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Point of sale Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2010

Gene Toombs does not question the high level of intelligence that his employees at MiTek Industries Inc. bring to their work. They need it to develop new software and improve machinery used by the company’s customers in the building components industry.

But if those employees who develop the products can’t work with the customers to get the most use out of it, this expertise doesn’t do anyone very much good.

“As much as they are brilliantly smart on the computer, they may not know the intricacies of what the guy in the office who uses the software has to do,” says Toombs, the company’s chairman and CEO.

It’s for that reason that everyone of MiTek’s 1,800 employees takes a regular turn interacting with the customers for whom the company is developing new products and services.

“Everybody here, no matter how technical they might be, because we have many computer programmers and very smart engineering guys with professional engineering stamps, they all go out and see a customer,” Toombs says.

“That’s part of our requirement. What we want them to do is basically understand the customer’s business from a sense of how you would be a good supplier to them. We want them to particularly feel the customer’s pain if the software is not correct.”

In this technical age of constantly updated software and new ways of doing things, this interaction is crucial to MiTek’s success. Revenue is only generated when customers know how to use the product they are buying. It’s why Toombs considers everyone at the company, including himself, a salesman.

Here are some of the ways Toombs puts MiTek in a better position to serve its customers through his employees.

Share the burden

You want your employees to build strong relationships with your customers. But make sure you’re not just relying on one person to handle a particular client.

“In too many businesses I’ve been in in my life, you get this environment where you hear from your top salesman that, ‘The customer will only deal with me,’” Toombs says. “I go crazy. That’s the last thing you want is to be held hostage by one of your salespeople who has a relationship and won’t bring anybody else in from the company to see the customer. Then you are in big trouble. We team sell up and down the organization and I think that’s our strength.”

Toombs brings up his vice president of marketing, Gregg Renner.

“The customer knows about MiTek, not so much about Gregg Renner,” Toombs says. “If Gregg were to leave the company tomorrow, we’d miss him dearly, but in fact, life would go on.”

You need to avoid the situation where one person has all the knowledge about a single customer because if that person leaves your company for any reason, you’ll be in a lot of trouble with that customer.

“We have written reports that we publish that literally confirm what’s going on,” Toombs says. “We spend a lot of time together and we talk. As much as we’ve got some exceptional sales guys and they get paid very well, part of their job is to provide access to their customer to anybody who needs to go see the guy from MiTek. That’s good for the customer, good for the company and, at the end of the day, good for the salesman.”

One of the ways that MiTek promotes the team-selling approach and encourages open dialogue and knowledge sharing about customers is through competition. Customers are brought in and provided a demonstration to compare a MiTek product to that of a competitor.

“We’re very big on presenting our products and services in a positive manner,” Toombs says. “To me, that’s the best thing in the world to have a customer say, ‘Show me what you can do.’ We relish those opportunities. You learn like anything else that you do one thing well and you do something else not so well. You get the right people involved and it’s been a very good situation.”

Customers become more familiar with your business through these types of demonstrations and they also have a chance to interact with other people if they only have one primary contact. It’s a fun and effective way to put a different face on your company and get another set of eyes and ears pitching in to help support a customer.

“We actually relish kind of a Pillsbury bake-off,” Toombs says. “And I’m proud to tell you, when it occurs, we win a lot more than we lose.”

You can take your own steps to make sure you’re not falling into the one customer, one touch point mode by getting out and talking to customers yourself. When you do, make sure you’re the one setting up the conversation.

“I always insist on meeting customers,” Toombs says. “What I do, which has been accepted now but initially it’s not popular, is I pick the customer. By that, I mean, I don’t allow our guys, as much as I trust them totally, to set me up with customer friends where I’ll just hear all the good stuff. I’ll say, ‘I want to see this one, this one and this one.’ … Get your customer list, get your prospect list and literally make your salespeople mad at you. But grab the telephone and call these guys and go see them. Believe it or not, the customers are thrilled to death to have the CEO come in and say, ‘Hello,’ and ask, ‘How can we make your life easier?’”

