In Latin, it's “Primum non nocere.” “First, do no harm.” It refers to the dictum that before taking any action to aid or benefit a patient, a doctor must be certain that their action would not harm the patient in any way.

Obviously, no doctor would intentionally take an action that would harm a patient, but sometimes in the heat of the moment, when emotions are high, people do rash things. They may believe it's better to do something rather than nothing. Of course, any professional in any field knows this isn't always true. Professional salespeople know one mistake can undo weeks, months or even years of work and sales development.

There are times when, out of frustration, a salesperson in the electrical wholesaling industry takes an action that sabotages any hope of future success at a new account. It can end the relationship of a major customer who forms the very foundation of their livelihood. Successful salespeople focus their attention on executing their sales duties in a professional manner, concentrating on relationship building, intelligence gathering, bidding construction projects or MRO contracts and providing superior customer service. The danger always exists that in a rush to get an order in a moment of desperation, or one last grasp at the “brass ring,” you slip and make that one mistake that sabotages all of your hard-fought gains. You can avoid much of the risk of disastrous mistakes if you are especially careful in following the law, safety regulations and the customer's operating rules. Here are some guidelines to follow.

Obey the laws. As a branch manager for an electrical distributor, my company had an MRO contract worth millions of dollars per year for a large oil refinery. For obvious reasons, oil refineries and other industrial facilities have an intense focus on safety. Suppliers must undergo safety training and observe all the safety rules that every employee of the company must observe. The refinery restricted the speed limit within the refinery to 20 miles an hour and it was strictly enforced. If anyone violated the speed limit, they could be permanently barred from ever entering the facility. I was fortunate that the sales professional who worked for me was very dedicated and thoughtful. He knew the safety regulations of the plant as well as any employee at the refinery. Can you imagine if you were a sales representative who worked months negotiating a contract that could make or break your career, only to lose the contract a month later because you drove too fast in the plant? Common sense would dictate that you would never speed through an oil refinery, not only to maintain your customer, but to prevent an overwhelming catastrophe that could cost lives.

Don't flush opportunity. Later, as the director of purchasing of a large electrical contractor, I oversaw a policy that prohibited gifts to company employees. This included “spiffs,” or prizes for placing orders with a particular supplier. One sales representative who worked for a secondary supplier decided to post a promotional flyer in my company's office, offering various prizes to anyone who placed an order with his company. The salesperson was a young man who was energetic, enthusiastic and smart. Unfortunately, he posted it in the “executive wash room,” where it was discovered and brought to my attention by the company's COO. He demanded to know why our policy was being ignored. Needless to say, the action by the sales representative did not advance the best interests of his company. That manufacturer's salesperson made a mistake, but I'm glad to say that today he's a successful, polished professional who learned from that error in judgment. The good news is that no matter how long you have been selling, you can learn from your mistakes. We all make them. I did. You will. Don't let one misstep derail your success. When you stumble, evaluate the situation, determine the best way to correct things and resolve that you will not make that mistake again.

Safety first. If your customer is an electrical contractor and you have earned his or her trust to visit their job sites, it's absolutely vital that you obey all safety rules, particularly concerning helmets and safety glasses. If visiting job sites is a routine part of your job, you should always have your own safety glasses and a helmet (with your company logo, if possible). If you don't, always ask the customer if you can check out their equipment. Accidents and injuries on job sites affect an electrical contractor's insurance rates. If you are injured on a job site and you were not wearing the proper safety equipment, it could not only cause you pain and expense — it could cost your customer in dramatic increases in insurance rates. If your carelessness costs your customer thousands of dollars, it hurts your chances for success.

It's a marathon, not a sprint. Sales in the electrical industry, regardless of whether you are a distributor salesperson, a factory representative, or an independent manufacturers' rep, is a long-term proposition. It can be a very rewarding, gratifying career, even in a tough economy, but it's different from a sales career that relies upon a constant supply of new, “one-shot” customers. If you are selling shoes, cars or clothing, you may still thrive even though you lose a few potential customers, but as a sales representative in the electrical industry, you may have some of your customers your entire career. If you are fortunate they will become your friends. If not, they will always be your customers and a key part of your income and the lifeblood of your company. You can never take them for granted. Never be careless, and always remember, “First, do no harm.”

Terry Sater has 26 years of experience in electrical distribution sales and management, including six years in outside sales and 20 years as a general sales manager and as a manager at the branch, district and regional level. He also was director of purchasing for a large national electrical contractor for nine years and is a past-chairman of the Electrical Board of Missouri and Illinois. His articles have appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Investors Business Daily. Sater can be reached at terry.s8er@yahoo.com.