding. You look to them for a fair deal and understand the value they bring to your relationship.
In the end, Pryor says, it comes down to both parties creating a partnership and offering ideas for growth and continued success.
Some things never change.
Even when fortified by a strong relationship, sales must still be earned. And there are certain sales techniques that never lose their value.
Pohl has a favorite saying: “Everybody has two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. And there’s a reason why you’ve only got one mouth and two of the others.”
He underscores the importance of listening, observing, and learning—and most of all asking great questions. “If you only partially understand [a customer’s need] and then get down a road that’s wrong, eventually you’re going to have to start all over,” says Pohl.
Pryor stresses the importance of prospecting and always having a plan. “You have to build your business; you can’t just sit on the bench,” she says. “With your current business, you always have to be asking for the next order, the next project. Increasing your wallet share with the customer…that hasn’t changed.”
And sometimes the simple secret to the sale and strengthening relationships comes down to good manners—even when you get beat. Pryor consistently reminds her 18-person team of salespeople, customer service representatives, and delivery drivers of the power of manners in building and maintaining value-driven relationships with customers.
“People always want to hear thank you,” she says.
By Laurie Hileman