Why is selling customized products so hard? And what to do about it…

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In this article, I’m going to show you how managers of sales teams at companies that manufacture customized products can enable remote work and increase accountability, improve visibility and boost overall efficiency by reducing unnecessary internal emails & meetings by up to 90%.

Is this article for me?

It’s worth spending 10 minutes reading this article if you or your team:

  • Manage a sales team at a manufacturer of customized products
  • Spend a lot of time coordinating with different internal teams (eg application engineering, product design, operations, quality, vendor etc)
  • Feel that CRMs and ERPs add little value to the sales process
  • Would like to spend more time selling and not following up with people
  • Are sometimes frustrated by the speed of responses you get
  • Feel it’s hard to drive accountability across different internal teams
  • Find it takes a lot of energy to stay on top of things
  • Are getting dozens or even hundreds of emails a day
  • Find stuff sometimes falls between the cracks, resulting in unhappy customers
  • Are able to make or recommend changes to your sales processes for the better

It doesn’t matter how big your company is or what systems you are currently using!

First, a bit about me

My name is Ben Merton, and I’m the CEO of Unifize (more on that later). 

My co-founder and I have both spent most of our careers running our own manufacturing businesses in various countries around the world. I ran a manufacturer of custom industrial enclosures for the power, automation and telecom segments. Lakshman ran a manufacturer of processed foods (snack pellets).

We both faced a tonne of challenges managing sales of customized products in these companies, and we started Unifize to make this easier for other companies.

Part 1: The Problem

Sales teams spend up to 85% of their time on non-value added activities.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying your team isn’t working.  I’m saying that they are spending up to 7 hours a day working stuff like this:

  • Emailing
  • Waiting for responses
  • Following-up
  • Internal meetings
  • Transferring data
  • Seeking approvals
  • Setting up meetings
  • Coordinating between teams
  • Updating the CRM/ERP
  • Preparing reports

That leaves only an hour to focus on the core value-added processes, including:

  • Demos / presentations
  • Talking to customers
  • Meeting customers
  • Presenting offers / quotes
  • Understanding needs
  • Giving information
  • Answering questions
This isn’t your fault. This happens because it’s really hard to get visibility and drive accountability across sales processes because everything is scattered across different email inboxes, software systems and meeting minutes.
Isn’t this true for any process? Not really...

In the chart above, you can see that the simple, linear process you think you are following is actually much more chaotic in practice!

Sales of customized or engineered-to-order products are different because they: 

  • Require context and creativity, concepts that are inherently human.
  • Are highly iterative in nature, meaning they can’t just be squeezed into a database or ERP.
  • Require more than one individual or team to complete one stage of each of the processes.
  • Can’t be automated.

Therefore, they are therefore inherently collaborative processes.

How are collaborative sales processes different from regular sales processes?


Regular sales processes tend to be predictable:

For example, a regular sales process involves well-defined SKUs that have standard pricing that can be quoted in minutes or hours.

For these reasons, regular sales processes can be managed or tracked in an ERP/CRM or some other database software because the input and output variables are known.

 

Collaborative sales processes tend to be unpredictable

  1. Unpredictable inputs –  e.g. you can’t predict the kind of requirements that your customer will have.
  2. Unpredictable process – e.g. you can’t predict the details of each process that you’ll need to follow after you receive an order or enquiry.
  3. Unpredictable outcomes – e.g. you can’t predict the exact details of the type of product that you will end up manufacturing.
  4. Unpredictable resources – e.g you don’t know what resources are required until you’ve defined the product.  What’s more ad hoc teams need to then form and disband at different stages to complete the process.

Now, you can try to track collaborative sales processes in an ERP/CRM or some other database-driven system, but the actual work will still get done over email, in meetings, and on the phone.

That’s why they are really to get visibility, drive accountability and measure the efficiency of collaborative processes: everything is scattered between different inboxes and tools.

To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at an example.

Below is a detailed list of the activities that are going on in an especially painful enquiry-to-quote process at a customized product manufacturer.

You may not follow all these processes yourself, but I am sure you’ll find some of them look familiar!

