Slow down and have a conversation

The following post originally appeared in June of last year. Since we’re in the busy season for many water systems contractors, I thought the timing was right to post it again.

Let’s face it. The term “sales” in many circles has a reputation for trying to sell us things we don’t need or even want. But, truly successful sales people will tell you that’s not how they do business. They’ll tell you that what’s made them successful is a relentless focus on helping their customers get the products and solutions they need. They see themselves as educators and consultants, guiding their customers through a decision-making process and providing options.

There’s no area where that’s more true than with the professional water systems contractor. Most don’t like to think of themselves as sales people. But, a huge part of job is just that. You are our industry’s educators and representatives to the rest of the world.

What makes this especially true in our industry is that water systems are far more reliable and have a greater lifespan than most of the appliances in our lives. As a result, most homeowners will only need a new water system or something repaired every 10 years or so. That means that you will only get the chance to stand in front of your customer once every decade or so. So, we need to make the most of that opportunity.

In many cases, the homeowner is out of water and is literally desperate to get it back. Nothing highlights the critical nature and value of water more than not having it. As a result, the conversation becomes a one-way, two-part question of “how soon and how much?”. Try to slow things down. Have a conversation. A few minutes goes a long way. Show them how their water system works. What does that tank do anyway? Explain why they are out of water. How has their home and lifestyle changed since someone last looked at their water system? Have you always had that garden?

Why do this? Because two things will happen, both of which are good for you. It will be a springboard to upgrading their water systems. Perhaps it will be a constant pressure system, or dry well protection, or water treatment. Maybe it will be simply a larger tank. More importantly, you will have instilled confidence, both in their water system and you. From there, they will tell their neighbors.

What will they be telling them? In so many words, that you listened to them, the two of you had a great conversation, and they ended up with a far better solution and water system than just being “back in water”. What they didn’t get was a sales pitch.

Locked in

Several years ago, a manufacturer made a major marketing push in an attempt to move the groundwater industry to 3-inch residential submersible wells. Their pitch centered on the lower costs of drilling a 3-inch well. Of course, they offered a 3-inch submersible that no other major manufacturer offered: a “perfect match” for these installations. In some regions, this manufacturer had some success with this strategy, at least in the short-term.

Fast forward to a couple of days ago, and what I saw happen. A young couple, who purchased their home a couple of years ago, was out of water. The homeowners didn’t know what was downhole, but knew the unit had failed and it was time for a replacement. After talking with a couple of neighbors and doing some internet research, they decided they definitely wanted a Franklin Electric 4-inch submersible. They contacted their water systems contractor, who was not the same one who drilled the well ten years ago.

When the contractor came to pull and replace, he immediately noted the 3-inch well. Not an older, encrusted 4-inch well, but a relatively new 3-inch well drilled exclusively for a 3-inch submersible. Of course, he had to tell the homeowners, “Sorry, but there’s only one product that will go down that hole, and I don’t carry it. Or, I can drill you a new well that will accommodate what you want. And actually, that might not be a bad idea, since with this drought, it looks as if this well might have gone dry. Three-inch wells offer far less storage of water, so they are more prone to being overpumped.”

The homeowners found themselves locked in with no options, and that left them feeling frustrated and angry. They didn’t like being told what they had to do, even if they had been happy with the performance of the original system. In fact, they were angry enough that you can bet they will run fast and far to another manufacturer the first time circumstances allow them to do that. The manufacturer may have garnered a sale from its exclusive approach, but it did not build a relationship.

What’s better? The short-term sale or the long-term customer? I’ll pick the long-term customer every time.

The object lesson here is that gimmicks and strong arming don’t build a brand, and they don’t build loyalty. Listen to your customer. Figure out what his problem is and how to solve it. Give him options and let him be part of the process. Otherwise, if you lock him in, the next time he needs something, you may find yourself locked out.

When Customers Call

This week’s post is taken from Thad Plumley’s EDITOR’S NOTE in this month’s edition of NGWA’s Water Well Journal. 
As a business owner, there’s no doubt that you can’t be everything to everybody. But as Thad reminds us, there’s a right way to handle those situations and a wrong way. 

When Customers Call, Show Off What You Do Best

I knew the life of my hot water tank was near its end when it began operating more like a mildly warm water tank.

I decided to call the company that installed it and jotted down the phone number from the sticker slapped on the tank by the installer 16 years ago.

That’s when things got strange.

