From Trade Shows to Zoom: Chemical Sales of the Future
A day in the life of a chemical sales executive...
It’s a glorious day with a nip of fall in the air. I had a great morning walk and am settling into a morning of conference calls in my home office while my spouse and kids all do the same. Such is the new normal – for the time being during Covid-19 anyway. I could have hardly imagined working like this as I began my career in 1990. There were a few cellphones as big as bricks, but they were pretty rare and expensive.
I did have a nifty Toshiba laptop with a 20 MB hard drive and 3.5” floppy drive. Faxes were frequently used. The internet was just starting, but data speeds over telephone modems were too slow to make sending large files back and forth practical.
Most of my days were spent on the road, working my territory. I would get the hotel wake-up call and check my DAY-TIMER appointment calendar to remember where I was. My car’s glove box was full of paper maps for my territory. My briefcase had my day-timer and several pads of paper to write my call reports so someone could type them up back at the office. And a couple of Tom Clancy paperbacks, usually.
Customer calls were almost like seeing family. Sometimes my customer would have a last minute emergency and be unable to meet, but I could still chat with the receptionist whom I’d known for years and walk through the office visiting with other folks I knew there. If I had extra time before my next appointment, I would drop in on one of my other contacts in the area. Since I knew most of the chemical company buyers in the territory, I could usually get a brief meeting without an appointment.
I’d drop in to renew the connection with a competitor’s customer, whom I met at a recent industry conference. Then stop at a pay phone (yes, pay phone – remember those?) to check my messages, and drive to my second appointment, which goes great. We’re good friends, so we would chat about his kids, the fall hunting season, college football, and how we worked together to help him out of a jam a few months ago when our competitor was late with a delivery. He confirmed our volume forecast for the next quarter, and introduced me to the technical director to talk about upcoming new projects. It’s a sunny day, so the three of us decided to grab some lunch and a round of golf, which we try to do every few months. I had a few minutes to spare so I called my company travel agent from their lobby phone and booked my flights for the sales meeting in Cancun. We headed to a nearby municipal course and I grabbed my golf shoes and clubs, which I kept in the back of my company Ford Taurus station wagon, along with several boxes of brochures and customer files.
After a quick nine holes, I would drive on down the road a couple of hours to the next town, grab a burger at the drive-thru, and check into yet another hotel to write my call reports, check messages again, call my family, and prepare for more sales calls the next day. It was a productive day and I’d likely beat my sales quota for the year by October.
What a different world I live in now!
I’m the VP of Sales now, and with today’s awesome technology, my team and I have the world at our fingertips for travel, customer data, call reports, and audio and video communications, as well as real-time file sharing and collaborative work. I can see instantly what the customer’s purchases have been to date, the status of their open orders and receivables, and every contact my team has had with them. While we’re doing a video call with a customer, she asks for a new brochure and price list, which I send out electronically before our call ends. The action is automatically recorded in our CRM system, with a follow-up task added to my calendar for next week.
Due to Covid-19, none of us are able to travel now, and my customers are in the same situation. Trade shows, conferences and sales meetings are all virtual, as industry trade journals like Chemical & Engineering News report, so there’s no opportunity to meet new people or have social conversations. I gave up golf ten years ago since nobody has time to play anymore. We try to use social media and LinkedIn to connect with new customers, but most contacts are cold, and it’s a lot more difficult than it used to be to get appointments. Will the trade shows and professional meetings resume after Covid-19 becomes a distant bad memory, or are some of these new ways of working going to be permanent? One consultant C&EN interviewed predicted "The wave of meetings going online this year will change the way companies are likely to do business after the pandemic."
Further complicating matters is that after multiple rounds of buyouts, industry consolidations, and “right-sizing”, my customers are now doing three jobs and they have zero time for chit-chat, lunches, or relationship building. I book several 15-minute calls to check on our key accounts. Our biggest customer’s purchasing manager has changed three times in the past year, and the new one doesn’t know or care what we did to help her predecessor last year. She doesn’t understand why she can’t get real-time access to her order status and delivery tracking, just like she gets when she buys shoes online. She wonders why she can’t find information about suppliers at her fingertips. It’s understandable, because I prefer online shopping too. The new buyer does virtually all her business by email or virtual meetings, so we have never met in person. Come to think of it, I haven’t actually met my new boss in person!
We try to keep up with providing customers the information they want, but they are sometimes annoyed to have to call us since our owner hasn’t updated the web site since 2008. Like much of the chemical industry, we are slow to embrace new technologies. Customers, for their part, waste a lot of time trying to sort through the online noise to find us, and we waste a lot of time fielding off-the-wall inquiries that we can’t fulfill. Something’s got to change soon to bring the industry into the digital age. In fact, in a May 2020 Deloitte report on the impact of COVID-19 on the Oil, Gas and Chemicals industry, analysts who interviewed industry executives one-on-one found "strong consensus... that 'the how and where of work' will be profoundly impacted; that expanding digital capabilities are no longer nice to have'..."
We’ve pivoted quickly this year to make hand sanitizer and disinfectants, which required more flexibility and responsiveness than we used to have, so that’s good. The new technology has helped us a lot with that. But when this craziness passes how will we find new business with fewer traditional relationships and trade shows? We can’t just place a listing in a directory and wait for the phone to ring. After several hours working the internet and making virtual calls, I go back upstairs to grab dinner and decompress and think. Today a buddy texted me about ChemVM, and talked about how their new digital platform is going to transform the way we do business. It looks like a win-win for customers and for us, bringing us good-fitting projects and helping us access a whole world of customers we didn’t know about. All we have to do is work with them to provide our capabilities so they can match us to new clients’ projects. We’ll save a lot of money that we used to spend on advertising and trade shows, travel, and entertainment, and invest a little of that into a new channel such as ChemVM. Early customers gave it high ratings and they are starting to look there first for vendors now, so we want to be there to be matched to those customers. I need to have a talk with the new CEO about how we should embrace and ride the new wave!