Get a few old friends together from the St. Louis electrical market and the stories fly. But so do the ideas about what the electrical wholesaling industry can learn from where it's been.
While Electrical Wholesaling's editors were talking with distributors, reps, manufacturers and electrical contractors in preparation for this 90th Anniversary issue, they quickly realized that the best of the bunch rely on a blend of old and new sales, marketing and management philosophies to power the businesses.
Sure, the most progressive companies are adapting the latest in electronic business communications and have equipped their field salespeople with laptops and Blackberries, Palm Pilots, iPhones or other personal communication devices. And their inside salespeople are only a few clicks away from terabytes of product and pricing data. Best-of-breed distributors utilize the latest in point-of-purchase merchandising strategies in their counter areas and RF frequency systems, bar coding and state-of-the-art ERP systems to manage their warehouse inventory.
And while harnessing all of this technology is indeed impressive, what became equally interesting in our research is that progressive companies also rely on some of basic truths in sales, management and life that have been around for decades and won't be replaced anytime soon.
To explore this intriguing blend of old and new, we spent some time with a group of St. Louis electrical professionals to pick their brains on how the electrical market was changing — but at the same time staying very much the same. Contributing to this discussion were Bob Finley, former president of Glasco Electric Co., St. Louis; Tony Meglio, founder of Meglio & Associates, Hazelwood, Mo., and his son, Michael Meglio, the company's president; and Terry Sater, who brought a particularly unique perspective to the table at the Meglios' family restaurant where the interview took place. Sater not only worked with Tony and Bob at Glasco Electric, but spent some time with GE Supply and City Electric Supply, as well as with a large electrical contractor in the St. Louis area. Along with being passionate about the industry to which they have devoted their careers and being delightful luncheon companions who enjoy spinning a few yarns about the good old days in the St. Louis market, their backgrounds working for or starting up family-owned businesses, independent electrical distributors and large chain distributorships give them an interesting take on the electrical wholesaling industry.
You talk, I listen
Bob Finley says one thing that hasn't changed much over the years is that salespeople still like to talk — a lot. But he says while most salespeople have big egos and love the sound of their own voices, only great salespeople are great listeners. He says these salespeople will really learn what their customers need. “You can learn so much more by listening,” he says. Terry Sater still chuckles about the time a rookie tool salesman called on him and spent the entire sales call reading the brochure to him. “He never asked me a single question,” says Sater. The salesperson didn't make a sale that day.
Finley and Sater say that some young salespeople sometimes get so caught up in the sales techniques they just learned that they forget why they are making a sales call in the first place — to service a customer's product or service need.
Sater says he has always loved salespeople and still considers himself one, despite all his years of experience as a managers and purchasing agent. His primary message from his years of experience “on the other side of the desk,” working for an electrical contractor is that the best salespeople are those who are genuine, sincere and trustworthy. “Five years of round-the-clock sales training will not turn a lazy, manipulative individual into a great salesperson,” he says.
When he first started working for an electrical contractor as a purchasing agent, Sater would have all different types of distributor salespeople calling on him. He used to get a kick out of the young salespeople still learning the sales game. Sometimes you could almost see on their foreheads that they just came from a sales training course. “I could see the guy straining to control the sales situation, asking open-ended questions and using my first name in every sentence,” he says. “It was fun.”
Sater recommends that anyone in sales should take every opportunity to learn as much as they can about purchasing. “It doesn't even have to be a formal course,” he says. “Just get to know the customer. Ask them what is important to them. If they answer ‘price,’ get deeper. It is more than that. They want to deal with people they trust, so that they know that the odds against any problems are remote and that if they do pop up, the problems will be addressed, quickly and effectively.”
A life-time salesman who still loves talking sales strategy with his two sons, Richard, a salesperson for Leviton Manufacturing Co. in San Diego, and Robert, a salesperson for a St. Louis-area steel products manufacturer, Finley never cared for manufacturers' salespeople who would try “manipulative” sales techniques when they called on him at Glasco Electric. “One salesman came in, and part of his presentation was to try to make me nod at his points. I finally said, ‘Stop! I know what you are doing. I am not going to nod every time you make a statement.’”
Sater says sometimes listening to customers means just adhering to the rules of common courtesy and obeying simple rules and regulations on the job-site. He likes to tell the story of one young distributor salesperson who thought he had full access to an industrial customer's facility.
“The salesman drives around to the back entrance of this major industrial, and he says to the rep he was traveling with, ‘Come on, let's go in the back door.’ A sign there says, ‘Authorized personnel only.’ But they walk in anyways. Everyone inside has plastic hats on and rubber booties and they walk through this manufacturing process and go into the superintendent's office. He says, ‘How did you get in here? Get out!’ The rep thought the distributor had the ‘okay’ to come through the back door. When you do something like that you are done.
