Key Accounts And Manufacturers

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Key accounts and manufacturers, what could be better?

The answer is simple. More key accounts for more manufacturers that have taken the time to crack the code that allows these big deals to happen. So, how’s that for convoluted? The first step, which you already know, is to identify and target your key accounts. The next step is to court them, get on their radar, and gain access. The third step is to meet with them and perform an amazing prospect-focused sales interview and presentation and close the deal. So let’s discuss how key accounts and manufacturers can benefit from the kind of sales interview and presentation that will result in more closed sales with key accounts for your manufacturing company.

If you, or your salespeople have been systematically prospecting into key accounts, it’s inevitable that on some glorious day a sales appointment will be landed with one of these key accounts. Now by key account I mean the kind of account that could rapidly take your manufacturing company to the next level. Maybe not the size of General Motors, but pretty big nonetheless. 

Oftentimes landing an initial selling appointment with a key account is a mixed blessing. It’s replete with possibilities. A blessing, a curse.

This is it, you (or some quaking salesperson), will be meeting the grand poobah, the head gink, the one who signs the checks. Even worse, you may be meeting an entire team of quasi head ginks, all in one locked boardroom. This type of appointment can be simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

In fact if the truth were known many of you would rather go to the dentist for multiple root canals with a side order of crowns. You’re probably lying awake in bed at night obsessively ruminating about how many pieces your head will be chewed into by the fearsome key account monster. But fear not, the head-chewing key account monster and his assortment of ginks can be tamed, and you can do it. But there are some pretty serious caveats to me mindful of in order to navigate these deep waters.

The tragic short life of a misguided manufacturer’s salesperson

If typical selling performances by many salespeople I’ve watched in the past are any indication, you’re going to be spending a great deal of time becoming incredibly prepared (so you think).

There’s not a chance you’re going to lose control of the sale. You’ll not miss out on a single feature. The most arcane product advantage will not escape your mind.

You’ll have rehearsed your sales presentation in front of the mirror, in the local bar with your cronies, in the local bar with complete strangers, and at the local grocery store. Many humans will consider you certifiable.

Your brochures and handouts are polished and beautifully printed in four colors with a tasteful spot varnish. You’ve sent your best suit to the dry cleaners. You’ve rented a car that’s about 4 levels above your pay grade. You’ve got a new battery in your laptop and the latest version of Power Point. In fact, you have everything at your disposal except background information, oh and that other small detail, prospect knowledge.

You stride confidently into the boardroom secure in the knowledge this is going to be your big day. You can already see the signed contract and a big commission check. In fact you may have already spent this anticipated commission check.

Little do you know you’ve already sown the seeds for epic failure. Inevitably your sales call goes nowhere. Your buyers tell you thanks but no thanks, and you head back to your office dejected and forlorn, weeping copiously as you clutch the leather steering wheel in your shiny rental car.

Then things go from bad to worse. Your car gets clamped in the company parking lot, which offers free parking. You go home and your spouse has left you to run away with a left-handed bagpipe repairman from Kirriemuir.

Your dog will no longer speak to you and averts his eyes in your presence. You’ve lost your favorite argyle socks and Leafs aren’t going to win the Stanley Cup. The Patriots won’t make it to the Super Bowl. Your dreams of finally getting respect from the boss are dashed. You are in the pit of despair.

All of this (first world) tragedy in your life could so easily have been prevented if you’d only understood that…

Key accounts deserve more from manufacturers

For some strange reason many manufacturer’s salespeople take great pleasure in placing themselves in selling situations without performing their “due diligence.” They like to live in the moment and wing it. They tempt the inevitable crash and burn. They fly by the seat of their pants. They have their own cult of personality with a membership of one.

They want to get by on a shoe shine and a sincere smile. They don’t spend one minute on basic pre-call research and planning. They seem unaware of some of the better-hidden and little known research tools like Google.

You can always identify unprepared salespeople by the inanity of the questions they ask during the initial sales call. This can happen during the (shudder) rapport building stage or throughout the sales call. Here are a few examples:

“So, how many people ya got workin’ here?”

