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Getting Technical

As product lines continue to expand, companies are working hard to train their workforce to be able to provide increasingly technical know-how.

This article first appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of Industrial Distribution, a sister publication.

As product lines continue to expand, companies are working hard to train their workforce to be able to provide increasingly technical know-how.

There is no shortage of ways in which salespeople can enhance their relationships with customers. Conventional sales strategies have certainly proven their worth over time, and they remain a strong starting point for salespeople trying to establish a rapport with prospects both new and old.

Certainly a salesperson needs to have a basic understanding of his or her company's products and services in order to address customer needs, wants, and concerns. That's a given. But a basic understanding may not be enough in these increasingly competitive, post-recession times. Developing strategies to foster increased technical know-how in salespeople can lead to a competitive advantage – especially if those strategies build upon tried-and-true methods of accomplishing the same tasks.

"Enhancing technology and utilizing some of the new tools that are in the marketplace will only give us a greater competitive advantage," says Shon Libby, Vice President of Strategic Accounts and Segment Sales for Lawson Products, a seller and distributor of specialty products to the industrial, commercial, institutional and government maintenance, repair and operations markets.

Taking A Proactive Approach

Part of that, Libby says, involves having a strong technical knowledge of product lines and their applications. Lawson Products takes a very proactive approach to building the knowledge bases of its salespeople. The company invests quite a bit of time and effort in the pre-education of its sales force. District managers lead hands-on training seminars designed to educate new salespeople on products and applications. This is then reinforced through corporate education efforts.

"We have a regimented approach, it is actually a three-step process, where after they've spent 30 days or so in the field, they migrate into the corporate office and spend time in new agent orientation," says Libby. "It is very product-intensive."

Lawson then reinforces those training efforts six or 12 months down the road, depending on the salesperson and his or her level of success in the field.

Technical Knowledge In Action

These trainings efforts have paid major dividends for both the company and its customers, as evidenced in the following anecdote.

Lawson Products recently converted a strategic opportunity and was at a customer's location for some implementation meetings and to sign a final contract. As part of those efforts, one of Lawson's regional sales managers agreed to be on hand to conduct a welding seminar.

"We do versions of these seminars, whether it is in safety, to update on product categories, or just show how to use a product more efficiently," says Libby.

During the welding demonstration, an individual who was working in another part of the building came over and broke up the meeting. The man explained he had an issue with a piece of equipment and asked the regional sales manager if he could be of assistance.

"Our regional sales manager said, 'Absolutely,'" says Libby.

The customer's issue dealt with a piece of equipment where a bolt had broken off inside the machine, and he couldn't figure out how to get the welding rod to bend at the appropriate angle in order to remove the bolt.

"Our regional sales manager, although he felt fairly comfortable in doing it, also knew he had some support here at the corporate level," Libby explains.

The regional sales manager contacted a Lawson engineer, they walked through the application, and then he helped remove the bolt from the piece of equipment.

"I kind of witnessed all of this," says Libby. "So I asked the gentleman when we got done, 'Just curious, how much did we save you from a downtime standpoint, or even just a dollar standpoint, by helping you solve this problem?'"

According to Libby, the customer saved roughly $50,000 because they would've had to take the equipment apart, move it out, and send it back to the manufacturer to remove the bolt. In the meantime, the company would've had to rent another piece of equipment to prevent any further downtime.

"That's a free service that we provide, it is something our salesforce does every day in front of the customer," says Libby. "It is because we know what the customer is doing, we know the products they're using, and we know how to more efficiently use them."

The Customer Knows Best

Soliciting input from customers has allowed companies to better tailor these training efforts to fit market needs. Lawson gathers customer feedback in a number of ways, including customer surveys, focus groups, and strategic partner reviews. These efforts to engage customers and collect their responses have proven crucial in Lawson's efforts to maintain its strong emphasis on customer service.

"(Our customers) told us a relationship was really important and the technical expertise that our sales force brings to them was extremely valuable," says Libby.

Getting Technical

Another way companies are working to improve technical know-how is through the adoption and use of the latest and greatest advances in technology. Richer and more user-friendly websites, effective and consistent social media interactions, and email newsletters are just some ways tech-savvy companies are reaching their customers. Reid Supply, a global distributor of industrial products and industrial supplies, certainly understands the value behind embracing technology to communicate more effectively with customers.

"It lets them know that if they have questions about products, or anything, we're there," says Greg Palmer, Director of Marketing for Reid Supply.

"More than anything, it's about getting those folks comfortable with our product line," adds Steve Bliss, Reid's Director of Product Management and Supply.

Like Lawson, Reid conducts regular training sessions to educate salespeople about new products.

"They remind our salespeople of all of the products we have available and other areas to focus on when they are making their sales," says Bliss of the monthly sessions.

Lawson is also considering a certain type of tool that would allow the company's salespeople to quickly and easily gather product knowledge.

"Of course not everyone is up to exactly the same speed," says Libby. "So we're looking at some tools out there. I would describe it as a WebMD program, where you can actually capture that requisite knowledge, create chat rooms, and actually create opportunities for customers to interact in that forum as well."

Exhausting Every Resource

Gleaning knowledge from other individuals or groups is also a common way distributors brush up on their technical knowledge. For example, Reid salespeople bring suppliers to meetings with customers, while Lawson salespeople work very closely with – and gain valuable insight from – the company's engineering staff.

By calling on their suppliers to have more direct and in-depth contact with the salesforce, companies like Lawson and Reid have easy access to accurate and comprehensive product information. A strong relationship with suppliers also comes in handy if it is necessary to bring them into meetings with customers, who often appreciate the added perspective suppliers bring.

Training sessions, connecting with the customer and utilizing technology are among the strategies companies use to improve the technical knowledge of their salespeople, but companies like Reid and Lawson are always considering new and cutting-edge ways to further those efforts. In these uncertain economic times, doing so is not an option. It's a requirement.

"We have to work harder and harder for each sales dollar," says Bliss. "Everyone is trying to dedicate more time and more effort to it."