It’s pretty well accepted that the speed of business today is FAST! Unfortunately, I think that generalization leads many salespeople into trouble. Here’s a suggestion that might help you to eliminate some problems in the future — always try to buy time on any order. By that, I mean don’t be so quick to commit to the shortest possible delivery or fulfillment time, always try for the longest turnaround that will still meet your customer’s needs.
I was involved in a situation recently where the customer asked: “When can I get this?” The company’s “standard” turnaround time for an order like the one we were talking about was three working days, so the salesperson said: “I can have them for you three days after you approve the purchase order.”
A better strategy would have been to ask: “When do you need them?” — and since I was there, that was my contribution to the conversation. “Three days will be fine,” the buyer said. “In fact, anytime before the end of next week will be fine.”
The salesperson probably heard “When can I get this” as an expression of urgency. As it turned out, it was simply an expression of interest — a question, in other words. And from the day of the question (a Tuesday, in the morning) to the end of the next week gave the company almost nine full working days to fill the order and satisfy the customer.
As we were leaving, I said to the salesperson: “If he has nine days, we want all nine days, because the more time you have on any individual order, the more likely it is that you’ll have happy customers at the end of it.” The salesperson countered by asking if it wouldn’t be better to push the order through the process at the “normal” pace. “That way,” he said. “I won’t have to worry about the order being late. Get it done, deliver it early, everybody’s happy.”
“Well how about this,” I asked. “What if he’d said he needed the order by the end of this week. That makes it a rush order, right? Something that has to move faster than the normal pace. What would you have said to him then?”
“I’d have told him that I have to check with my operations manager,” he answered.
“OK,” I said, “then maybe you run into a situation where the operations manager says no, because he has another order on the schedule that has to be delivered on Friday, and there’s not enough time to complete both of them. But what if that other job was scheduled for Friday, even though it really wasn’t needed until the end of next week. If he knew that, he could stick your rush order in ahead of that one, and the company could end up with two happy customers. You didn’t hear what I said, I think. The more time you can buy on any individual order, the more likely it is that you’ll have happy customers — plural! — in the end.”
I hope you’ll make buying time part of your SOP — Standard Operating Procedure. And I think you’ll find that you’ll run into three situations: (1) they need it faster than your normal turnaround, (2) their need is consistent with your normal turnaround, or (3) they have more time than you need for a normal turnaround. In the first situation, it should be obvious that you have to check with whoever you have to check with before you can commit to a rush order. And you have to understand that, as much as you may want the order, there may be other considerations which make it impossible to meet your suspect/prospect/customer’s needs.
I’ve been in situations where time itself was the obstacle; for example, a printing project requiring 22 hours of production time that my customer wanted to order at the end of the business day for delivery first thing the next morning. I’ve also been in situations where there was enough time to complete the order, but something more important would have to be bumped in order to make that happen. Life would certainly be easier for all concerned if people didn’t leave things for the last minute!
By the way, I hope you were thinking: “Well, how about a partial delivery?” as you read about the situation where time itself was the obstacle. In that particular case, it wasn’t an option, but there have been quite a few times in my career when it was.
The normal turnaround and plenty of time situations provide you with significant opportunity — although two different kinds of opportunity. If you’ve been following this blog from the beginning, you’ve already read about a plenty of time situation (No Problem, posted on February 16, 2011). In this post, I want to focus on the normal turnaround scenario, because that’s where the greatest opportunity to buy time can probably be found.
So here’s the scenario: the buyer asks “When can I have this?” and the salesperson asks “When do you need it?” and the answer is exactly the same as the normal turnaround. (For the sake of discussion, let’s make that three days from the signed purchase order.) The typical salesperson would probably say “No Problem!”
Here’s what an atypical salesperson might say: “I can probably do that, but if it turns out that I need an additional day or two, would that work for you?” Buy time, right? That answer might be no, but if it’s not, I think you want all the time you can get on any order — or to put that another way, I think you want to provide the production/fulfillment side of the order with as much time as you can!
I’m pretty sure you’ve noticed that people often tell a supplier that they have less time than they really do. Do you know why they do that? Probably because they don’t fully trust the supplier to deliver on time! So they build themselves a little cushion, and I don’t think they think about whether that cushion might affect the profitability of the supplier.
It can, though, and I think it’s a salesperson’s responsibility to represent his or her company and/or his or her suppliers with an eye toward that profit. This is another example of time is money — in this case the scheduling flexibility created by a salesperson buying time can have significant value.
A Very Atypical Salesperson
OK, an atypical salesperson would ask if another day or two would be possible. Let’s say the answer was sure. What would you say next? Most salespeople would probably say something like: “Thank you, we’ll try to get it to you on the day you really want it, and only use the extra days if we really need them.”
A very atypical salesperson would ask one more question: “One day or two days?”
Here’s the point I’m trying to make. The great salespeople don’t leave anything to chance. They dot all the “i’s” and cross all the “t’s” and if there’s ever any ambiguity — like one day vs. two days — they get down to the brass tacks! Then they can go back to production or to their supplier and say: “He wants this on Thursday but he doesn’t need it until Friday. I bought us a day, but that’s all the flexibility I could get.”
Do you see how that information can be important in terms of production scheduling for maximum profit? I think it’s a lot more common, though, for salespeople to lie to the system — if the buyer wants it on Thursday, to tell production/fulfillment that he needs it on Wednesday. That’s a typical salesperson’s way of building in a little cushion, but think about what happens when both the buyer and the salesperson are lying to the system. On one hand, the buyer may have a better chance of satisfaction via an early delivery, and that would certainly benefit the salesperson as well. On the other hand, the company might lose the opportunity to fit in a legitimate rush job, and that might penalize another customer and another salesperson.
The moral of this story is twofold: buy time and be honest. It’s been my experience that production — and suppliers — take good care of the salespeople who do both of those things. It has also been my experience that ownership/management takes good care of the salespeople who represent the company well, and here’s what that means: It is always your job to be the advocate of the customer to the company — in other words, to communicate your customer’s needs to your company. It is also your job, though, to be the advocate of your company to the customer, and that sometimes involves being the bearer of unpleasant news. Great salespeople are honest. Period. End of story.
This might be a good time to revisit something I’ve written before about great salespeople. It’s not one big thing that makes them great; it’s that they master the little things that can make big differences.