“Whenever you are calling on an industrial, a contractor or a commercial company, common courtesy tells you that you should go by what their rules are. You don't go to an oil refinery and drive 45 miles an hour through the place. That's critical. No amount of sales training is going to get you out of that one.”
Show me the product
All of the participants in this roundtable agreed that one of the best ways to make a sale in the electrical market is to show the product on the sales call. While this sounds very basic, the Meglios said they see too many distributor salespeople make sales calls without product samples or demonstration equipment, and they have for years made this part of their agency's basic sales approach. Indeed, the storage in their agency's headquarter is loaded with product samples and the salespeople are expected to know how to use them to make a sale.
Tony Meglio says one of the agency's salespeople, Tom Spearing, has been known for decades throughout the St. Louis market for how he sells new product ideas, and that he now trains their younger salespeople on how to sell with samples. “Every contractor and most electricians in St. Louis know this guy. He is one of the premier salesmen in St. Louis. He is in front of contractors daily showing new products. He is a great representative for our company and for the young salespeople.”
Michael Meglio says that when he started in the electrical business in 1980 there seemed to be more “show and tell” distributor salespeople that were more willing to do whatever it took to get a sale. “They had a product and they had to show it,” he says. “If you go into some distributors' cars today some don't have samples their trunk.
“There are still a select group of distributor salespeople today who show products. They are always trying to bring a new idea to the customers. Those are the guys that are successful.”
Finley is also a huge believer in “show and tell” selling and relied on it both as a salesperson and as a manager during his 42 years with Glasco Electric. He made that strategy a mainstay of the Saturday morning sales meetings he would have eight times a year. Whether it was a manufacturer showing the group how to use a sample to sell a new product or one of the company's own salespeople giving a testimonial on how product samples boosted his sales with a customer, show-and-tell selling was a big part of Glasco's sales philosophy and one of the reasons the company built a dominant position in the St. Louis market.
100 e-mails a day
Some of today's basic selling strategies like show-and-tell selling are as old as the first incandescent bulb. But other parts of the sales profession have really changed how salespeople spend their average day. And no other factor has had more of an impact on how the average salesperson spends his or her day than electronic business communications. Everyone at this roundtable said e-mail, voice mail, Blackberries and other personal digital assistants (PDAs) and online pricing offer immediate access to critical sales information, but at times also took salespeople away from what they do best — selling electrical products. They have sped-up the entire sales process.
Says Michael Meglio, “Blackberries and e-mails have sped up the business, but they have slowed down the sales process. You have guys spending all day with their heads in their computers. And they can't go out and do the things they have the talent to do: sell.”
Meglio says the challenge is to keep up with all of the e-mails and voice mails and still get out on the road for a day of sales calls. “You make five calls in a day — two in the morning, have lunch with somebody and make two calls in the afternoon. That's the average day that you would like to plan around.”
During his 40-plus years in the industry, his father says everything has been moving progressively faster.
“First it was the telephone, carbon paper, mail,” says Tony Meglio. “Then came the telex. From the telex machine came the fax machine. That was the savior. Everything started moving faster. Then computers got in more and more. Then e-mails came in. The boys all have their e-mails coming right through their Blackberries. I still keep my old phone. I am not a Blackberry man.”
Tony Meglio says the agency also has an IP phone system to communicate with its branches in Springfield, Ill., and in the Kansas City market. This phone system also helped them hold onto a valuable employee who was relocating.
The challenges of consolidation
Everyone at his roundtable had a different but uniquely personal perspective on consolidation. Terry Sater saw it from his experience at GE Supply, and more recently at City Electric Supply, where he managed the company's St. Louis-area branches. Bob Finley was president of Glasco Electric Co. when the owners sold the business to Summers Group (now part of Rexel).
The Meglios see it today in their role as an independent manufacturers' rep. They are proud of how long they have been selling many of their lines, but they know that when a company is acquired they may be faced with some tough decisions on which manufacturers to represent in their product portfolio.
“That's what concerns me,” says Michael Meglio. “These companies are all getting bigger. The overlap is becoming more and more. Every company has a personality and we try to align ourselves with companies that think the way we do.
Where the rubber meets the road
Despite how the tools of electronic business communications and acquisitions are reshaping the electrical market, the Meglios, Finley and Sater agreed that one thing that won't change is the value of making a face-to-face sales call. Finley says looking a customer eye-to-eye in a sales call, listening to his or her needs and then trying to fill those needs with your company's package of products and services will always have “a certain magic,” about it and never grow old. Tony Meglio agrees. “When you sit across from someone you get a different perspective,” he says. “I can read people. Telephone is one thing. I deal with people on the phone all day long. Over the phone it's just a voice.”