I told the employee answering the phone that I was interested in getting information on the replacement of a hot water tank. His reply?

“We don’t do those this time of year.”

I paused because while I knew it was “air conditioner season” I assumed more detail had to be coming. And it was.

“Sorry.”

That was it. You’re not a big ticket, sir, see you later.

I know not all jobs are created equal, but c’mon! I was essentially told, “Call when it’s convenient for us.” Do people really act that way? In this economy?

Customer service is more critical than ever today. Phones don’t ring like they used to and e-mail inboxes don’t contain quote requests like a few years ago. So it’s a must that every time you’re contacted by a potential customer, you take it as an opportunity to show off what you and your company do best.

My call could have been handled so much better in so many ways.

For starters, the company could have gladly taken my business. I know, I know, crazy talk. But I was on the phone ready to spend money. Granted it was not air conditioner money, but a customer ready to write a check is a customer ready to write a check.

The company could have asked if I was a past customer. They could have a no-tank policy for cold calls while asking everyone if they are someone they have already done business with. When hearing I was a past customer, they could have worked me into their schedule. A “past customer is a customer for life policy” is a sound one.

I could have been referred to another company that the business has a friendly relationship with. Not all jobs are right for all companies, so from time to time a firm should work with another one on referrals—we’ll send ABC job calls your way if you send others to us for XYZ jobs.

Any of those options is whole lot better than “Sorry.”

Customer service can’t be taken for granted. Even if you seem busy today, you really don’t know when the next call is coming. Take every interaction with a customer as a chance to blow them away with great service so they will not think twice about calling you again.

Oh, and allow the calls to come any time of year.

Why you?

Unless it’s selling a pure commodity, every successful business has figured out a way to differentiate itself from its competition. That is, it has answered the question of, “how is my product or service different and therefore better, than everyone else’s and here’s why should you buy from me.” Much of the time, a business’s differentiation strategy is very direct: Wal-Mart differentiates itself with low prices and that’s about it. In other cases, the differentiation is more subtle: “Chevy Runs Deep” is meant to invoke a sense of history and tradition versus its competition. 

Here’s an excellent example of differentiation close to our industry. This plumbing business has established itself as the expert (see last week’s post, Be the expert) on older homes. Now, my guess is that most experienced plumbing contractors can handle the challenges of an older home just fine. But, as a consumer, I may not know that. What makes this tactic even more effective is that this contractor is not located in a newly constructed suburb, but in an area where there are many older, classic homes. He’s matching his marketing to the market. As a consumer, if I need a plumbing contractor and I have an older home, I’d better call them. After all, I need an expert, not just any plumber. 

As a water systems contractor, how are you differentiating yourself from your competition? The list of ways to do it is long. But, as a business owner, if you don’t, you’re just like everyone else.

Be the expert

In last week’s post, Know your stuff, I talked about a massive research study that concluded that salespeople who know more sell more. This week, while attending the 2012 South Atlantic Well Drillers Jubilee in Virginia Beach, I had an impromptu meeting with the current NGWA President, John Pitz, which fed right into this.

John, who holds a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Notre Dame and owns and operates a water well construction and pump installation business in Batavia, Illinois, demonstrated one of the most complete and advanced submersible sizing programs I’ve seen. Over several months and many hours, he’s developed a laptop-based program called the NGWA Pump Sizer that goes beyond the usual inputs of GPM, pressure required, and depth to water. For example, you can also input the type of drop pipe used, amount of precharge in the tank, and desired run time between cut-in and cut-out. From these inputs and others, the NGWA Pump Sizer calculates sizing for everything in that submersible system. Not only pump size, but tank size, wire size, and a slew of other parameters such as the total weight of the system.

John is still putting the finishing touches on this, and he tells me it will be available soon on the NGWA website.

Beyond the technical aspects here, John sees the potential for this to be an important sales tool. I couldn’t agree more. This type of tool allows a contractor to show an end-user in concrete terms why you’re quoting a particular system. You just didn’t pull it out of the air or with a “that looks about right” mentality. You have designed a system based on the customer’s requirements. It radiates confidence to your customer that you know what you’re doing and that you are the right contractor for his water system requirements.

When pricing enters the picture, which it always does, such a tool such as the NGWA Pump Sizer also allows you to make sure the end-user can compare apples to apples. For example, are the pressure tanks the same size and quality? Has the drop cable been sized all the way back to the service entrance? Has future expansion been taken into account? With everything that can go into a submersible installation, especially a new one, it’s easy to forget that it’s truly a system with numerous components.