Or, “Got any new products on the go?”

Or even better, “You really make hubcaps for golf carts here?”

Many prospects find this line of questioning extremely annoying. Rightly so because it is. Some of these prospects may never want to see your salesperson again. In some cases that salesperson may even be you.

How skilled manufacturer’s salespeople close more key accounts

So what ought you do before making any sales calls?

Well, you should do a little bit of amateur sleuthing. If you want to maximize the probability of making a good first impression get your deerstalker on, Sherlock. Mycroft Holmes was the smarter brother but Sherlock got all the glory because he created his convictions on research and logical deductions and acted on them. So do the hard work and start digging. Getting background information about a company is really quite easy. It can be done in no time at all. If your aim is to sell more key accounts this kind of research is compulsory.

Not surprisingly, the first stop you need to make is on your key account’s web site. Many of these sites have a great wealth of information about your target company. In less than ten minutes of time you can ascertain many things about their company culture, product and service lines, and history. So take twenty minutes and do this.

The second option is to contact someone you know in the sales profession who is already calling on or selling into the key account you are trying so hard to land. Providing you trust that person’s judgment you can glean useful information about your prospect.

The third option is for you to call the key account you’re trying to sell and ask to speak to one of their salespeople. What you’ll soon discover is when you talk to the company receptionist and ask for someone in sales you always will be connected.

Once you’re talking to a salesperson within your targeted key account you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much they will tell you about the people with whom you hope to meet. Some salespeople will email you background information! There seems to be an unwritten peer to peer respect among all professions and the selling profession is no exception. So take advantage of this.

The fourth available option open to you is to consult the many compiled professional and industrial directories and databases. Some options open to you are the,, MNI, McRae’s, Dun and Bradstreet, Info USA, Info Canada, Scott’s Directories, and others. Other areas to look in are LinkedIn, association directories, industry forums, industrial portals, and other types of directories. Oh and as I mentioned (initially in a tongue in cheek way) Google is an amazingly good source of information.

You know the validity of the old cliché, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” The preliminary sales call is of critical importance. Make sure you have done your homework.  A bit of pre-call planning can go a long way. If you want to close more key account sales simply remember the following…

“Never ask prospects obvious and offensive situation questions that could easily be answered by even a modicum of preliminary work.”

So once you’re armed with some context and understanding then what else can be done to maximize the odds of your key accounts saying yes and choosing your manufacturing company over the competition? The next step is to…

Understand who has the most to lose

Another thing top performing manufacturers salespeople (and manufacturer’s reps) do is they have the right mindset about what motivates buyers in key accounts. Now without getting all Freudian on you, one of the key motivations for any buyer is a fear of loss. The buyer won’t tell you, they may look totally calm on the outside, in fact they may even be deceptively easy-going. But I can assure you many are afraid of losing.

Smart sellers (like you) know the buyer has much more to lose than the seller. Buyers can lose:

  • Respect from their peers
  • Credibility by making a bad purchasing decision
  • Their job by making an expensive mistake
  • A performance bonus

Well…you get the picture and it isn’t a pretty one.

A wise salesperson understands this and does as much as possible to alleviate the concerns of the buyer and to build trust. This can be done in a number of ways.

Don’t try to sell key accounts like it’s 1965 (please make it stop)

First, it’s trite but true that, “People buy from those they know, like, and trust.”

So now it’s time for a short rant about “old-school” salespeople. It would be difficult for me to overstate the number of times I’ve encountered salespeople in my industrial marketing consulting work who truly believe in the old “show up and throw up” style of selling. These grizzled (or even worse, callow) salespeople will look you in the eye and say the only thing that matters is product knowledge.

They have memorized all 562 product features and can’t wait to mention every single one of them. They arrive at key account sales meetings with a briefcase full of brochures, a (shudder) 75 slide PowerPoint presentation loaded with text on each slide, read every word on every slide to their illiterate captive audience, and then unendingly demonstrate their belief that BS baffles brains. They seem oblivious to the fact that their buyers’ eyes are glazing over and they are checking their phones and looking at their shoes. Amazingly they believe selling hasn’t evolved since 1965. Maybe these salespeople still like the idea of the five martini lunch? Who knows.