Be ready to learn

When Toombs heads out to meet with a customer, he doesn’t want to just sit in his counterpart’s corner office and exchange platitudes. He wants to make it an effective use of time to learn more about what his customers need.

“I insist he bring his troops in and it’s not just the two of us glossing it over from our helicopters,” Toombs says. “We try to get the guys involved who actually use the products.”

Make sure both you and the people you are bringing into the conversation are ready for a constructive conversation by doing your research beforehand.

“If it’s an active customer and we have a pretty good software program, we know a lot about that customer, maybe more than they know we know,” Toombs says. “I go through all of that and I go through our history and try to analyze what problems they have had relative to what we do for them. So when I walk in the door, I’m prepared at least for what most of the issues would be.”

The catch, of course, is no matter how much research and planning you and your team do, there’s a very good chance the conversation will still hit upon a topic you weren’t prepared to discuss.

“You always get surprised,” Toombs says. “There may be something we didn’t even realize we were doing, and because we have a good relationship, we can fix it. If I have the answer when that objective comes up, and I never bluff in those cases because I’ve been caught bluffing and that’s not a good thing to do. But if I have the answer, I’ll answer it, and if I can’t answer it, I will tell them I can’t answer it. But I make it a point, within at most 48 hours, I get back to them with an answer.”

The key is to approach these meetings with a sense of curiosity and to encourage your employees to do the same. Don’t let not knowing an answer stop you from getting beyond the 10,000-foot conversation.

“It’s amazing when you’re honest and you say, ‘I don’t know, but I

’ll get back to you’ — people like that,” Toombs says. “I don’t care how good you are at your business, and I think I’m pretty good at my business, you’re not going to know every little facet. That’s impossible.”

Your customers can accept that you don’t know everything. In most cases, they just appreciate your concern.

“I don’t care what business you are in today, particularly in this recession, people like to be acknowledged,” Toombs says. “Not just by e-mail, but they like to see people.”

Encourage creativity

The only limits that Toombs puts on his sales force are that they are selling MiTek products and services. Other than that, if the approach is ethical and it’s done with the right intentions, Toombs supports it.

“If a guy has some talent and some understanding and a good customer relationship, if he can uniquely put a program together and make money at it and it gets the job done, I’m all for it,” Toombs says. “He doesn’t have to follow the script.”

Toombs views a good leader as someone who serves a company as an agent of change.

“We rarely say to ourselves, ‘This is the way it has to be done at MiTek,’” Toombs says. “If we slip in that regard, shame on us because we learn things every day. We learn from our customers, our suppliers and, quite frankly, I learn a lot from our young people. I think it’s very healthy for a company to embrace change.”

Of course, it’s one thing to embrace change and it’s quite another just to give your team a blank check to do whatever they want. That’s a recipe for disaster, especially if you haven’t trained them properly.

“We do a little bit of in-house training and then we get people into their jobs and let them make mistakes,” Toombs says. “But they’re mentored. They are also hooked up with peers, people that are fairly new, but have made the first cut. They’ll learn from the mistakes they have all made together.”

Get your salespeople on the floor learning about how a product or service works so that when they’re out trying to sell it, they can answer questions about it.

“It’s not that we expect him to do complex engineering work,” Toombs says. “But we give him enough to have the basics so when he does get put out in front of customers, he is not just going, ‘Duh.’ He understands a bit about what we do and what they expect. It comes down to training.”

Making time for your people to actually use the equipment or software that you sell is the critical part of the training.

“I know when I’ve learned things myself or I’ve watched other people that worked with me or for me, it’s amazing,” Toombs says. “You get them in an environment where they are participating in what’s going on, not just writing notes in a classroom. They are literally doing things. That’s a better method of training, and we try to do that.”

How to reach: MiTek Industries Inc., (314) 434-1200 or www.mii.com