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Sharpening the Axe: Ramping Up Your Sales Team’s Technical Expertise, Part II

Sharpening the Axe: Ramping Up Your Sales Team’s Technical Expertise, Part II

It’s not enough to show up at your customer’s doorstep with a box of fresh bagels and a smile anymore; customers expect good advice, expertise, and technical acumen. Here’s how distributors can set themselves apart as product experts in the constantly-evolving electrical arena.

The first part of this series is over on tedmag.com. Click here to read it.


Matthew R. Taets likes to compare technical expertise to a popular parable that involves an ambitious woodcutter and his employer. Determined to do a great job, that woodcutter picked up an axe and chopped down 15 trees. After getting a “job well done” from his boss, he came to work the next day determined to do even better. But he fell short and only chopped down 13 trees, followed by 11 on his third day at work.

Confused, the woodcutter talked to his boss about his waning productivity levels. “When was the last time you sharpened your axe?” the man asked. “Sharpen? I had no time to sharpen my axe. I have been too busy cutting down trees…” And with that, the woodcutter sharpened his axe and started again cutting down 15 trees a day.

“The moral of the story,” says Taets, regional sales manager at RAB Lighting in Northvale, N.J., “is that for electrical distributors, gaining technical knowledge and education is tantamount to ‘sharpening your axe.’”

Not all distributors buy into this theory, and those that don’t are now finding themselves on the wrong end of a marketplace where technical expertise, knowledge, and product support are often more valued by customers than the products and systems themselves. “I often hear that sales reps are ‘too busy for training,’” says Taets, “but anyone who says they’re too busy for training really needs to sharpen their own axe.”

5 Ways to Sharpen the Axe

Electrical distributors that understand their customers’ needs and who want to do a better job of training and supporting their sales reps along the customer journey can use these five strategies to get the ball rolling in the right direction:

  1. Enlist your manufacturers’ help. Who better than the people who are making the products to clue your sales reps into the fine points of using them out in the real world? At RAB, for example, the manufacturer runs boot camps for its rep agencies and distributors, both of which come to the company’s headquarters to get trained on specific lighting products. And while RAB’s main mission is to get those reps selling more of its products, a secondary goal is to help develop “smarter lighting professionals,” says Taets. “As lighting becomes more commoditized, it’s important that our sales force understands the technical differences between our products and other companies’ offerings, so that we can train contractors on what to look for and shop for—and not just buy the cheapest thing on the market.”
  2. Use online video to extend your product knowledge. It’s not always possible (or even necessary) to get in front of a customer and provide technical knowledge, but online videos can help “fill in” where sales reps leave off. “This is a great way to multiply your firm’s expertise without having to sit down with every single customer,” says Rob Satrom, CEO of Minneapolis-based FeedbackWrench Web Design, SEO & Marketing. “Surprisingly, most companies are way behind the 8-ball when it comes to setting up this pretty simple online solution.” Satrom says a good starting point is to simply shoot and upload a few short, concise online tutorials (i.e., how to install a lighting fixture, how to select the right conduit, etc.). This content can help sales teams share technical knowledge across multiple customers and with very little investment. In fact, some of the content may already be available from your manufacturers. “Distributors that want their customers to view them as authorities in their fields can create search-optimized video content on major platforms (e.g., YouTube),” says Satrom, “and effectively can put that information right in the customer’s pocket, via his or her mobile phone.”
  3. Set up customer training events and seminars. Work with your manufacturers to set up quarterly or annual events where customers and your own sales reps get a concentrated education on one or more electrical and lighting technology topics. Invite contractors to attend and offer half-day trainings on topics like “the physics behind LED lighting.” RAB uses this approach, and Taets says the events are usually very well received by both contractors and distributors. “Contractors usually thank us for getting into the finer details of why it’s important to use quality lighting and the long-term impacts of doing so,” he says, noting that the distributor is in a particularly good position to get involved with this type of technical education. “A lot of them already understand the importance of it and are feeling the pressure from their customers to get even more involved—and especially as new innovation continues to impact the lighting industry.”
  4. Feed your sales reps digestible chunks of information. Your road warriors don’t have the time or patience for a full schooling on the fine points of the latest LED technology, but they do need the key bullet points associated with that technology. Keep this in mind as you work up training programs and other educational offerings for your sales staff, which won’t always “gel” well with the technical or engineering types that are imparting the knowledge. “Salespeople want to know the core two or three things that are really going to deliver client value,” says Satrom, “so create a culture whereby technicians are empowered to render their messages down to quick bullet points—and then answer more detailed information as the salespeople need it.”
  5. Cater to your millennial customers. If your sales reps are still relying heavily on phone calls and face-to-face meetings to impart technical knowledge and make the sale, it’s time to rethink that approach and focus on how the under-37 crowd likes to do business. And while some long-term customers may still enjoy those breakfast bagels that you bring them—and regular in-person visits throughout the year—most millennials would prefer an email or text—preferably linked to a quick-hit video that helps him or her solve a pressing problem on the job site. “We’re at a point where whatever you hope to communicate ought to be done digitally, and then put on all of the major platforms where your customers can see it and benefit from it,” Satrom advises. “That way, every single person who is holding a small screen in his or her hand can quickly get the answer to a question and make the right decision based on that information.”
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Bridget McCreais a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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