Do these types of  “old school” salespeople close sales? Of course they do. Of course even a blind squirrel finds the odd nut.

I believe the more important question is this. Are salespeople closing a higher percentage of large sales with key accounts because they have comprehensive product knowledge or because they took the time to understand their prospects, which resulted them in being viewed as knowledgeable and the only logical choice by seeking to understand the prospects business drivers?

While I know it’s controversial to say, professional buyers want sellers to bring them new insights and education. They also want sellers who will first take the time to ask questions and really understand the buyers’ challenges and aspirations. I’d put my money on a consultative salesperson over a “show up and throw up” dude any day of the week. I’d suggest you do the same.

Bottom line? Avail yourself of the latest research on selling and be certain you implement these findings in your manufacturing company. Then of course winning manufacturer’s salespeople…

Remember Bob and don’t try to hit a home run the first time at bat

Manufacturers that win more key accounts have salespeople who have watched the movie What About Bob. Bob was quite a guy and he ended up with tremendous insight on the human condition. He also discovered how being tied to a mast while being taken out sailing would eliminate his fear of water.

Most importantly, Bob understood the critical importance of baby steps.

My point here is that marketing and selling need to viewed as a series of discrete, incremental, and graduated steps. How’s that for BS baffling brains? OK, I get it, so how about this as a great working definition?

Marketing and selling are like dating. Now that’s better, and it’s a core belief that takes manufacturers and every salesperson in the known solar system very far.

If you take the time read or reread Neil Rackham’s SPIN selling (do this as soon as you’ve finished reading this blog I mean it) you’ll pick up a lot of selling-related gems you can easily apply to improve your key account win ratios. In addition to the critical importance of getting (not giving or presenting) information Mr. Rackham also discusses the concept of seeking advancements rather than continuances.

So if you agree with my concept that marketing and selling are like dating or the importance of baby steps to Bob’s emotional well-being you see the validity of seeking what Mr. Rackham calls advancements. When trying to sell key accounts what needs to be foremost in your mind is what type of advancement is acceptable and demonstrative of real progress. It’s absurd to think a key account will make a six or seven figure purchase based on a single sales call. Unfortunately, many salespeople still seem to think a “one call close” is the way to go.

Think about the selling process like it’s dating. You meet someone, you invite someone to coffee, you go to a movie, you go out to lunch, you go on a day trip, you go out to dinner, and then, who knows? The key is to move slowly and not get ahead of your intended. The minute you rush this person they’ll feel uncomfortable and slam on the brakes. In addition either partner should feel free to halt things at any point. In dating, as in selling, the wise person progresses at the rate of the more conservative partner. Unless you’re deranged, you don’t walk up to someone you’ve never met and say, “Will you marry me?”

If your intention is to access and sell more key accounts the same rules apply. Perhaps the goal of the first sales meeting is to schedule a time for a second sales meeting. After the second sales meeting the goal may be to schedule a third meeting with more senior executives present.

Is this more work for the salesperson? Of course it is. Does this mean more travel? Of course it does. Does it guarantee success? No, that would be a ridiculous assertion. I know multiple meetings may not be possible or even desirable. I know these activities will draw out the process. I also know any salesperson who might increase the odds of closing a key account sale by advancing the relationship in steps would be foolish to rush things.

As I tell all of my manufacturing clients, “If you want to sell more key accounts slow down to speed up.”

So in addition to performing due diligence, understanding who has the most to lose in the selling interaction, and slowing down, what else do successful manufacturers salespeople do? They make a genuine effort to…

Give key accounts the information they need to make wise purchasing decisions

Many salespeople assume that all of the buying influences in a key account have their “act” together. This is a deadly assumption for several reasons. The main reason is being it simply is not true. Many salespeople tend to forget they don’t sell buyers but rather they sell people. Key account buyers are operating in a similar kind of working environment as those attempting to sell them, and oftentimes, one that is much worse.

