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It's more than who you know

Dec 1, 2004 12:00 AM

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Gorelick’s Management

Several months ago, I met an attendee at one of the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation’s five-day Sales Institutes. He was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed employee of a prepress company, who had been selling for about six months. He’d recently finished a successful six-year stint as a customer service representative in the industry, during which he’d had a good working relationship with many of the leading buyers of prepress services and production managers in the metropolitan area, even socializing with many of them.

The company that hired him saw him as a technically knowledgeable person with ambition and a good work ethic. It was also impressed by his many important industry contacts. Both the new employer and the salesperson had high hopes, expecting some modicum of success after several months.

Sadly, after more than six months, his sales volume bordered on the non-existent. What went wrong? It’s a classic case of someone being hired, then expected to perform based on who he knows rather than what he knows.

Don’t rely on inherited accounts
The case of this salesperson is far from isolated. It is almost stereotypical, as many owners and managers at companies seeking increased sales avidly seek salespeople "with a following." Sometimes it works, but the instances are becoming increasingly rare. (And, don’t forget, a sales rep capable of transferring his or her accounts to you from another employer will also be capable of transferring that volume to a third employer.) The frustration is compounded when another salesperson—someone with little industry experience and few buying contacts—is able to outperform the sales rep who was hired due to his or her "following." To an extent that tends not to be fully appreciated by print companies or by salespeople, customers increasingly view their organization as doing business with another company, not simply a salesperson. That is especially true if the print company provides products and services that go beyond ink-on-paper. The sales rep might be important to the relationship but is more likely to be considered part of a team.

No one is in a position to view the operations of every company in this vast industry. Having said that, it’s my observation that, in recent years, graphic-arts companies have coveted the mythical multi-million-dollar salesperson who is willing to "jump ship." Prospective employers and salespeople tend to overestimate how much business can be transferred between employers. And even when an experienced sales rep does "jump ship," there is great difficulty developing new business to compensate for sales volume not brought over to the new company.

Starting new relationships
Increasingly, print-buying organizations are consolidating their vendor lists, understanding the elevated costs of dealing with a large number of suppliers. The decision to take on a new supplier often must be accompanied by a decision to drop an existing supplier. The days are disappearing in which a good relationship with a salesperson is sufficient grounds for renewing that relationship.

Placing a first order with a new supplier is no longer a casual decision. Increasingly, buying organizations see it as the start of a relationship. That decision, made in today’s commoditized business environment, needs to be based upon unique perceived benefits delivered by a supplier’s organization.

Not too many years ago, a sales representative could build a territory, if not a career, by being well liked by buyers. Today, that’s not good enough. The salesperson and his or her company must be viewed as valued and unique.

Achieving that status involves selling the talents and responsiveness of one’s colleagues and management. In other words, it requires solid, credible, meaningful reasons that a buying organization should drop an existing supplier. Chances are that a pleasant relationship with the salesperson is not reason enough. Understanding today’s buying climate, the ability to frame customers’ respective needs and the talent to exercise teamwork loom large in 2005.

Loyalty isn’t the issue
This is not to demean the desirability of industry contacts. The point is that those contacts alone do not spell success. The same is true of the number of years spent in the industry. Certainly, it’s better to have contacts than it is to not know anyone in the buying community. However, experience alone doesn’t necessarily create trust or provide the insight and wisdom to understand a customer’s business well enough to create solutions.

It’s especially unfortunate when a salesperson or CSR switches employers in anticipation of duplicating prior success, but fails to transfer his or her "following." Frequently, the salesperson feels jilted, blaming the buyer for acting disloyal. This exacerbates the problem, changing the focus from providing differentiated products and services to lack of buyer gratitude. It all comes back to the fact that the marketplace has changed profoundly in recent years. Today’s hiring decisions should emphasize what one knows, with less emphasis on who one knows.

Dick Gorelick is president of Gorelick & Associates and the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation. He can be reached at