Thursday, October 10, 2013

My Career Selling Office Supplies

After posting about decades worth of my career I left out four years of selling office supplies.  If you are open minded you should be learning something every day and that proved to be the case.

Bouncing pay cheques is what drove me to selling office supplies.  I saw a classified ad and responded to it.  Superior Office Products was close to where I lived and they were willing to take a chance on me.  It was a few months before the background to the job offer was explained.  I didn't know much and one of the challenges was that I was selling from a catalog which meant thousands of different products.  I never became an expert for most of the products, but did learn a lot about the more commonly bought products.

Fortunately for me our company encouraged manufacturing reps to visit so I got to understand more of the products and also meet contacts that could help me nail down a sale.  I also went to a few trade shows. Product knowledge is critical to sales success.

Words can only take you so far.  Prospects have heard pretty much everything you have to say and answered a lot of the same questions ad naseum.  A quick demonstration often gets their attention. One of my favourites was to demonstrate a bottle of white-out that didn't spill.  You can guess the reaction when I tipped one at a prospect.  It not only got their attention, but spurred many to want to repeat the demonstration for co-workers.  One sales rep gained a lot of big customers by standing on a storage box to demonstrate its strength.  The idea is not so much to sell the item, but to get attention.  Then you can develop a relationship that allows you to sell what they need.

Samples were in one sense like a bribe in that you are trading something of value for attention (I have since appreciated that big advertisers view that as their objective).  Samples give the opportunity to follow up and sometimes lead to product endorsements.  I have learned new applications from customers using samples.  Read how this notion developed for me late in my sales career:  http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2013/03/applications-in-selling.html

At a group meeting learned about a very successful sales rep from Windsor who sold to Ford Motors. We were later told that Ford didn't do business that way, however my fellow sales worker managed to keep under the radar.  His secret was something I tried to develop with some success.  He would visit various departments and ask about what typewriters, printers and fax machines they were using. Sooner or later the company would have a sale on the ribbons or paper for those machines.  At first he just sold items on sale, but over time they appreciated that he was very useful and he would get other bits of business.  He worked his way up to selling $1 million annually--not bad for being under the radar.

Another sales rep from another branch asked a very basic question about who you work for.  I thought I knew the name of my boss and her boss, but his question was more basic than that.  The customer is your true boss and that is true whether you are on commission or not.  You need to bring in more money than you take out.  I remember listening to an audio tape that suggested companies have set ways of doing things, but if you don't cater to what the customer wants eventually someone else will

The concept of commodities eluded me until working in this field.  As a salesperson you try to highlight your product's uniqueness.  But when products are not so unique the key factor is generally pricing. It helps for you to realize that service is a key to overcome a price fixation.

One sales rep explained to me how one of our competitors offered lower prices.  They paid their staff poorly and thus had turnover.  That meant the sales reps never got to understand their customers and were not able to service them properly.  Obviously it takes time to understand the products, services and prospects being sold.

One chair salesman pointed out that our competition should be expanded to include any others who are chasing after the same limited amount of dollars a customer might have.  He used example of new start up business where they first buy a computer and  then usually a big impressive desk for the boss. A lot of odds and ends before they get around to the chair for the secretary who my expert said has the whole business resting on her pelvis.  I thought he exaggerated a bit, but in fact I came to appreciate the truth after two of my customers were desperate to get a chair to keep a secretary from quitting.  The point is that everything can be important and that it is up to you to convince your prospect that what you are selling is more important than they realized.

Feeling I was missing too much I asked to go around with the top sales rep, Bill Clark. Yet at the same time I was nervous and didn't want to leave a weak impression.  So essentially I forced myself to say more than  usual on a sales call.  He pointed out that on an initial cold call you are taking their time and if you want a second visit you need to avoid taking up too much of their time. When companies downsized employees were often given extra duties such as buying office supplies, but that just further cramped their time.  When it came time to check back to the office for messages he pointed out he always used the 800 number to avoid paying a quarter; tells you how long ago this happened.

Before too long I found myself with a large number of customers and prospects.   For many customers I was only a secondary supplier or worse.   In an earlier job I used newsletters and later on developed it even further.  But one of the key concepts comes from when I sold office supplies.   I had a fairly big geographic area.  And even when I made sales calls many of them were only a very few minutes long and the decision maker often not there.  A newsletter helped communications.  I tried to make it useful information, threw in a contest and explained a wider range of what I could offer (for instance furniture).  It seemed to have a positive impact.

At some point you realize you cannot have long discussions with everyone and you realize choices have to be made.  Around this time my wife and I became conscious that we were one of the few families of our acquaintance not to have a computer although I had started to work on one at work. Also was selling some computer accessories.  Mike Bromilow, a family friend was someone we had confidence in and he got us started.  As I started learning different programs I put all my customers on a data base and in addition to contact information I kept track of their sales on a monthly basis. Then I developed a formula using a rolling calculation to find out who bought the most.  Of course the other end of the thinking was about those people who weren't buying as much.  Tried to estimate potential and responsiveness.  Developed the concept of quantity x quality=sales.  Led to prioritizing of customers I later carried on for other products.  Learn more on learning this equation:  http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2011/06/there-are-two-dimensions-to-numbers.html

My daughter Heather helped me keep track of my computer records and I learned a lot from her as I did later with my son Michael.