As all of you know, after the meltdown in 2008 even the largest companies dramatically reduced headcount. Sadly, once things began to bounce back these same companies didn’t return to pre-recession staffing levels. This means that many of the buyers in these key accounts are working in companies that are cut to the bone. These buyers are overworked and very stressed. In order to mitigate risk, many purchasing decisions that were made at the manager level are now being made at the VP or CEO level.

The point is that some of these more senior executives may be eminently unqualified to make purchasing decisions. They need help from trusted advisors. They need guidance to make wise purchasing decisions. They need honesty and empathy. Wise salespeople recognize this and spend time helping these buyers to make wise purchasing decisions. It’s time-consuming, somewhat frustrating, and well worth every minute.

They understand that a lot of selling is done internally after the salesperson has left

Most manufacturer’s salespeople understand that they are selling complex solutions. That’s table stakes. High-performance manufacturer’s salespeople understand two other things. First, a great deal of internal selling goes on within the key account in question after the salesperson has left. And second, there are simple (and somewhat subtle) ways to guide and influence this internal selling.

Once a salesperson has been at a sales meeting with a group of buyers or buying influences (call it a buying committee), given a sales presentation, and left, there is always a great deal of discussion among those within the buying committee. These buyers compare notes, debate, juggle options, and report to other staff within these key accounts. Internal selling goes on with the buying influences making their beliefs and concerns known to one another.

Some of these buying groups or committees are truly consensual. Some of them have one or more members who may be dictatorial. In any event salespeople need to influence this internal selling within key accounts so they soon become the obvious choice as a vendor.

How can you influence internal selling?

There are a couple of good ways to take advantage of internal selling.

First, when the sales call is underway the shrewd manufacturer’s salesperson is certain to determine the aspirations of the key account and how the solution they are offering will help the key account reach these aspirations. Aspirations are future-based most desired outcomes. The key point is to go beyond discussing their present problems.

Average salespeople focus on problems and consequences. Winning salespeople future pace. Show your key accounts how they’ll get positive outcomes with your offering and watch the purchase orders roll in.

Second, the smart manufacturer’s salesperson puts a great deal of care and consideration into the contents of their leave behind package. Simply put, if your leave behind package consists of product brochures in presentation folders with business cards in them, you’re doing yourself a grave disservice. Your leave behind package can do much to influence internal selling and tilt the odds in your favor.

Make sure your leave behind doesn’t get your company left behind

So  if you want your leave behind package to work hard for you what should it contain? While there’s no set answer I encourage my manufacturing clients to include the following.

Product comparison matrix
While not true in every case, in many cases the key account you’re attempting to sell will have more than one available product option. Smart manufacturer’s salespeople don’t present as if their solution is the only option.

Instead of avoiding any discussion about other product options these salespeople willingly bring the topic up. They are willing to “Put the dead rat on the table.”

More importantly successful sellers understand the value in not letting their buyers determine the pros and cons of competitor’s solutions without some friendly help.

After all, if buyers weigh their options incorrectly they may not choose yours. That’s the purpose of the product comparison matrix in the leave behind package.

Obviously when putting your product comparison matrix together you want advantages and disadvantages clearly outlined for each option. What may not be so obvious is that if your solution is presented in the comparison as having no disadvantages you’re not educating you’re advertising. If your product comparison matrix is viewed as advertising it will not work.

The trick is to present your solution as the best choice by comparison without overselling it. Presenting your solution as being faultless is never a good idea. Some damaging self-admissions build credibility and position your salesperson and your company as being trustworthy.

Company comparison matrix

Vendors call other vendors competitors, buyers call them options. If you choose to ignore the competition or the fact that key accounts will entertain offers from other vendors you’re delusional.

You need the shape the buying criteria by illustrating to your key account that your selling techniques provided more value than that of your competitors. In effect the actions of you as the salesperson becomes the differentiating factor. This is, of course, one more good reason to abandon the “old school” style features dumps once and for all.

The company comparison matrix is different than the product comparison matrix as it has the key ways your company and salesperson provide value to the key account on a variety of most-desired buying criteria.

