SMU Data and Models

Steel Buyers Basics: The First Sales Call

Written by John Packard

This article is part of a series of articles written by John Packard originally under the heading “Steel Buyers Basics.” Recent articles have focused on the steel sales process, but sales and purchasing are connected. The fact that my experience is associated with the flat rolled steel markets and products does not detract from the need to understand basic sales concepts when trying to sell virtually any product or material. The same angst exists for those salespeople trying to learn to sell bars and angles, copper or brass, stainless steel or aluminum as those selling hot rolled, cold rolled or galvanized coils and sheets. The beginning is just that, the beginning of a long process to learn and prosper in a sales career.

Every new salesperson has to go through the same rite of passage – the first time you take your newly learned product and marketing skills into the field to meet a living, breathing purchasing agent. Most of us leave the office totally unprepared for “battle” not realizing that Sales is a competitive endeavor and not for the weak at heart.

Now I am not talking about the first time you and someone else from your office make that “training” visit to probably a fairly nondescript friendly customer located a few blocks from your offices. No, I am referring to the first visit when you are pushed from the confines of the nest and told to fly on your own. One-on-one, just you and a new prospective (never been sold before) customer. This is the first true test of your skills as a salesperson.

Most sales people hit the road for the first time totally unaware of the pitfalls they may stumble into.

In my case, it was the head of purchasing for General Electric, Appliance Park in Louisville, Kentucky. Now, I can’t tell you if GE still operates Appliance Park. But, back in the early 1980’s it was both an impressive and imposing place to visit with a rows of huge buildings sitting side by side. I remember thinking at the time that the scene in front of me looked much like skyscrapers lying on their sides with each building being tied to a specific product.

I learned a valuable lesson that day as I was ushered into the relatively modest office of the head of procurement for galvanized steel.

After the mandatory pleasantries were exchanged, the buyer looked me straight in the eye and said, “What can your company do for GE?”

I swallowed hard because I knew I wasn’t prepared to answer that question. Why? Because the question assumed that I had done my homework and I understood:

1) The system General Electric used to handle their steel purchases,
2) Who the competition was and how they conducted their business,
3) The potential problems or weaknesses associated with any of the products/competitors, and
4) What differentiated my company and its products/service from those of their other suppliers.

What began as a trip to “ask for an order” had deteriorated to a lesson in how not to approach a potential major buyer unprepared.

Recently I posted one of our past Steel Buyers Basics articles regarding sales on a number of LinkedIn groups (SMU has a group called: Steel Market Update which you are welcome to join).  One of the comments received was from the president and CEO of a privately owned metals company and the post went like this:

“I think there are few good steel salesmen around!!! I am now on the other side, and directing the procurement in my organization (as well as sales), with million $ metals raw materials purchases, and I am so unimpressed with the quality of sales people! Not only are the questions wrong that are asked, often there are no questions? Not the way I was taught!!!”

The first lesson to be learned on that very first field trip to a prospective customer, is know what questions need to be asked. If the trip is, indeed, a fact-finding venture, then be upfront with the customer and tell them you are trying to learn more about their business in order to see if there are any synergies between the two companies. Do NOT pretend to know or understand more than you really do.

Well thought out inquiries will help develop that all important relationship between you and the decision maker on the other side of the desk.

You should also be prepared to receive probing questions about you and your company in return. Part of your preparation time is being able to respond intelligently to those questions or, to be able to professionally defer them until you can properly answer them upon your return to the office.

You only get to make that first person-to-person impression once per customer. Recognize the opportunity and use the time well.

I welcome your stories and experiences which you can share with me at:

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