The Truth about Selling Steel

Steel Buyers Basics - Something for Steel Salespeople

Steel Market Update (SMU) has been producing our Steel Buyers Basics series off and on since we officially started the company in August 2008. The purpose of this series of articles was to provide educational materials and articles to the flat rolled steel industry in the hopes that those reading our material who start to think about their job functions and what they could do to challenge themselves to improve.

Although the word "buyers" is used in the title, our articles are by no means just for steel buyers. Salespeople should derive just as much benefit from the articles, if not even more, since they are learning about the thought processes possessed by buyers. Some of our past articles were addressed specifically to sales people and we thought it was time to do another one with steel sales folks in mind.

During my 31 year selling career I learned many lessons from my experiences and from those around me. Some of the lessons were learned the hard way and were quite stressful and others brought sheer joy during the entire process. The secret is to figure out how to experience the joy of selling and then maintain that experience over one's entire career. This is not to say there is no stress in the sales process, there definitely are competitive processes, pressures from your work environment and then those you place on yourself.

Let's start with the latter - the pressures one places upon one's self. A good salesperson has to be "wired" a little differently than those who are unable to sell at a high level. Part of the wiring is the ability to self-motivate oneself to go out into the unknown and expose one's self to new people and to maintain composure through rejection and disappointment. It is that process of living through disappointments which helps mold your sales persona.

Most new sales people will start the process of phone or direct sales with a sense that they are imposing upon the buyers with whom they are trying to gain both attention and trust. This apprehension exists with virtually all new salespeople and is best dealt with quickly or it can nip a career long before the bud starts to bloom.

I used to tell sales people that I was training, the first contact with a buyer is usually a forgetful experience - at least for the buyer. They tend not to remember your name and within a day or two may not even recall that the phone conversation ever occurred. So you should not fear making a fool of yourself.

The initial contact(s) for you, the new salesperson, is to test your ability to put coherent sentences together, ask questions which bring responses that add to your knowledge base and begin the process of understanding the targeted company's business as well as the personality of the gatekeepers who are preventing you and your company from obtaining business from this company.

We live in a new world surrounded by email and websites and many other forms of distraction which prevent one-on-one human contact. Yet, in my opinion, the steel industry is one where relationships are primary to the sales process. The development of the buyer/salesperson relationship will begin once the salesperson has discovered the key to receiving the attention of the buyer and then gaining their trust.

I tell a story to many of the groups I teach when I am trying to explain this process of reaching a buyer's ear in order to elicit a specific response, which is for them to reach out and contact you.

After a few years of experience working for a large galvanized service center, I found myself in a sales territory where the largest prefab fireplace manufacturing company resided. For many months I attempted to contact and develop a relationship with the steel buyer at that location. The buyer was an older gentlemen probably thirty years my senior and close to retirement. My attempts to contact him by phone would result in a "pleasing" conversation as he was not a rude buyer. However, the attempt to solicit business fell on deaf ears as I had not been able to find the key to going from pleasant conversation to getting an actual inquiry.

I knew the company was qualified and used the materials my company was selling - that was determined during the very first phone conversation. I knew that the company I represented was qualified to provide the quality, service and materials being bought. The issue was one based on the lack of development of the business relationship between myself and that buyer.

One day, while speaking to my sales mentor (something each young salesperson should find to assist them and each company needs to provide to their sales teams) about the situation he suggested that I think "outside the box." In other words, if what I was doing wasn't working then I needed to think of some other way to obtain the buyer's attention.

The company I represented had a give-away item which was a leather bound notebook covering a legal pad. Many companies still give these away to customers even today. Inside I wrote a short note to the buyer in big bold magic marker print: "The call is on us..." and included the company's phone number and taped a quarter to the bottom of the page (even though we had an 800 number). I slipped one of my cards into the inside jacket of the cover and then sent the package via next day mail to the buyer.

By mid-morning the following day I received a phone call from the buyer and my first inquiry to respond to an urgent need they had for some slit coil. The owner of the company made sure we got the order, which was due to the customer the following morning.

Now many would think that this is the end of the story. The leather bound legal pad notebook was the crack that opened the door. The rest of the story is how the relationship went from prompting an inquiry to developing a long-lasting relationship.

My company slit and shipped the truckload of slit galvanized steel coils at 7:00 PM that same day. The drive was approximately 5 hours from the service center to the customer. I assumed all went well when I checked our shipping log upon arrival that next morning. So, I was surprised when I received a phone call shortly after 8 AM from the buyer asking where the truck was.

After some quick phone calls to our logistics people we found that the truck had dumped the load on the side of the highway just a few miles from the customer's plant. My first order to one of my biggest target customers failed to deliver on time. Stress and disappointment were my middle name that morning.

We promised to ship another truckload that same day and deliver the product the next morning to which the buyer agreed (after checking to make sure our story was true). That same day we slit and shipped another truckload to the customer.

Again, I checked the log early the following morning to be sure that the truckload of galvanized coils had moved as promised. Promptly at 8 AM I called the buyer in an effort to be proactive and ease any concerns he might have had at that point. He checked with their unloading docks and returned to the phone and told me that as the truck was backing up to the docks, the truck broke an axle and was ten feet short of the building....

That customer became one of my top accounts for a number of years (until the purchasing agent retired) because we had developed a bond through the process of this one purchase order.

I learned his key was having a sense of humor and then gaining trust. One leather bound notebook with an unique note combined with me and my company jumping through hoops over the next 48 hours had accomplished both.

For many years I used that story with all of my new accounts - it is Packard's Law that the first steel order is one where you always have problems. After that you get to know and trust one another and develop the bond that keeps the inquiries and the orders coming.