Round Table Debate: Sales

Posted on the 11 November 2014

Round Table Debate: Sales

In the latest of its Round Table discussions, the Entrepreneurs' Forum brought together members to share their experiences, challenges and successes in the area of sales. Hosted by Pamela Petty, managing director of Ebac, and chaired by Forum chief executive Gillian Marshall, the participants explored topics including sales processes, finding and training the right people, lead generation and pipeline, closing the sale and after-sales service and account management. From PR and HR to technology, property and print, the members represented a range of sectors. Those taking part were:

Pamela Petty – Ebac, the country’s leading manufacture of domestic dehumidifiers and bottled watercoolers, which has most recently brought washing machine production back to the UK;

Martyn Young – First2Print, a specialist in large format, digital and litho printing and creative design, based in Sunderland. Martin was a finalist for this year's Emerging Talent award.

Nicky Jolley – HR2Day, which provides retained HR services to businesses without their own HR department as well as consultancy and project work to larger companies.

Martin Wakefield – Newcastle Home Automation Centre and the co-owner of Bang & Olufsen stores in Yarm, Harrogate and Newcastle.

Jon Kent – Zeco Energy, a wireless energy and environmental management solutions company based in Newcastle.

Samantha Lee – Publicity Seekers, a PR agency based in Hartlepool. Sam is a journalist by profession and a former chairman of the Football Writers' Association

Caroline Pattinson – Keith Pattinson Ltd, a residential property agency that is aiming to expand its local authority disposals service across the country.

Graham Sleep – Improvement Architecture, which designs business models and has developed quick tools to facilitate them, provides SME coaching, training and development.

Jamie Robertson-McIsaac – Robertson McIsaac Ltd, a Newcastle-based insurance broker that specialises in providing cover to accountants, solicitors, media and IT companies.

Ian Hamilton – CMR UK, which designs and manufactures complex wire harness and panel assemblies for the engineering sector.

Q: Gillian Marshall: What are the challenges for your business in the area of sales?

Jon Kent: the biggest challenge we've had has been getting from where we were to where we are, the evolution of the business. This is the first time I have created anything from scratch. It started with an idea to create cloud-based software solutions and it has taken two years to really understand how to target the market, which inevitably causes issues in trying to resource the company. To design a scaleable sales model is very challenging; to try and train people when you are constantly trying to meet customer demand is very difficult. We have quite ambitious targets in terms of where we want to take the business and the only way to achieve that is with bodies. We have created a partner channel, which has worked well, so now we can concentrate on expanding our sales force. It takes a lot of time, money and effort to win a client but that's only the start. For us it's not a quick in and out, it's about education, awareness and giving the client the confidence that we can deliver and building that relationship.

Pamela Petty: From a sales point of view, we have a whole range of customers - we sell direct online, through retailers like Argos and Currys, develop and manufacture for companies in France, and sell water coolers through installers who are usually owner-manager small businesses. The biggest issue, other than bringing all our products into production, is the whole nightmare of pricing. Faced with retailer discounts, rebates, margins, it's all about getting the balance right and that's before retailers, having decided to discount their products, come back to you, the manufacturer, and expect you to cover those discounts. It does nothing but damage the market. We are a leading manufacturer of water coolers, but you have to be careful: leading edge can easily slip into bleeding edge, and it can happen very quickly. So rather than trying to revolutionise, we look very closely at what others are doing. We want to be a small fish in a big pond, which completely bucks the trend.

Martyn Young: We are specialists in one-sheet technology and supply around 5,000 customers in the European market who buy print services from us weekly. We are leaders and innovators. We started in 2010 from a standing start. We've exceeded our targets and put on £800,000 worth of growth this year - without any sales executives.

Martin Wakefield: Seventy per cent of our business is repeat business. A large part of that comes from using the Bang & Olufsen database, fine-tuning events and marketing around that. It takes a long time for sales teams to become effective - it's no surprise that our best sales people have been with us for ten years or more. We find out a lot about our customers before offering solutions for them. We go to their homes, building up a level of trust and finding out about their home environment, before inviting them back and presenting a solution.

Jamie Robertson-McIsaac: We provide personal insurance to directors and senior partners of companies but generally our clients are corporates. We are terrible at selling but very good at relationship management. We fulfil quite a pastoral role. If an insurance broker is doing their job properly they have to understand their clients very carefully. The easier it is to buy an insurance policy and the fewer questions you are asked, the less safe it is. So the more questions we ask, the safer the client's insurance purchase becomes. It's poisonous to business to make the purchase of insurance simple; we need clients who are actually interested in risk.

Pamela Petty: You need to know your insurance is there if you have a catastrophe. Our broker surveys our premises with our operations director. She's a pain in the backside but I thank her for that. But how do you sell the benefits of that?

Jamie Robertson-McIsaac: We have to use metaphors, examples and get the calculator out to show the cost of business interruption. Our industry is full of account executives, who are charming, but one survey of 400 businesses in London found that, in 71 per cent of cases, if something bad happened they would fall over.

Nicky Jolley: For my business, it's all about raising awareness. We have big growth plans and have a business development manager yet every client we have has been referred to us following recommendation. The challenge is selling our services on a wider scale. We work proactively with our clients to understand their business and help them get the best out of their people.