Down the road, you may be using the NGWA Pump Sizer. In any case, the better you can explain and show your customer why you’re quoting the water system you are, the better you’ll be positioned as an expert, someone who is trusted to provide reliable information and whom your customer will recommend to others. And we all know experts sell more.

Know your stuff

I recently came across an article on a prominent business magazine’s website about an extensive research project conducted by two business professors, both PhDs. Their goal was to scientifically identify what made a successful salesperson. Here’s what they “discovered”.

The project started with the researchers attending a slew of sales meetings in a variety of industries. They observed and interviewed over 800 sales professionals. They then analyzed the “sales personalities” of these 800 sales professionals and identified eight distinct classifications, each representing a predominant method of selling. These classifications had such names as socializers, closers, aggressors (price negotiators), and story tellers.

Then they used statistical analysis to correlate these eight types to long-term sales performance. Their findings led to the conclusion that one personality type was more effective at selling than any other. Not surprisingly, after all the research and analysis, they identified the most successful sales personality type as what they called the “EXPERT”. These sales types knew their products, their company, and their industry. Salespeople in this category were trusted by their customers, easily overcame objections, and were highly prepared for every meeting. They were also the best at solving customer problems. By no means were the EXPERTS unsociable or unable to pitch a product, but their tour de force was a deep level of knowledge.

This seems pretty self-evident to me. Knowing what you’re talking about and being able to solve my problem as a customer counts more than the ability to deliver a good sales pitch. It always has, especially in the long run.

There’s no place where this is more true than in the groundwater industry. Time and again we’ve proven that as a rule, our homeowner customers don’t know much about their own water systems–they count on us to know their system for them. Knowing your stuff counts just as much when you’re in front of a municipality, a farmer, or a business, too. It inspires confidence, and it comes from experience, training, certifications, trade shows, and state associations. When you know more, you sell more. But I’ll bet that’s something you already knew.

Top line success

Sales is a discipline. Like any other skill, it must be learned and refined. More over, it’s not about talking someone into something he doesn’t need or want; it’s actually about matching the needs and wants of the customer to the right product.

We are all salespeople in one form or another. Even though you may think of yourself as a contractor, a well driller, or a pump setter, you’re also a salesperson. You’re selling the value of a private water system and all of its benefits. You’re selling the homeowner on the value your services provide and the value of the products you sell. If you’re involved in a state association, you may be selling your fellow contractors on the value of being a member of that trade association. You may even have to convince legislators of the value of private water systems and how protecting those resources contributes to the health of the greater community. Regardless of what you do, you’re always matching someone’s needs with the best solution–and trying to convince him of that.

By the same token, if you’re not actively doing these things–if you’re simply waiting for the phone to bring you that next service call–you’re not selling your product. Day in and day out, if you’re not asking yourself, “What does my customer need and how can I give it to him? How can I make his life better? you’re not doing anything to improve your top line. You’re becoming dependent on your customers instead of making them dependent on you.

Salespeople are resources of information and the vital link between the business and the customer. They make business happen. Sales requires knowledge of products, markets, competitors, and customer needs. It requires interpersonal, communication, and persuasion skills. Even so, it’s tough to find much of any instruction in this field.

I’ve included above a listing of course categories for a nationally ranked, well-known graduate business school. Under the marketing category, there are 10 courses offered. Under the management category, there are 16 courses offered, but none in sales management. Nowhere in their curriculum is a single course offered on sales, even though revenue is the top line driver of a business.

Digging even deeper, it’s difficult to find an MBA program that teaches anything about the sales component of business, and it’s only slightly better at the undergraduate level. Via Google, I found a couple of schools that offer a Bachelor’s degree in Sales Management. But when I pulled up the 4-year curriculum for one of them, only 14 credit hours of the 120 required to obtain the degree were courses actually focused on sales.

It’s up to us, then, to do what we need to do to get better at it. There are a lot of books, including some really good ones, that can help a person learn critical components of the sales process. Better yet, though, is to find a mentor. Look around for a success story; see who’s really got it together–regardless of the business or industry. Watch that person and learn. Establish a relationship and ask questions. Seek out best practices and use them in your business. Build your own support network. Learning how to be a good salesperson is too important for you to ignore–even if all the business schools do.