Make no mistake about it. It is tougher than it used to be for the filter sales professional. It is a different environment than even five years ago. Sales and/or profit margins may be down; companies are reeling.

With the new global economy, manufacturers are closing their domestic facilities and relocating outside the U.S. borders. Due to that same economy, a sluggish stock market, and post 9-11 concerns, many other facilities are downsizing, running at a reduced capacities or just closing their doors.

In any case, the proverbial “pie” that we strive to get a piece of, has grown smaller. The maintenance people that remain are too busy “putting out fires” to do proper preventative maintenance or to see salesmen. Their budgets are being cut; corporate mandates demand cost savings. Even our best customers are demanding lower prices. Many in the corporate offices seem either not to know or care that a dollar “saved” on preventative maintenance may cost ten dollars in repairs or even more in new equipment in years to come. Another of the positions eliminated is the receptionist who can direct you to the proper people when calling on a new facility.

Many of our best contacts are reaching retirement age and leaving the work force. Often they are not replaced and the workload is spread among an already overloaded group, which further reduces the time they might have to see a salesman, even a welcome one. If they are replaced it is often by a new generation, who, when faced with a need, instead of calling in their filter professional, heads straight to the internet. Our influence is further weakened.

Another fairly recent phenomena is the growth of outsourcing the servicing of the HVAC equipment. Because their own staffs are cut, more companies turn to these service groups. The service group may perform tasks as simple as changing the filters or they may take total responsibility for the equipment involved. In many cases the facility no longer buy the filters. The providing service group may be from another area or have its own established sources.

Companies are also looking to reduce their vendor base. Many times they get the idea that filters are just another commodity to be handled by the company with the all encompassing product line and catalog. Buying groups and integrated suppliers are in vogue.

Manufacturers are bypassing the distributor; selling direct. They may have their own sales force and national contracts. Because of these and other factors, our competitors are slashing prices. Business disappear or gross profits plummet in an effort to stay competitive. In spite of what the customer may say to the contrary, and often not of their own choosing, price is the overriding factor in many situations. Each of you could probably list other factors making it tougher to sell in this era.

What can we do to combat this seemingly endless influx of discouraging practices? Is it hopeless? Of course not. We have all heard the maxim “work smarter, not harder.” I suggest in this new economy the successful filter professional will work both smarter and harder.

Working smarter means doing it right the first time. Take advantage of the edge that NAFA membership and CAFS certification can provide and promote this to your customers wherever possible. While they might be able to buy a filter out of a catalog, or from a website, you, their filter professional, are an invaluable source of information that can help them realize real, long term savings. Where the opportunity exists, educate your customers, whether one on one or by giving a group seminar.

Introduce yourself to that new engineer. Let him or her know how you have helped their facility in the past and that you are there to help them now. We want them to turn to you instead of the Internet when filtration information is needed. Working smarter might also mean working within the capabilities of our company and our self. It may be better to give your full attention to and be able to adequately complete four projects than to inadequately attempt ten. The four customers you take care of will be more pleased and more likely to remain with you than the ten that you do not satisfy. Use all legitimate means to take care of your existing customer base.

Working harder may require traveling farther, making more calls, or calling on that account that you’ve been passing by because of past rejections. You never know when an unfriendly decision maker might be gone. If you promise something to a customer such as literature, information, a catalog, or a quote; follow through and be absolutely sure it is done promptly and correctly, even if you are not personally the one doing it. If for any reason the task cannot be done promptly or when promised, keep the customer advised and “in the loop.”

If you send a quote, follow up, follow up, follow up. If possible, first follow up quickly to confirm that the quote reached the individual to whom it was promised. It’s an electronic jungle out there and things do get lost. If you determine it was not received, follow through until it is. When it is received, try to get an initial reaction and if appropriate set a specific time to find out the results. If it is determined you will get the business, great, but follow up until the order is booked. If the news is not so good try to get any and all available info; who received order, pricing, product supplied, as specified, FOB point, delivery, etc. Depending on the type of bid you may obtain all, some, or none of the information. But follow up. Even a losing quote might supply you with the info necessary to be successful the next time. (In case you haven’t figured it out, I am a big believer in the “follow up”).

When you get that first order from a new customer, work closely with your inside people to make sure it is handled promptly and correctly. If there are any “snags”, keep the customer informed. When the order is shipped follow up with your customer to be certain everyone is satisfied. Promptly address any concerns.

Go after the service organizations that are taking your business. Try to make yourself a valuable asset to their efforts. From a company standpoint our websites must be up to date, informative, and functional. Regrettably, the company may be forced to downsize the sales staff and the remaining salesmen shoulder the workload of additional travel, calls, greater productivity, etc.

As individuals and companies we will not win every time. We may have to walk away from some unprofitable businesses. Some factors and decisions are out of our and even our customers control. And on occasion, your customer trying another source can ultimately be good for you. They may come back, more appreciative and more committed to you and the valuable services you provide. We can, by working smarter and harder, be successful and even grow in these tough times. Good selling.

Selling in the New Era; Fall 2003 issue of Air Media
Author(s): David Wright, CAFS, Filtech, Inc. (WV)