On the plane to Oklahoma City and the AIPAGIA Enterprise Social Technology Bootcamp….

On the leg to Detroit today, I sat next to a sales guy on his way to Orlando for a sales conference.  His company is based in Philly and makes a key ingredient in steel manufacturing, something about a Chemical compound fluid that mixes with the other raw materials that go into the steel production – very high-profile product, mission-critical to his clients, difficult to get prospects to switch, long sales cycle, expensive, regulated, etc. – tough sales environment.

I’d be interested in your take on the suggestions I made to him after listening to him talk about his background and the key to his success as a sales guy.

He’s more of an engineer than he is a sales guy.  He started in the business as a Chemical Engineer, they guy that would go in post-sale and service the clients.  He did that for 10 years.  So he would get the calls at 2am on a Saturday when the plant was shut down because of a problem with the fluid.  He would then go in, diagnose the problem, and get the plant up and running again.  Forget finger-pointing – fix it.

He would see sales guys come and go – lot of turnover.  Managers, too.  One day he was having lunch with a client who lamented, “Man, I hate training your sales reps all the time.” One thing led to another, and Troy took on the sales function for several of the key accounts, looking to not only service, but also looking for ways to grow the relationship.  Today, he’s doing more sales, but he’s still the technical guy, still the guy that everyone wants to talk to – which makes it tough to sell, even tougher to prospect.

I thought, that’s exactly what it means to become a “Recognized Expert in your Field”, one of aspects of SocialTech that I’ve been writing about.  I think Troy is exactly the kind of sales guy the world of business is looking for.  In fact, he specifically mentioned that his clients and prospects don’t want the ‘peddler’, a sales rep that really doesn’t understand the business, but ‘fakes it ‘til he makes it.”  I dare say that business model is DOA.  Clients and prospects can smell that guy coming.

But the issue in his business is that he can only spread himself so thin.  Everyone wants to talk to him.  All his clients call him when there is a problem.  The home office wants him to be a communication channel to the customer.  And of course, sales management wants him to prospect.  So we started talking about the concepts around using blogs and Linkedin as tools to solve some of those challenges, even in the blue-collar business of dealing with steel mill engineers, plant managers and operations executives.

The more we talked, they more it seemed like Social Technologies would be a perfect fit for his enterprise.  The company has about 40 sales people around the country.  Each sales person has a different geography and as such, different challenges, issues, kinds of prospects, customer base, etc.  Thinking about the essentials of blogging and Linkedin, as well as corporate communication, and applying that knowledge to a quick convo on an airplane, here’s what I came up with.

What do you think?  Does it make sense?

He mentioned a scenario where a key component of the compound came from a plant in Asia.  It was one of two plants of its kind in the world.  Something happened at the plant to interrupt the supply chain.  Sounded like it was potentially permanent.  So it’s not their fault, but nonetheless, it impacts their customers and needs to be urgently communicated.  But is has different impacts on different customers.  So while the event needs to be communicated generally, the issues need to be addressed locally.  (Oh, and remember, the competition is dealing with the same issue this time.)  My suggestion was to use several channels to communicate, both from an offensive and defensive position.

First, the company should immediately issue a press release including a link to the story about the plant found in mainstream media, the blogosphere, twitter, or some other external source.  An email notification should be sent to all clients suggesting they connect with their local sales person with any specific concerns.  Lastly, from corporate, a regular mail or overnight letter should be sent, depending on the severity.  Oh, and an internal only, communique to the field with perhaps some standard text for a blog or email so save the reps a little time.

Then, at the local level, the sales rep should write an immediate blog post commenting on the situation with links to the corporate PR as well as the original news item.  The sales rep’s comments should be short and too the point, addressing the time-sensitivity and the potential implications short and long term.  Once published, the rep should craft a quick email template giving his clients (and later his prospects) a heads-up as to the situation. “Please click to my blog for more information and to comment.”  Then a short voice mail drawing attention to the email and the blog post.  All this should be done in the voice of the sales rep, perhaps with some standard language from corporate.

Doing it this way seems to have several advantages. But what am I missing?

  1. It’s fast.
  2. It’s practically free.
  3. Communication is clear.
  4. Clients can interact with the rep and the content.
  5. Other clients will then see the content, the earlier responses, respond themselves, and/or ask another question.  Possible for clients to solve problems for other clients?
  6. The whole thing will be searchable in case someone stumbles on it later (vacation).
  7. The communication is documented and timestamped by the blog.
  8. Speed, clarity, interactivity, brainstorming, solution’ing, searchability – all good?
  9. Defensively, clients cannot accuse you of not communicating well.
  10. Certainly you’re not leaving room for the competition to use the situation against you.

And that’s just for the clients.  What about prospects?

  1. Prospects can be handled with the same content, but more as an FYI.
  2. Prospects might learn a few things from your clients by reading the blog.
  3. You’re staying in front of prospects during a time of crisis – with almost no effort.
  4. You’re adding value very simply and inexpensively.
  5. And if the competition isn’t doing this, what does that mean?

Interesting.  What are the concerns that you see with this scenario?  Is there an issue with competition and revealing the secret sauce?  What else and how would you suggest a work-around?

We went on to talk about Linkedin.  Troy had no knowledge or experience with the tool.  So I explained the essentials and how it works to solve the problem of staying in front of prospects with very little effort.  He said his least favorite thing to hear are the words, “Gee, if only you had called me a couple months or weeks ago….”  Leveraging the Linkedin tool can definitely help with staying in front of prospects.  Of course, the key there is for you to use it correctly and for the prospect to use it as well.

The interesting thing about Linkedin relates to the concept of “Building a River of Knowledge” that I’ve also been writing about in this book.  I recently ran an informal poll in Linkedin asking people to pick what source of information they use the most for industry and professional information.  Linkedin came out as the clear #1.  What I’m finding is that there are several sources of great information on Linkedin (like the steel business).  There is also information available on the current state of your prospects, and some of the issues they are dealing with.  There is also information on your competition.

Lastly, it’s a phenomenal way of communicating and staying connected with a much larger audience with much less effort.

For a technical sales guy like Troy, did I give him good advice?  Would a Blog/Linkedin hybrid be a good club to carry in his bag?  Would it be good enough to replace another if he can only carry so many?  What are your thoughts, especially if you’re connected to manufacturing and blue-collar bizdev.