Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lessons Learned After Ten Years of Sales in the Manufacturing Industry

Last week I called it quits with my current career of working for Chi Cheng, a Taiwanese based electronics manufacturer.  I wanted to share some of my lessons learned from the past ten and a half years working in sales, engineering, and project management.

Everyone on the team has the responsibility of business development.

Every manufacturing organization has a dedicated sales/business development team.  This team may have the support of a sales engineer or project manager, but the responsibility of selling is pretty much placed on the shoulders of the account manager.  My belief is that everyone should be selling.  I have brought in more business as an engineer than I ever have by focusing strictly on business development or sales.  Whether you are a sales rep for a manufacturing company or just a floor sales associate at Best Buy, people immediately are on guard thinking you are trying to force a sale on them.  I experimented with this over the years, and 9 times out of 10 customers were more relaxed if I presented myself as an engineer rather than a business development manager.  They never felt that I as there to push a sale, but that I was there to help them solve a problem.  I could take the opportunity to present solutions that I knew favored my companies expertise.  Usually these were solutions that I knew our competitors struggled with.  Sometimes the solutions I suggested were not the most efficient way to manufacture something, but it was the only way we would end up being able to win the job.  The thing is that once you plant an idea in someone's head, it is hard for them to step back and think outside of that box for a better solution.  This is why I think it is important for every person in your company to understand they are actively be involved in the business development process.  Everyone needs to understand how their role can contribute to this process, and use those multiple roles to set you apart from your competitors during the whole sales process.

Being honest with your customer is the most important thing you can do.

I have built some amazing customer relationships over the years.  The secret sauce to these strong relationships is honesty and the trust that comes from being honest to your customers.  I learned early on that being completely transparent and honest with your customers is not a common thing in the ODM and OEM supplier industry.  Suppliers are always hiding information from their customers.  They only communicate information on a need to know basis, and they never communicated delays or mistakes until it was too late to recover.  Part of this has to do with the Asian culture not accepting and embracing failure.  By communicating your delays or struggles to your customers early on, you earn so much more trust with them.  My customers always knew that they could trust me to be transparent with the schedule impacts and struggles that come up during the development of a project.  You would be surprised how understanding a customer can be if you are up front with them about your struggles from the beginning.  Open communication allows for schedule or design changes to be made that might be able to help you.  Many customers feel the need to micro-manage suppliers.  When there is an open and honest communication channel, the customers are less likely to micro-manage everything you do.  Trust me, this benefit alone is worth it.

Use knowledge management as a way to make customers rely on your services.

I would say that knowledge management is probably one of the biggest issues that organizations big and small struggle with.  It is very easy to learn from your own mistakes, but the challenging part is to communicate these lessons learned to an entire organization.  Many times our customers struggled with this more than we did.  It is hard for them to manage this information across many development teams, and so it is up to the supplier to make sure that knowledge learned in the past is shared efficiently with the customer.  I have seen many projects where lessons learned were never openly shared with the customers, and everyone repeated the same struggles time and time again.  I think suppliers struggle with communicating this information, as it is easy to be perceived as a way of pushing back at the customer's design requests.  In some ways this is true, but it all comes down to how you communicate back to your customer.  Development engineers hear "we can't do this" from suppliers all the time.  Instead of telling the customer that something cannot be done, you can present a specific case backed by historical data.  Explain the cause, effect, and solutions based on past cases or experiments.  This allows a customer to make changes or suggestions based on actual experience rather than theoretical results.  Customers start to depend on you to help manage this knowledge learned over time, and breaking the relationship with you becomes harder.  Effectively using the lessons learned over time is an easy way to continue growing business with your existing customers.

These are the three biggest lessons that have helped me build a successful career over the past ten years.  Hopefully I was able to give you some ideas on how to improve your relationships with your customers regardless of the industry that you are in.

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