Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Internal Sales: The changing nature of internal sales for a manufacturer of building products - Part 1

As part of our series of interviews with people from the building and construction industry we talk with Neil Tilsley, Managing Director of Polypipe Ventilation. 

We discuss the growing importance of the internal office in the success of building product manufacturers and how the internal sales/customer service role has evolved in recent years.

It is easy to forget that many things we now take for granted were not widespread only a few years ago. A large number of these have shaped our personal and professional lives and changed the way we do business - people expect more and want it instantly.

For the building and construction industry changes to regulations and legislation have also affected the way manufacturers do business. To help facilitate and react to these changes, the nature of the internal support office has evolved and, with the current economic climate, customer service and internal sales have become even more important.

The need for a more sophisticated conversation
Pinnacle Consulting has noticed a considerable shift in clients placing a far greater focus on the structure, nature and expectation of their customer service department. They now need to provide enhanced added value to their customers and supply an ever-growing amount of pertinent information and product support to many different audiences.

Neil Tilsley explains: “People now want a more informed and technical experience from their call. A sales office used to be very much focused on inputting information and passing on this information to the customer. Part numbers, list prices, delivery dates and perhaps providing a product brochure were pretty much the extent of the assistance available. A sales office was a reactive environment with little understanding of the product and their customers’ requirements.

“The phrase ‘the computer says no’ pretty much sums up the way a sales or support office should not be run.”

Sustainable ventilation product solutions
The nature of the conversation between a caller and a sales office has become more sophisticated and varied, particularly in the type of caller. At Polypipe Ventilation this has certainly been the case as Neil confirms: “The mix of the function of person calling our sales office has shifted from being almost totally focused on distribution partners to one that on a daily basis includes installers, specifiers, contractors, developers and end-users in addition to our distributors. This means that we need greater diversity from our customer service team to adapt. For us not to take customer service seriously is not an option, as these initial calls can lead to securing good business and building long term mutually beneficial relationships. Our approach is first and foremost to assist people with their needs and where appropriate encourage them to select a sustainable product solution from our range, so they can understand and comply with changing regulations such as Part L and F of the Building Regulations or meeting SAP requirements and the different levels of the Code for Sustainable Homes.”

Bringing substance to the once meaningless product code
You can see how the calibre of an internal sales person now needs to be higher, although this does not mean that they need to be a part-time specification consultant - that is not their job - but it does mean they should have a basic understanding of their product and market. This puts more responsibility on the employer to recruit either higher quality candidates or have a commitment to developing existing employees through continued training. Or as Neil puts it: “Our aim is to provide the substance behind the characters of a part number, so that a product code becomes something tangible to our team. Being able to help an enquirer at an early stage of a project and allow them to begin the process of making an informed decision gives them confidence that they are dealing with a company that wants to help and knows their market. It also helps our external sales team and technical support team further down the line.”

Don’t forget the stockist!
It is also important that the needs of the stockist are not forgotten, they should still be one of the main focuses of a sales office environment, but the service to them also needs to be enhanced and become more proactive. This is a factor that Neil is very aware of. “At Polypipe Ventilation, we actively encourage our team to build closer relationships with our channel partners, as they have also changed the way they do business. We need to help them understand and sell our products by providing relevant information and support. The sales office is ideally positioned to develop this relationship. Our aim is to promote our regulation-driven product solutions in a straightforward and professional manner and the whole company needs to be consistent in their approach from phone calls, visits, information and literature, to achieve this. This helps grow our business as well as that of our distributors.”

Understanding data
However, there is still a huge emphasis on the sales office professional to provide data on stock availability, order progress, delivery dates and transport methods and to assist with any problems that invariably occur, but it is how these problems are handled that makes a company or individual in a sales office environment excel. Customers expect to be given facts based on actual data rather than hollow promises based on crossed fingers and supposition, although, data can also cause problems, as Polypipe Ventilation understands. “We feel it is vital that our team knows not only where to access data but also understands how to interpret it. There is nothing worse than passing off something as fact when it is actually misinformation, so we invest a great deal of time to avoid this happening. Our aim is to give customers information they can rely on to avoid consequences throughout the distribution chain.”

Added responsibility
Neil Tilsley
 Managing Director,
Polypipe Ventilation
Another increasingly important aspect of the internal sales/customer service professional is to actively promote new initiatives and product launches. It is important that every conversation is a possible sales/educational opportunity for the caller. Although this does not need to become a hard sell and make the caller uncomfortable, as Neil Tilsley explains: “We want to build long-term relationships and share information when we think it will help or reward the caller - our policy is that it has to be relevant. If we can inform an installer about a scheme that means they can receive loyalty vouchers then we will let them know; if we can let them know about our BPEC Ventilation Approved Installer Training courses, for instance, then we will. If we have a new product that is relevant to their project or sector and it can solve a problem for them, then we will send details. Our customer service team has evolved so that we can help people in their job, like our free CAD design installation design schedules service. All these are mutually beneficial and underline our confidence in our product and our partners’ confidence in us.”

A changing and wide-ranging skillset
The internal support professional needs to have the appropriate skillset to ask the right questions to find the right solutions, or the knowledge to give the correct answers to questions. There is nothing worse than being passed from department to department, especially at what is likely to be an exploratory stage for the enquirer. Something that Neil is keen to ensure is that the Polypipe team is always aware of the possible time restraints of the caller. “They have a job to do too and I am sure that they do not want to speak to us all day! From our point of view it is about judging the situation and behaving accordingly.”

The internal role has become wide-ranging and needs someone who has excellent all round skills. It also now has added responsibility and a greater impact on the success or failure of any business, but particularly one in the building and construction industry.

In the next three parts of our in-depth look at internal sales, Neil will share his tips on how to ensure that the whole company works together as a cohesive customer service team including internal sales, external sales, marketing, operations and technical support. We will look at what skills, personality and experience are required when recruiting an internal sales professional for a building products manufacturer and finally, we will be looking at what Neil considers to be the benefits for the company and the employee due to the changed focus of the role in recent years.

You can read part two here.

If you are interested in developing a career in internal sales or customer service, please contact us to discuss your requirements or to arrange to meet us at one of our specialised regional career development clinics for the building and construction industry. Contact us on 01480 405225 or email recruit@pinnacleconsulting.co.uk

Take a look at our current internal sales vacancies.

Sign-up for our career development e-letter here

Polypipe Ventilation designs and manufactures a full range of high quality ventilation systems for the domestic and light commercial building sectors. They specialise in supporting specifiers, contractors, developers, installers and operators by providing energy-saving ventilation solutions that meet Building Regulations and save time and money on site.

As a group, Polypipe design, develop and manufacture the widest range of plastic piping products, with over 20,000 product lines available. Their primary focus is on developing and supporting pragmatic product systems through specific knowledge and understanding of the residential, commercial, civils and infrastructure market sectors.

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