How to Sell Animal Feed

In the feed industry, a sales representative typically starts the week with a little paperwork in the regional office or at home and then begins the tour. Within this tour, all customers — or at least all names that are listed a customers — are visited. Like a fox doing his rounds along the shores and hedges, the salesman takes anything he finds. Sometimes he is quicker than the other foxes, and sometimes he has to take what they rejected.

It’s the life of a salesman. It has always been like that. Like his colleagues, he works very hard. He knows the market, drives 50,000 miles or so and writes detailed reports. He does not know if anyone is reading them, but at least he does his job thoroughly. The open-minded and modern-thinking sales rep knows his own (and often the competitor’s) portfolio insideout. He is technically well trained and has mercantile skills. He knows that customers today also demand consultancy.

In special training sessions and workshops, he has learned to ask open questions and how to answer the phone properly. It’s strange how no one from the management board ever attends these
workshops, but that does not matter because the sales rep himself is responsible for the customers. Then comes the quarterly sales meeting, where everyone weeps about rising prices, cheaper competition, higher freight costs and the unfair territory assignments. The Monday after the meeting then is just like the Monday before the meeting but with a little more pressure.

In the feed industry, we deal daily with the latest scientific findings. When it comes to animal nutrition, analytics, plant engineering or the world market, the plentiful journals and industry magazines are full of such information. Yet, in sales, we fully trust our own experience, general rumor, pressure from above and the standards set by competitors. Nobody would choose this approach to formulate a piglet starter or design a feed mill, but in sales, things seem totally different.

Despite several PhDs within the team, many sales forces behave extremely dilettante. Ironically, there are several well published scientific papers on customer demand and behavior, on promising sales techniques or the strategies of successful organizations, but these take time to read
and are, therefore, systematically ignored. Next to other minor mistakes that can be corrected, two major mistakes that can cause significant damage are regularly observed, especially in agribusiness:
(1) The weak segmentation of customers, and
(2) An almost chronic ignorance and lack of understanding of the exact phases of the sales process.

Segmenting customers
Everyone agrees that we find A, B and C clients. That’s nothing new, but A-clients are not the biggest producers or the most impressive names on the list. They are those who promise the most profitable business relationship. They are not necessarily those who buy the most. In the feed industry, volume often compromises profitability, but because the industry is driven by commodity business, we tend to think that volume equals success. Even the bonus system of our sales forces is based on turnover only.

A-clients are also not those who would buy everything the company has to offer. They are those who want to be heavily contested for and who challenge all of the resources of the organization but, at the same time, also respect it as an equal business partner. A-clients must be the goal of every company. This goal neither accepts any sidesteps nor tolerates any compromises. A company must pitch its entire strategy, structure, culture and all transactions toward this goal. Every organization must, therefore, equip the sales force with all resources necessary to win A-clients and protect them from the competition.

Successful salespeople demand this from their company. They consequently never work alone and urge their company to mobilize all assets supporting their success. Winning A-clients, therefore, not only determines the travel itinerary and budget plans but also the outcome of salary negotiations and personal career planning.

Sell right way around
Whoever has brewed beer knows that the single phases and temperatures of the recipe should be kept in the right sequence. Otherwise, the result will be some fancy brew — but not a beer. A successful sales process shows many parallels. Only those who follow the right sequence of the single stages of a sales process can control its outcome.

The controlled process runs through stages of prospecting, preparation, questioning, proposal, negotiation and closing. Those who try to sneak around or skip single phases cannot control the outcome but rely solely on luck. Especially in the feed industry, too
many companies seem to have all the answers without asking a single question. They are in love with their products. They skip the fermentation stage and fill the bottles with an unfinished brew. The source of this mistake is product-orientated thinking and a lack of knowledge of customer needs.

Being equipped with superior technical training, an aggressive pricelist and all of the arguments, salespeople are surprised that the customers don’t buy. In this context, the question “Why?” takes a key role. We do not really know why customers will not buy, just as we will not exactly know why customers buy once they finally do. It seems to be a matter of analysis and timing — or quality assurance, if you like.

Just as it is common in animal nutrition, an organization should also seek external expertise when it comes to sales. The expert who knows most about customer needs and what really stimulates a purchase is the customer himself. So, let’s ask him. He will happily tell us all of
the secrets. The necessary questions are so simple that we have a mental barrier to using them: “What would you like to do?”; “How do you want to do it?”; “Why is this important to you?”; “What is it worth?” and so on.

Usually, everyone understands that we can’t sell something nobody wants, but we try it every day. We make proposals without having asked the questions. We have a whole catalogue of products without having our customers’ wish lists. Many salespeople want to force their customers into the framework of the company’s product portfolio. They expect the customer to understand
and follow “the program.” It is built on science; it is presented by PowerPoint and has competitive pricing. Calling the market their battleground, they sell the wrong way around. Instead of putting all efforts into convincing their customers, they should ask customers about their needs or wishes and then challenge their own management. The purpose of every organization is to produce what customers demand.

It also does not make much sense that sales managers keep challenging their team and then ask the directors. Sales managers who ask and protect their team but demand solutions from the board face a promising future. They manage their sales and treat their team like customers. To play hard in sales means to understand and use your team as a strong collection of different talents. The most aggressive companies in the world are those with the most sensitive internal communication — in both directions. They cultivate a climate of help and support.

Ironically, successful companies do not have customers who buy just because they like the salesman or because the product works. Their customers buy because the whole package is right. They are segmented correctly and find the correct positioning within the marketing activities of the organization. They can’t refuse buying. They feel understood and find benefits in the business relation. They buy because they are asked. They are profitable and give the whole process a reason.

Excerpt from FeedStuffs 30. July 2007: Selling is Knowing Process