Those who adapt to changing conditions survive, and those who don’t adapt don’t survive. That concept applies to species of animals and businesses and has been more evident as the recent economic recession continues to take its toll. The winds of change are blowing and contractors would be well served by going with the current and training project managers to be salespeople or by hiring a dedicated sales staff.
When Lemberg Electric Co. Inc., Brookfield, Wis., began to see revenues fall because of the recession, “We realized we needed to look at the business from a different angle,” said Dave Washebek, president. He analyzed different options for a new direction and threw aside the traditional marketing model of waiting for work to arrive. Lemberg realized that project managers—as well as estimators, purchasers and even field technicians—could actively pursue new relationships and projects, support existing customers and differentiate the company.
By the second quarter of 2009, Lemberg had chosen a consultant, Sandler Systems Inc., Owings Mills, Md., and had launched a training program designed to help project managers and other nonsalespeople learn how to sell. According to Wayne Dehn, president of Sandler, “project managers, like salespeople, already know how to keep a process moving in the right direction for a successful conclusion.”
A large part of Lemberg’s sales training program consists of weekly meetings that foster better communication among staff members. At the meetings, the staff discusses new jobs and new relationship, frustrations, strategies to improve customer relationships and best examples of successful selling strategies.
“We also discuss ways to increase sales and help improve various marketing and sales techniques, including cold-calling and asking for referrals,” said Tim Scheid, vice president and COO.
Other subjects for weekly meetings include how to find and take advantage of networking opportunities offered by the industry, local business organizations and personal communities; lessons learned from the prior week’s experiences; and how strategies can be improved for the coming week.
Gary Chin, founder and principal of XO Consulting and Training, Portland, Ore., and seminar leader and course developer for the American Management Association (AMA), New York, said that learning sales and sales management enables project managers to develop the skills to determine what additional problems the customer may have; the manager can then offer ways the company might help.
“Project managers need the skills to guide customer discussions back to the company’s core competencies, ideally in such a way that the client actually asks for help,” he said.
The more formal part of the program is Lemberg’s subscription to Sandler’s sales training and selling methodology.
“The program provides assessment tools that are used for hiring and retaining the best sales professionals,” Scheid said.
The modules, adapted into the weekly sales meetings, focus on behavioral change and the development of new skills. In addition, Scheid attends a Sandler monthly “training the trainer” seminar that helps Lemberg develop processes that create performance improvement.
“The training is not a single event but an ongoing process that requires repetition, reinforcing and coaching,” Scheid said.
The program also requires participants to have written goals with action plans and expected outcomes that are reviewed quarterly. If expected outcomes are not met, the issue is discussed, and the necessary training and support that will enable the employee to meet sales goals is determined and provided.
“If quarterly goals are met, then the bar is raised, and new goals are established,” Scheid said.
Project managers can be successful salespeople because they already possess some of the same skills, such as problem-solving capabilities, the ability to manage expectations and leadership skills, according to Tristam Brown, president and COO of LSA Global, Santa Clara, Calif.
“However, project managers typically lack the ability to qualify potential sales lead; business development skills; and uncovering, creating and even provoking sales opportunities,” Brown said.
Lemberg evaluates the effectiveness of its sales training through the quarterly reviews of goals and by observing the willingness of employees to participate, try new ideas and use new techniques that improve customer interaction and cross-sell company offerings.
“The goal should be to cross-sell company services in less of a hard-sell fashion and in more of a customer-service mode,” Brown said.
Benefits and difficulties
A company’s employees are its most valuable resource.
“When you invest in cross-training employees, you’re basically making an investment in your business,” Chin said.
And since project managers are already on the inside, it’s easier for them to make an additional sale to an existing customer than to make a new sale to a completely new customer. In addition, if everyone is cross-trained on the same sales program, everyone will use the same terminology and be able to reinforce the steps with each other.
For Lemberg, cross-training project managers and other employees has created a company-wide awareness of the importance of being both a proactive sales professional and construction industry partner instead of just reacting to traditional marketing techniques.
“The number of opportunities to learn about and bid on projects has risen since we started this training,” Scheid said.
However, the economy has not allowed Lemberg to determine the exact number of new projects that can be directly attributed to the new training and corporate culture.
“Overall, though, the sales program has raised expectations and improved skill sets and performance,” he said.
In addition, although some project managers may not care for either cold-calling potential clients or the time weekly sales meetings take away from actually working on projects, most enjoy closing a deal, the increased customer interaction and the empowerment they get from being an integral part of the company’s growth and success.
Most of the difficulty for Lemberg has been the challenge of getting people who are more technically minded to discuss sales problems and create strategies to solve them.
“The first hurdle a sales trainer faces with traditionally nonsales-oriented people is convincing them that sales is not a negative but just a way to influence people to a hopefully mutually beneficial action” Dehn said.
Other pitfalls to watch for, according to Brown, include failing to do the following:
• Demonstrating how sales training is a process of change that will happen over time and that the company is committed to it, rather than as a passing fad
• Aligning the company’s desired business results with the individual’s professional or personal goals
• Making clear how the new sales duties will affect the project manager’s job success
“When you are asking people to do things they haven’t done before, you have to be willing to have them make mistakes and help them improve, which requires patience, follow-through and fortitude,” Brown said.
A different strategy
In 2008, Roman Electric Corp. Inc., Milwaukee, also realized that sales was not one of the company’s strengths and that, like the typical electrical contractor, it focused more on established relationships. But while the industry was suffering through the worst of the recession, the federal government was spending millions of dollars on incentives in energy-efficiency and renewable-energy technologies.
“We realized that, to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by the green market, we would have to expand beyond our customer base,” said Phil Rose, president.
But, unlike Lemberg, Roman decided to hire professional salespeople, instead of training project managers to be the company’s sales force.
“When we originally decided to have a sales force, we thought we would train our project managers to extend their duties to include sales. We realized quickly, though, that our engineering and design-oriented project managers didn’t have the time or mindset to fully function as effective salespeople,” Rose said.
So, the company turned to a consultant to help determine what to look for in hiring a salesperson and to develop the process that employee would use to focus on selling the company’s capabilities to potential customers in the energy-efficiency and renewable-energy markets. The first salesperson was hired in the winter of 2008 and by 2010, Roman had three full-time, dedicated salespeople.
“The sales process is continually refined as we learn the needs of the customers in the market,” Rose said.
As far as the technology is concerned, the company trains its salespeople through National Electrical Contractors Association classes as well as technical training offered by product manufacturers and distributors. Additional technological training is delivered by having the salespeople work with project managers and Roman’s industry partners (building automation, mechanical and heating, ventilating and air conditioning, building envelope, and financial companies), who teach them about the technical and financial benefits of energy-efficiency and renewable-energy technologies.
“We give the salespeople a broad overview of the technical aspects, but we don’t want them to get mired in the technological details. Their main job is sell the company’s expertise and give project managers the opportunity to demonstrate how we can meet potential customers’ energy-efficiency criteria,” Rose said.
Roman’s initial difficulties of adjusting to a different sales management environment and of learning what skills and experience to require of a sales force have been overcome.
“We are now selling to companies and organizations we never would have been able to reach without a sales staff to make the vast number of calls that are necessary to get even one potential sale,” Rose said.
No one knows when or how the economy will recover. But in the meantime, electrical contractors need to consider every avenue in an attempt to survive and grow. No one likes change, but now, rather than later, may be the time to consider a shift in how contractors sell their companies’ abilities. A changing company focus may forecast future success.
BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 and firstname.lastname@example.org.