Selling in the Advanced Manufacturing World

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Whatever you choose to call it, “advanced manufacturing,” “manufacturing 4.0” or “mass customization,” the entire business of building stuff is undergoing great change. We could write many books on the improved processes, technologies and practices associated with this revolution, but today I just want to talk about one aspect: selling. Regardless of how good we are at building things, without selling, it is meaningless.

Sales actually talks to customers and prospects, and they should be sharing what they learn of the market with the planning team. Being customer-driven means listening to the voice of the customer, and Sales can help you accomplish that.

Selling and making stuff have always had a mutual dependency. In the past, this might have been less obvious but nonetheless, our market system has not been kind to companies that efficiently manufacture products that don’t sell. The simple fact is, well-made products that are poorly conceived fail while well-conceived products that are poorly made will sell at least for a while.

Digital disruption of the whole industry of selling has been in place for several years. Indeed the rate of advancement in the selling business is outpacing the change that’s occurring in the business of making stuff. The reason for this is because the change in selling is more tied to changing behavior than changing technology. But most importantly, the business of selling is finally turning into the business of buying.

Buying vs. Selling

The selling revolution is really the buying revolution. Selling is changing because the way people buy things is changing. Smart companies are figuring out how to make it easier for buyers to choose them rather than how to make salespeople work harder. Smart salespeople understand this as well. They know that it is a buying process and not a selling process. They correctly see their roles as not one of pushing for a decision but of helping a buyer make an informed decision.

This is an important realization for companies that are making their way toward advanced manufacturing. At the very heart of advanced manufacturing is a requirement to become customer-driven, customer-focused and demand-driven or to at least embrace a strategy based on building products in response to customer demand versus incenting the sale of products that are already built.

Unless you are manufacturing products in a purely “make to stock” environment (high volume, low variation), you know that more and more customization is required to address the ever more sophisticated product design and specification requirements demanded by customers. Advanced manufacturing is all about the ability to design, engineer and build on demand with the same facility, agility and efficiency expected of well-run, moderately variable, higher-volume product facilities. Sales agents must be provided with tools that facilitate this process.

It All Starts with . . .

Planning. It always has in business. Businesses must plan before they execute. Ready, shoot, aim has never worked in the business world. Sure, luck can always play a role, but year in and year out successful companies plan.

They plan what they want to accomplish in terms of product development, sales objectives, messaging and budgeting. That planning must include participation, input and buy-in from Sales. In too many companies, Sales is left out of this process with the exception of being asked to sign off on expected performance levels.

I have seen instances where the sales incentives for a given year are totally misaligned with production and product plans. Imagine! How stupid. You are literally paying your Sales personnel to not execute the plan you put forth at the beginning of the year.

Sales must come into the planning process early and stay late. Their input is vital. Sales actually talks to customers and prospects, and they should be sharing what they learn of the market with the planning team. Being customer-driven means listening to the voice of the customer, and Sales can help you accomplish that.

Product Design and Planning

Customer-driven means that the products you design must conform to specific customer needs. Customers demand a much tighter alignment between product capability and customer need. Where once the economics of scale permitted considerable latitude in capability, customers now expect a near exact match between capability and need.

Specials, as they were once called, used to bedevil manufacturers as money losers and production killers. Custom manufacturers evolved to address many of these needs. Now, almost everyone must have the ability to deliver near-custom capability in their products.

This is accomplished in two ways. Products must be highly configurable by design or the shop must be able to efficiently handle engineer-to-order manufacturing.

Advanced Selling

This places an extra burden on Sales in that they will need more expert knowledge in order to properly match product with need.

Technology can pick up a large portion of this requirement. Advanced configuration solutions, particularly rules-driven configurators, can guide a sales conversation through the assorted qualifying and technical questions needed to determine how best to address a specific need. This effectively puts an engineer into the Sales briefcase.

For those situations where configuration is not adequate and for which there is no existing solution, Sales can access an estimating function that pulls together all of the necessary elements needed to create a solution to meet a unique need. This includes costing, sourcing, production considerations and pricing estimates.

Most importantly, the decision to proceed or pass on a given opportunity can be made by those who are best qualified to decide. In some cases, today’s specials will become tomorrow’s products, and in other cases, the company should rightly pass on the opportunity.

The lesson here is that Sales as a role within the world of Advanced Manufacturing is changing from that of rainmaker to consultant. This is not a stretch for many in Sales since they have already matured beyond the “shoeshine and a smile” selling model. Indeed many great salespeople have emerged because of their ability to see through the customer’s eyes and find a winning solution for a given problem.

Advanced selling is equipped to do that better than ever before. Back-office knowledge, visibility and automated processes enable selling that works within the world of advanced manufacturing.


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