Here is the good news for North American PCB shops: PCB sales are up 4.7% so far this year. There is more onshoring than ever, some of it with extreme prejudice since many companies are now adhering to the new ABC (anyone but China) mode of purchasing PCBs. New and innovative products are being produced daily, and these products all need PCBs. This is especially true when it comes to NPI (new product introductions) that require faster and more secure PCB prototyping. The scarcity of components for our customers has also created a new need for quick-turn PCBs.
In short, our business is up. More people want to buy boards domestically and technology levels are rising as well. What could possibly be wrong with this picture?
Now the bad news. Because of COVID, we cannot get enough people to work in our shops. It was true even before pandemic, but it is now worse than ever. We are having shortages ourselves, especially when it comes to special materials. Because of travel restrictions, we cannot get our equipment repaired as quickly as we need to. And (remember the good news?) we are writing more business than ever. The problem is we just can’t keep up.
It is taking longer for us to get out quotes, our delivery dates are slipping, and quality is suffering, which it always does when everything is built in a panic.
And, oh my, the salespeople are loudly wailing in pain. Every Zoom sales meeting I’m on and sales field report I read is filled with the sounds of salespeople whining about having to apologize to their customers and, worse yet, losing business.
I get it; it’s tough out there. But this is the time when every true salesperson has to toughen up; this is the time to show your stuff.
Anyone can sell when things are perfect. But we are not living in an ideal situation, so selling takes a level of skill and understanding that will define your true greatness.
We have all grown accustomed to things running well. Most shops I work with seldom have had a late delivery for the past 10 years. Most of the time, the quality is great and the quotes—well, everyone complains that they always take too long—nothing much has changed there. But the overall performance of the average board shop today is much better than 20 years ago.
But let me take you back to the days of yesteryear, the days when delivery performances were so bad that we lived with catch-back schedules, milestone charts, and visits from irate customers who would move into our shops for days at a time as we worked on their boards. I remember when I was working for a shop that had no plating line for two months (long story). Mind you, this was a Rockwell shop building “mission critical” boards for little programs from Minuteman to Viking to the Shuttle. More than once I was hit in the face with a crumpled up, unacceptable catch-back schedule. Oh, those were the days!
Now in today’s pandemic world, salespeople are faced with some of these same challenges. Since I’ve “been there, done that,” I would like to share a few tools to better handle the situation.
- Stop whining. Give your “ops” folks an honest and unemotional update of the situation with each of your customers—but skip the drama.
- Don’t tell them how to run their business. They know they are late, and they are working on it; they don’t need suggestions for you. You just need to do your job.
- Keep your customers happy by keeping them abreast of the situation at all times. Work closely with those customers so they know what is going on and when they can expect things to get better.
- Be the heatsink for your company. When things are really bad, customers need somebody to complain to. Sometimes they need to vent, sometimes they just need a live butt to kick; make sure you’re there to offer them yours when that happens.
- Honestly try to take the load off of the shop. Instead of negotiating price, your job now is to negotiate lead times. The better lead times (by that I mean longer lead times), the more you will be helping your company.
- Always tell the truth, even if and when it hurts. In the end it is better to take your bumps and tell the truth than to dance around the truth about when the boards will be delivered, which can cause the customer all kinds of pain and agony in the long run. Think of the customer bringing in people on the weekend to work on the boards when they arrive Saturday morning. This is what you promised, but in your heart of hearts you knew it was never going to happen. Ouch, now that is painful and a most negatively unforgettable and unforgivable situation.
- Finally, never, never, never throw your company under the bus when talking to your customers. Your job is to put your company in the best light possible. Never degrade the home team when explaining to your customers why they will not get their boards on time.
In the end, your number one priority as a salesperson is to keep as many customers as possible. You are literally the front line of defense for your company. The better you are at doing this, the more successful you will be.
And remember, this is the ideal time to develop your reputation as a upstanding straight shooter with your customers. Anytime you prove to your customers that they can rely on you during the hard times is an opportunity to cement that customer relationship for life.
It’s only common sense.
Dan Beaulieu is president of D.B. Management Group.