Part of the value of a newsletter and computer was to free up time for prospecting.  We were paid a higher commission on accounts during their first year.  One strategy for me was to watch the daily order sheet for the whole office where I would come to realize categories I had been overlooking such as certain types of retailers.  Mike Bromilow was able to give me data bases for small companies in my area.  At one time I subscribed to small town newspapers to learn of businesses.

Now to the background story.  At the beginning three of us newcomers (of a sales staff of 6) had been promised a certain level of income.  That didn't concern me because my commissions were increasing every month and I enjoyed the work. Aside from our inexperience what the 3 of us didn't know was that our predecessors had left to work for a competitor and were calling on many of the same customers.  However one day my boss, Elizabeth Arvay added on a whole lot of house accounts, something I didn't understand.  House accounts were basically small accounts (sometimes relatively bigger companies) that just phoned in the occasional order for something their regular supplier didn't have.  Once I understood I started calling on them and they started calling in more orders.  House accounts were created to save money for the owners, but in fact they need attention or they will drift away.

Special orders were those orders not in our catalogue or warehouse.  I believe it was originally intended as a service to established customers, but I soon learned it was useful to get new customers. I didn't really understand that often a client would want 5 of some item and the company needed to buy 144 so they actually lost money and often ended up with a storage problem.  As a salesman I could be greedy, but I came to appreciate that profit comes from revenue minus expenses.  Still many of those new accounts would buy more profitable products.

Superior Office Products was a Quebec based company which had a few advantages.  One was that by Quebec law salesmen got vacation pay based on their commissions and still earned commissions while they were on holidays.  I also learned they have different holidays in Quebec--we in Ontario used to be jealous that they had Jean Baptiste Day a week before Canada Day, but didn't realize they didn't enjoy the civic holiday we got in August.  A few years later I was asked to proof read  a calendar and was able to point out they had the wrong holidays for their Quebec market.

For 18 straight months I sold more than the previous month.  Then seasonal factors and then structural factors became a concern.  The structural factors were mainly box stores that sold many of the same products with huge discounts.  I had customers and prospects start to laugh at my prices.  Like many other companies we cut our prices, but what I didn't quite get was that the box stores were able to cut prices on high volume items and they usually didn't even bother to stock items that didn't turn over rapidly.

As time went by I became more conscious of customers not always paying their bills on time and this affected my commissions.  During this time there was a financial downturn that I became conscious of when I found one of my real estate customers had locked me out and in fact had gone out of business.  Others followed.  In our office were several phone operators who basically took our orders and passed on messages.  I didn't realize that one was devoted entirely to chasing down unpaid bills. I remember one resistant prospect who suddenly opened an account and made a fairly large order.  I learned about half an hour later that they had overdrawn their account with one of our competitors Basically I learned that a sale is not a sale until you get paid.

All this meant our company downsized and I was forced to leave and over time they closed.   Interesting I did some business with Elizabeth when I sold pet products a few years later as her daughter bred cats.

Not the first time I was out of work and I sought advice.  One good idea turned out to be checking on my previous customers.  One of them liked me enough to recommend me to a competitor office products supplier.

I didn't know what to think of Cloke's as after all they had been a hated enemy.  I was invited for a meeting with Gary Schumacher and in popped Pat, a former employee from Superior who I respected a lot.  She reassured me these were good people.  Ironically a few years later Gary was a similar reassurance when I became involved in the pet trade.

Gary was a great boss.  He was patient and understanding.  At one time he got a complaint about me being too pushy.  I was afraid I would be in trouble, but he looked at it differently.  As he explained he wasn't actually certain his sales reps were making as many calls as they claimed or if they were as aggressive as they needed to be.  He explained that it is great to be persistent, but that I had to learn not be a pest.  I am actually sure that I am fairly passive compared to most sales people, but the problem is reading the prospect to understand when they have reached their limit, ideally stop pushing before that point is reached.

Gary introduced me to another idea.  Often when you away from your desk (such as driving around your territory) ideas and contact information comes to you before you can write it down.  A recording device lets you keep track of these things and allows you to retrieve information at a more convenient time.  Talking into the device saved time compared to trying to write down the details and I often had trouble reading my own writing.

Another staff pointed out to me that the phone staff sometimes were too busy to handle a bunch of orders I would phone in and too often details would be incorrect.  A fax phone was arranged for me to send in written orders to cut down mistakes and make better use of everyone's time and helping me understand fax phones better.  I ended up using it for some volunteer work for a swim club.

When I look back I have also since learned to use  a digital camera to record some information, but that was many years later.

There came a time when Cloke's fell victim to competition which more and more was big box stores and I was again forced to leave.  Gary must have taken a course in the procedure, because I ended up admiring him even more when he gave me the word.  Cloke's after a long history has disappeared. The world has changed and is still changing, but there are always things you can learn from your experiences.

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