Get Out and Stay Out

Here’s a classic water-cooler joke for you: BOSS: Get any orders on your customer visit today? SALES REP: Sure, I got two orders! “Get out” and “stay out.”

In a global manufacturing arena, those “two orders” are not just a punchline – they may be the best advice for any company looking for new business opportunities. Moldmakers who have weathered the recent economic storms are likely to be well-established companies founded during the decades when manufacturing growth was steady and markets were more regionalized.  Yet that same “deep-roots” foundation that provided staying power during challenging times may be reliant on sales methods that are now outdated. 

One example: the tried-and-true “sales visit,” once a primary tool for finding new customers. Today, rising transportation costs, new travel restrictions, and leaner staffs make it more expensive and logistically difficult (especially for small- to mid-sized companies) to get and keep sales representatives in the field.  Plus, new technologies have widened that field to encompass anywhere in the world with an internet connection.

Yet the biggest mistake management can make is to conclude that the only option is to stay in the shop and wait for the phone to ring.  In fact, the opposite is true: finding new ways to “get out” and “stay out” – finding new strategies to connect with customers, suppliers, and even other moldmakers – is key to finding new business.  
 
Event Horizons
Attending and exhibiting at industry conferences and trade fairs can expose your company’s name and capabilities to a large group of potential customers. It is a strategy that works for Jewett Machine, Richmond, Virginia. “We always seem to come away (from industry events) with something positive,” said President Bryce Jewett after a recent event.  “That’s really what we look for in a trade show.  Most of our best customers are the result of some sort of face-to-face marketing activity – in spite of the internet presence we have, or the other things we do from a marketing perspective.”

Jewett’s father started the company in the early 1960s, and because of its location, the tobacco industry once represented 65% of Jewett’s business. “When tobacco started its demise in the late ’80s and early ’90s, our company was affected dramatically,” Jewett explained. “Since then, we’ve tried to do be diverse in the industries we serve and the things we do, and also to be geographically diverse as we can.”

Industry events help companies diversify by exposing them to new customers, new competitors, and the latest methods and trends. They also provide the “neutral ground” that makes it easier to network and find opportunities that may otherwise be overlooked. “I met with a company here from Charlotte, North Carolina. We had no idea they were looking for machine shops to support their machine tool activities,” Jewett said. “I have a sales person in their backyard, and she will be in their office next week.  That contact alone is worth the price of admission – when you come up with the perfect fit.”

It took a trip out of state for Jewett to meet his neighbor; both were attending a Purchasing Fair in Rosemont, Illinois, sponsored by the National Tool and Manufacturing Association (NTMA). NTMA Vice President and COO Robert Akers compares the association’s Purchasing Fair events a “reverse trade show;” buyers are seated at tables, and have identified specific purchasing needs before attending.

As a supplier, Jewett finds the Purchasing Fair model particularly successful. “Here, we go to the buyers. It’s a much more efficient way of making calls. Where else can you make 15 calls in one day?”

Jim Felbinger, tooling manager at Navistar Inc. in Warrenville, Illinois, was at the Purchasing Fair as a buyer. For Felbinger, personal interaction is a key benefit of attending industry events. “If I talk to someone face-to-face, I immediately get more information, and it’s easier to determine if what they’re doing will or won’t fit my needs,” he said. “If all I’ve got a business card, a telephone message, or information in the mail, that’s pretty easy to toss in a trash can, unless it’s very specific to what I’m looking for.”

To make the most of the opportunities offered by personal interaction, Felbinger says, you’ve got to be prepared.  “With one supplier representative who came by our booth, I had to practically beg him to explain what his company does. If you’re in sales, you’ve got to be able to tell me what you’re doing here.” (See sidebar for more tips on meeting with new prospects.)

The Power of Association
Industry events are just one benefit of involvement in professional associations – including the NTMA, AMBA (American Mold Builders Association), AMT (Association For Manufacturing Technology) and many others. Increasing your company’s involvement in organizations like these can do more than clue you in on upcoming events; other benefits include discounts, training seminars, member publications, and forums for meeting peers and new prospects.

“During the tough times, a lot of companies limited their involvement in industry organizations; they had time limits, or they didn’t renew their dues.  But I think there is an important community in this industry – we really do need to know who each other are, and what we’re capable of doing,” says Frank Sikon, senior buyer for Alcoa Wheel & Transportation Products in Cleveland, Ohio. “For us, getting more involved with the NTMA and other organizations, and becoming part of the community, is critical to the future of where sourcing and purchasing is going.”

NTMA’s Akers confirms that associations have evolved to fit changing business conditions.  “It used to be that associations existed to share industry-specific news. With today’s technology, people get news all the time, every day. Our role now is networking: to get together people from all over the country, and to leverage a common voice across the group. Community-building is a core competency. We try to provide the resources that provide a competitive advantage.”

Getting out into the business community takes effort, but can pay big dividends, says David McGill, also a senior buyer at Alcoa. “I deal a lot with outsourcing machining,” he says. “I try to help my suppliers – I’m interested in anything I can find to reduce their costs, so they can reduce my costs.”
For instance, if McGill meets an energy consultant at an event, though he doesn’t need their services, he still takes the contact information back to his plant. “I can get my suppliers in touch with that contact. Their president is out there running a machine; he doesn’t have time to break away for an event. We are strategic partners with our suppliers; what benefits me benefits them, and vice versa,” McGill says. “Today, you need to focus on that win-win; the global marketplace has forced us to make it a group effort.  There’s no other way for companies to survive, big or small.”

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