Like many readers of this blog, I’ve been doing this for quite some time. For the past ten years I’ve been part owner and sales/marketing maven for Elite Envelope and Graphics. Prior to that I was an envelope salesman and sales manager, print buyer, purchasing manager for a group of savings bank and production assistant at a label manufacturing company (Don’t ask me how many years all this encompasses, that’s classified information!)
The fact that I've been on both sides of the print and envelope buying transaction has given me a certain perspective on trends both good and bad in our industry. On the sales side, I’ve also had lots of experience dealing with what I call the Difficult Print Buyer (DPB).
Now most of us in sales have enjoyed customers who rely on us to handle certain functions of their job. That can be a good way to keep the business and keep competitors out. This arrangement allows for solid, steady business with good margins in exchange for the extra work that should be handled by the buyer. An example would be doing an inventory for the customer to help them to keep an eye on their stock levels. I’ve done that for many years for a particular customer. It allows us to propose orders to them and ensure adequate supplies so they don’t run out. It’s an extra couple of hours per month for me but has proved to be worth it insofar as the business I’ve received as a result.
However, the DPB scenario is a different matter entirely. This buyer is characterized by all or some of the following:
- Disorganized and forgetful
- Gets the details wrong and holds the vendor responsible
- Doesn’t use Purchase Orders – relies on the vendor to confirm everything
- Relies on mostly verbal agreements or numerous separate e mail trails
- Compares your prices inaccurately with other vendors; i.e. not an “apples to apples” fashion
- Not that knowledgeable about the products he's purchasing. (Worst case scenario is he thinks he is)
Recognize any of those in some of your customers? I think we all have to deal with that sometimes and it certainly makes our lives more difficult; hence the name. Part of what brings this about is the fact that so many companies are trying to do more with less personnel that they end up with someone doing the print buying who just doesn’t understand the product and protocols that well. However, most of it is just the person himself and his individual quirks.
So, how should a sales rep cope with such a scenario? I know some who simply choose not to deal with these folks. I’m not unsympathetic to that point of view. Life in sales is hard enough without having to pile on the extra work and aggravation these types of customers can cause. Another argument for the "see you later" approach is that you can end up doing your best but still getting fired as a vendor through no fault of your own and then having someone spread their low opinion of you among their peers.
Ultimately I think each situation is different and each sales rep must weigh the good and bad and figure it out for himself. If you do decide to carry on with the DPB, I suggest you try the following:
- Keep all agreements in writing (e mail if you must) and try to keep everything on a single trail to make reference easier.
- Don’t let your frustration come through in your communication. Stay professional and civil and state things factually.
- Take every opportunity to gently educate the customer in the product. In the case where the customer thinks he knows more than he does, this must be done very tactfully needless to say.
- Don't be afraid to take a stand on principle where necessary. The tendency in dealing with the DPB is sometimes to just back down and let him have his way in all matters. That may not be the best approach as it can be enabling plus you might run the risk of doing something you know is not right which could backfire down the road.
Understand that the most common thing that causes problems in these situations is assumptions on either side. Make sure everything is confirmed and in writing even if you have to do it yourself. Don’t proceed on verbal orders. Confirm everything you are doing for the customer in writing; especially on orders. Ask him to acknowledge receipt of the confirmation in lieu of receiving a purchase order.
Life’s full of trade-offs and compromises! I’d love to get your comments on this topic and hear what your particular strategies are.