Ian Hamilton: our business has been going 30 years and we design and manufacture harnesses for companies like Cummins Engines and JCB. I'm charged with working on diversification; we are very, very successful, but we are reliant on a couple of big customers. We are developing new products with partners and that reduces the risk, allowing us to enter new markets.

Samantha Lee: I came into business as a journalist. We find it very easy to promote other companies and raise their profile. We have a lot of different clients in different sectors, both B2B and B2C, but sometimes doing it for ourselves is not always as easy.

Q: Gillian Marshall: how do you allocate your time to work on sales, or how do you identify right people in your business who have sales skills/experience?

Ian Hamilton: What I am interested in is finding the right fit with the customer at the front end, the person who can diagnose the customer's needs. We have the people with the technical skills, then project management then the transactional person. It's about using the right people according to the project.

Graham Sleep: I have just taken on a business development team in my business so a better example of how we work would be through a client. One such client is based in Glasgow where we worked on business development and helped them grow from £6m-£12m in a year. Their sales team were used to selling in a certain way. We turned the business model on its head, but had to be certain they could sell on the new model. It's about understanding the customer, what is pain or gain for them and developing the products and services to be pain relievers and gain creators. Openers open, then behind that you need your account management, product management and so on, who are mainly transactional people. This particular client realised they had no openers in their business, only closers, but they've responded by moving people, and now they've seen that level of growth.

Q: Gillian Marshall: Is one team in your business doing it all?

Martyn Young: We've got a small front end team and we have a different approach to sales. We don't have a high value product - we use a £2m machine to produce a £20 order and the client still wants it yesterday. We've got to deliver an experience so we have client services, account executives, production controllers, but we don't have direct sales. In my experience they cost the most and do the least; they are the most expensive in the team but they have the least knowledge. It's about achieving things in a different way. For example, when Sunderland were at Wembley we gave a lot of product away for a Paint the Town Red campaign. It got us on Sky Sports. The manufacturer of the ink gave it to us for free and the sales generated on the back of it were massive, including attracting Procter & Gamble. If we can't get through to a customer we want to have we'll send a life size cut-out of an account executive, or a shoe to get our 'foot in the door'. Sometimes we send them a lottery ticket then ring them on Monday to see if they've won, or we send doughnuts on Valentine's Day. It starts a conversation. I'm the main driver behind sales. We have a wish list of 100 clients we would like to work with. If we can't get in ourselves, I'll ask somebody who knows somebody. It took me three years to get into SAFC. Until somebody swears at me and says they just don't want to work with us we keep at them, but in a nice way.

Jamie Robertson-McIsaac: In the insurance industry a lot of sad people are buying renewal date lists from other sad people who sell them. The market is crowded with those guys. Another school of thought is to see people 40 days after they've renewed, when there's no pressure, and ask them about their experience. Then you spend the rest of the year building that relationship. You can't criticise someone's decision, especially if it wasn't taken lightly, so you have to get over that and find another way.

Pamela Petty: I only have two sales negotiators. If they get a 'no' it's difficult to encourage them to sit down and think about what we could have done differently or better, especially when the reason for the 'no' is usually about margin. Doing a post mortem is not good for someone who's already down; sometimes you have to wait for another success before going back to look at the 'nos'.

Samantha Lee: When we've got our clients in newspapers or on TV, some of them have been quite aggressively approached by other PR companies. We've got a good relationship with our clients and none has jumped ship, but what's the difference between being strong at sales and being too aggressive?

Caroline Pattinson: It's easy for us to spot our potential customers - they put a sign outside their house! That's why, if you put your house on the market, you will get a stream of letters from other agents. It helps us to build listings. The vendor may hear more from us than their existing agent but if they come to us, we have to deliver. The valuer will put their property on the market then the client may never see the valuer again but the relationship continues with the sales person.

We used to have annual appraisals but they were pointless. We had people who bumbled along and did OK, and others who went under the radar and consistently under-performed. I introduced quarterly appraisals and, critically, rewards, which people welcomed. As a result our top performers are performing even better because they are being recognised on a quarterly basis and those who were under performing know the appraisal is coming round pretty regularly and they have to pick it up.

Q: Gillian Marshall: What selling techniques do you use?

Martin Wakefield: We've found MailChimp to be effective as a tool for identifying people who are showing an interest in an email marketing campaign we have carried out. We get a significantly higher marketing response rate when we contact people by follow-up telephone call, who we can see have opened the email several times and spent considerable time reading it.

Martyn Young: It's a fine line between keeping in touch and harassing people.

Pamela Petty: If we ask our dehumidifier customers to enter a competition no-one responds, but ask them via social media how they use the water from their dehumidifier and they love it. You do have to think differently. When we were doing market research into chest freezers we missed out allotment owners, who obviously are high users of freezers.

Jon Kent: When you're creating a totally unique service, getting people to adapt is not easy. I have taken on account managers and have found that, among the younger generation, technology is a barrier to sales because it's so easy for them to sit behind a desk saying they've sent an email. We used to have to knock on doors. It's the difference between hunters and farmers. I've found that not only are we creating new products and creating new markets but we're also having to educate the kids.

Caroline Pattinson: I hate sales people even though I'm a sales person myself. It's to do with the way they sell to me. They just follow a script and as soon as you ask something that veers off the script they can't deal with it. They might be able to save me money but we never get that far because they can't answer the simple stuff.