Two generations of salespeople talk about the craft of selling.
The differences between the generations in the work force have been well documented. But, surely, those differences don’t transfer over to the material handling sales force, do they? Salespeople are salespeople, right? Well, think again. The MHEDA Journal tracked down six salespeople, one industry veteran and one relative newcomer in each of the three main product segments, to find out what makes them tick.
The Younger Point of View
The members of the younger generation interviewed for this story are extremely excited about their jobs. Ambitious, professional and confident, they have big plans for the future. But they know that getting there is going to take dedication. A perfect example is Melissa Parrinder, inside sales and marketing at Norpak Handling Limited (Port Hope, ON, Canada). Her current duties mainly keep her in the office, helping salespeople with inquiries, quoting and sales orders. The last year or so, however, she has developed an interest in project management and is beginning to look at applications in a different way. “I find it very interesting, but I need a little more experience before I could take on that responsibility. I need more knowledge about the applications and understanding customer needs, but I’m starting to look at that a little closer,” she says.
But it takes more than ambition to be a good salesperson. Facing a much older and more experienced customer can be intimidating. That’s especially true when that customer thinks he knows more than you. According to Sean Ward, sales consultant at Certified Handling Systems (Salt Lake City, UT), customers have pre-conceived ideas about his product knowledge. “A lot of people see I’m young and think I don’t know that much,” he says, “but after they talk to me and see that I’m able to provide a solution to their challenge, they change their minds.” Ward may have an advantage in such situations, having seen what his grandmother, recently retired company founder Marilyn Tang, went through. “As a woman in this industry, she had to overcome some of those same perceptions. She is a real go-getter and always makes sure that the customer knows that she knows what she’s talking about.”
The best way to combat those prejudicial notions, Ward says, is to convey a sense of professionalism in all dealings with customers. “I dress nicely, and I make sure to respond to their inquiries in a timely manner.”
Gaining the confidence is just a matter of experience. “It takes a long time to feel comfortable as a salesperson in this industry,” Ward says. “When I started, I was always worried about making mistakes, but now I know the material better. We have a lot of products and the only real way to know them is to jump in there and start selling.”
Cory Eyink, outside sales rep for OKI Systems (Cincinnati, OH), agrees. “You need very strong product knowledge in this industry,” he says. “It’s important to ask questions, do your homework and come in hungry.” Eyink sees a fundamental difference between himself and the older salespeople he works with. “I came in with a college education, whereas a lot of our guys have a more technical background. It’s amazing to watch them sell the product because they can really talk about the technical aspects that someone like me wouldn’t know.”
The general belief that the younger generation is more technologically savvy is probably accurate, our interviewees concur. “I love having the ability to get on the Internet and get information quickly, but even ten years ago, that wasn’t possible,” Eyink points out. “I sometimes take that for granted.”
Without fail, the younger folks gave credit to the experienced people for their willingness to answer questions and give advice. “From upper management all the way down to our service technicians, everyone has been a huge help. There’s so much to know and every source of knowledge is a bonus,” Eyink says.
The Veterans’ Perspective
The three long-term salespeople interviewed have roughly 80 years of industry experience among them, so they have grounds to give advice. “I’ve been in a lot of lobbies and a lot of purchasing offices,” says Tom Parker, outside sales rep at Cass Hudson Company (Elkhart, IN). “I can see a little more of the big picture of what a customer needs than some of the younger guys.”
That being said, the veterans are impressed by what the younger members of the sales force bring to the job. As Jim Odle, territory sales manager at S&H Industrial Services (Batesville, AR), says, “I’m really impressed with the knowledge that these younger people are bringing into the business. They tend to study the product and learn its intricacies.” Odle learned more by seeing the products in use. “I wasn’t one to study a catalog when I first started. These guys tend to be more knowledgable when they hit the streets.”
Ron LaPresti, territory sales rep at Equipco Division Phillips Corporation (Bridgeville, PA), has seen a shift in style during his 20-plus years in material handling sales. “It has gone from a personal business to an electronic business. It used to be that you’d sign the papers on the back of a truck, but now all the paperwork is electronic.” He says this somewhat ruefully, because he knows that a strong relationship is still the key to a successful sale. “It’s evolving more to a commodity-type business, so we need to be professing value more than ever.”
Odle agrees. “Relationship selling evolved into price-driven selling, but now it’s important to have both. It’s a much more competitive market.”
The vets blame technology to an extent, but also understand the efficiencies modern technology offers. E-mail, BlackBerrys, global positioning systems and laptop computers all offer significant benefits for today’s salespeople. “We used to carry around big, thick manuals that took a while to sift through,” LaPresti recalls. “Now, with the computer, you can price out a truck immediately.”
Although they agree that they may be at a technological disadvantage, they do have one thing on their side—experience. That’s handy, particularly when faced with a sluggish marketplace, which the newcomers are likely seeing for the first time. “The key is to stay in front of the customer,” Odle says. “Keep pounding the pavement so the customer won’t forget about you.”
Ron LaPresti agrees. “The opportunity for you to do well is actually better because a lot of people aren’t working quite as hard. People don’t want to go out and search hard for the business. Sometimes a down economy is when you can increase your market share.”
One thing the generations do agree on is that product knowledge is essential. “You need to know the application well, and the product should solve the problem right the first time,” Tom Parker says. For Jim Odle, the acquisition of product knowledge has been the biggest appeal of his position. “I wish I’d been selling conveyors for the last 25 years instead of just the last 10,” he says. “They’ve got a lot of bells and whistles and are a lot of fun to sell.”
So, the consensus is that selling in material handling is evolving, and it’s not an exact science. But there are some universal truths, according to Tom Parker. “Have a little patience, stick to the basics and always continue to hone your skills.” No matter how much experience you have, that seems like sound advice.