For example, the first box in the company comparison matrix could well be “the seller provided us with new and actionable insight.” Then there could be another nine other boxes in the company comparison matrix that prove you are providing them with the best value.

As the buying committee meets with your competitors they will then have the standards you created in the company comparison matrix with which to measure your competitors. They simply check the boxes and add up the score. Ain’t life grand?

Reference letters or testimonials

As what good old Dr. Robert Cialdini outlines in his great book Influence The Psychology of Persuasion, social proof creates is a good persuasion technique. This is simply because what others say about you is more important than what you say about yourself. Reference letters or testimonials that illustrate positive outcomes are gold. The others, as Borat would say, “Not so much.”

So here is a bad example of a reference letter that is all too typical and less than helpful.

Bad Reference Letter

I bought a new drill press from World of Drill Presses and was delighted. I found the staff to be friendly and helpful. Sean in sales was especially great. He took me to lunch at a local chain restaurant and showed me his marble collection. His jokes were killer. I really liked his office and his pictures of snapping turtles.

I think the best thing about our new drill press is how great it looks in our shop. When we have shop tours I get a lot of compliments. Some of these compliments are inappropriate and make me feel a bit uncomfortable. Anyways, Sean and the gang at World of Drill Presses are awesome.

Now here is a good example that will influence internal selling in a positive way.

Good Reference Letter

I recently purchased a new drill press from World of Drill Presses. The selling transaction was smooth and I felt like their sales rep John really took the time to discuss our situation. He then presented us with a solution that was fully customized to our needs.

The best news of all is they under promised and over delivered. John promised a 20% increase in throughput. What we’ve found is our throughput has increased by closer to 30%. In addition their post-sales team has been working with our engineering department and we think we’ll soon be looking at a throughput increase of 35 %.

This will shorten our investment payback to 18 months. I highly recommend World of Drill Presses to anyone needing to increase drill press performance in their shops.

Bonus tip: If you offer to write a testimonial or reference from your customer that’s subject to their approval they’ll often say yes.

If you take the time to put a good leave behind package together you’ll be able to steer key accounts in the right direction which is, after all, pointing your way. It’s well worth the effort.

How your manufacturing company can sell more key accounts

I have structured many key account entry and selling programs for my manufacturing clients. The key elements that will help any manufacturer’s salesperson close more key account sales can be summarized as such.

First, be sure you do your homework. It’s inexcusable to show up for a key account sales meeting without background information about the company you’re trying to sell. If you really want to impress them do further research into their industry ahead of your sales meeting.

Being conversant about the challenges in their particular industry will give you tremendous credibility. This alone will strongly differentiate you from your competitors.

Second, be sure to understand that the staff in your key account have more to lose than you. A bad decision made by them will be severely career limiting. Make them feel genuinely comfortable by being genuine. A little empathy goes a long way.

Third, selling a key account isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Always think of baby steps. Remember marketing and selling are like dating. You’re trying to establish a relationship with several buying influences who will be advancing at different rates. Seek incremental advancements and forget about the one (or to or three) call close. The end game is to win so slow down to speed up.

Fourth, if your mindset is one of helping your buyers make a wise purchasing decision you’ll be viewed by them in a favorable light. They need your professional help and guidance. So be sure you give them this every step of the way.

Fifth, Understand that in any complex sale with more than one buying influence there is a lot of internal selling that goes on after you leave. Don’t ignore this reality or try to fight it. Acceptance is the first step.

Last, be certain you have a great leave behind package that will help your key account to make a wise purchasing decision. A product comparison matrix, company comparison matrix, and set of good testimonials or references will be appreciated by them. The fact you may be influencing internal selling is your reward for a job well done.

I know selling key accounts can be intimidating. It’s a full on test of your competence and an activity that digs at every unmentioned shortcoming you’d rather not have revealed. Follow the above steps and before you know it you’ll become more attractive than even the most beguiling left-handed bagpipe repairman from Kirriemuir.

Trust me I know this.


Andrew is the president of Broadfield Communications. When he's not working he likes reading history and biographies. He enjoys classic cars, music, and everything about rural settings. He loves to travel the world.