Editor’s Note: Greatest Sales are true accounts of how successful salespeople made a challenging sale despite price objections, buyer inertia, cutthroat competition and other obstacles. In this Greatest Sale, Forrest Cronia, Vice President Sales, HRS Textiles, Darlington, SC, tells how he was able to move his product out of the commodity category and create a unique advantage in a highly competitive sale.
One of my customers revealed to me that he was having serious quality issues with another supplier. “We’re going to ask for bids,” he said. “You’re welcome to try for the business.”
We didn’t make the product; we’d have to develop it from scratch. But we decided to go for it anyway. The opportunity was just too good to pass up.
Nobody had the inside track. Like us, the other two bidders would have to create the product. And, like us, they also had good relationships with the buyer.
Nor did I see any of us winning on technology. The product was a specialized air filter for the buyer’s machinery, and given the customer’s specs, we were all sure to design something pretty similar.
Time to market was critical
So how could we gain a competitive advantage over two well-qualified competitors?
It was clear from my discussions with the buyer that they needed the product quickly. It looked like time-to-delivery would be the key to creating differentiation. But again, all the bidders seemed to be in the same boat. None of us could wave a magic wand and shorten our development cycle.
Then I had an idea. My competitors could have done it. But I thought of it first: I asked our customer to help us win the business.
Specifically, we asked them to help us reduce our product-development cycle.
But wouldn’t that give us an unfair advantage?
I certainly hoped so. I wanted to win. And the buyer couldn’t care less about a “fair” fight among its bidders. They just wanted a solution. The sooner they could get the new product, the sooner they could solve their production problem.
A big request
I asked for a big commitment from the buyer.
Their plant was 450 miles away, and developing the air filter would require repeated trips to the customer’s plant to test our designs. With all the back-and-forth, it would take us at least three months to develop a solution. But I’d learned the company kept a spare machine for breakdowns. And I asked to borrow it.
“That’s crazy,” said the customer’s production manager. “No way.” But when I explained how that would help get his production problem solved sooner, he came around.
With the customer’s machine in our plant, we came up with a product in just three weeks. Our competitors took three months. By then, I was already selling the customer truckloads of air filters. What’s more, our close working relationship throughout this process gave us a chance to cultivate relationships with key decision makers.
We returned the machine in better shape than we’d found it. “Thanks for your help,” I said.
“No, thank you,” they told me.
We’ve successfully supplied them for two years now. Our contract runs well into six figures.
This was my greatest sale for two reasons: First, I understood that when the customer needs something bad enough, they’re willing to put their resources at your disposal to get it done.
Second, I saw that when you get the buyer involved in creating the solution, they gain ownership in the outcome. And that sense of ownership is enough to take you out of the commodity category.
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