 

Process

Tools

Teams

VA

NVA

1

Receive inquiry

Email, meeting

Customer, sales

 

2

Ask for clarifications  from customer

Email, meeting

Customer, sales

 

3

Follow up for responses

Email, meeting

Customer, sales

 

4

Receive clarifications

Email, meeting

Customer, sales

 

5

Preliminary internal discussion

Meeting, phone

Sales, sales manager

 

6

Log in CRM

CRM

Sales

 

7

Forward details to application engineering

Email

Sales, application engineering

 

8

Follow up with application engineering

Email/Meeting

Sales, application engineering

 

9

Search for similar projects

Email, ERP, PMS, Google Drive, Box

Application engineering

 

10

Create Bill of Materials

Excel, ERP

Application engineering

 

11

Identify special parts

Excel, ERP

Application engineering

 

12

Inform sales about special parts

Email, meeting

Sales, application engineering

 

13

Confirm special pricing with customer

Email, phone

Sales, customer

 

14

Email customer for confirmation

Email, phone

Sales, customer

 

15

Receive response from customer

Email, phone

Sales, customer

 

16

Update Bill of Materials

Excel, ERP

Application engineering

 

17

Create Process Sheet

Excel, ERP

Application engineering

 

18

Check ERP for similar items

ERP

Vendor team

 

19

Inform vendor team about special items

Email

Application engineering, vendor team

 

20

Follow up with vendor 

Email, meeting

Application engineering, vendor team

 

21

Send vendor RFQs

Email

Vendor team, vendors

 

22

Follow up for responses from vendors

Email, phone

Vendor team

 

23

Clarify responses from the suppliers

Email, phone

Design, application engineering, sales, vendor (& customer)

 

24

Follow up for responses to the responses

Email, phone

Design, application engineering, sales, vendor (& customer)

 

25

Compare and finalise prices

Email, phone

Application engineering

 

27

Update the BOM

ERP, Excel

Application engineering

 

28

Confirm lead times with manufacturing

Email, phone call, meeting

Production, sales

 

29

Confirm quality specs with quality team

Email, phone call, meeting

Production, quality

 

31

Prepare quote

CRM

Application engineering

 

32

Send quote to sales team

Email

Sales, application engineering

 

33

Receive feedback from sales team

Email

Sales, application engineering

 

34

Revise the quote

Email, CRM

Sales, application engineering

 

35

Send for price approval

Email, meeting

Sales, senior management

 

36

Follow up for approval

Email, meeting

Sales, senior management

 

37

Receive approval

Email, meeting

Sales, senior management

 

38

Send quote to customer

Email

Sales, customer

 

39

Receive questions/clarifications

Email, meetings, phone calls

Sales, customer

 

40

Negotiation

Email, meetings, phone calls

Sales, customer, senior management

 

41

CUSTOMER CHANGES REQUIREMENT…

PROCESS IS REPEATED!!!!

 

Do you see what is happening here? Before you even get to the customer changing their requirement, you have:

  1. 9 different tools to manage this process, meaning you’ll likely face a visibility problem trying to keep on top of things because everything is in so many different systems.  Other signs you face a visibility problem are as follows:

    • Too many meetings
    • Too much data transfer
    • Too many siloes
    • Not knowing who is doing what, where, when and why

  2. 10 different teams that are constantly changing at each stage of the process, meaning you’ll face an accountability problem because it’s so hard to assign ownership to each stage of every process.  Other signs you face an accountability problem are as follows:
    • Deadlines slipping
    • Constant follow-ups
    • Too many CCs
    • Email ping pong
  1. 85% of the steps are non-value addition activities, meaning you have an efficiency problem.  Other signs you face an efficiency problem are as follows:
  • Incomplete processes
  • Wasted resources
  • Long cycle times
  • Frustrated customers

And this all presumes that the process itself is completed perfectly and doesn’t need to be repeated, as would be the case if someone makes a mistake anywhere.  In this case, all the activities of the first attempt are now wasted, just as they are when the customer changes their requirement at the end.

So, let’s see how waste manifests in these collaborative sales processes?

We need to modify lean principles to take a look at waste in collaborative processes like sales.  In this case, we’ve reinterpreted the eight sources of waste as follows:

  • Motion:  Data transfer between different systems (eg email, Excel, CRM/ERP)
  • Over-production:  Excessive meetings
  • Defects:  No change
  • Inventory:  Processes left incomplete (eg inquiries, orders, complaints)
  • Transportation:  Too many emails / ccs / notifications
  • Waiting:  Unaccounted delays
  • Non-utilized talent:  Too many people at each step
  • Extra-processing:  Cumbersome processes & approvals
  •  

Part 2: Three steps to supercharge my sales processes

Finally! So what are the 3 steps I can take to supercharge my sales processes?

If you want to reduce these sources of waste in your sales processes, you’ll need to do the following:

  1. Create visibility:  Bring all collaborative process activities in one place
  2. Improve accountability:  Assign ownership for each step of a collaborative process
  3. Increase efficiency: Measure non-value addition activities in real-time

Step 1:  Bring all collaborative process activities into one place

In order to bring collaborative process activities into one place, your solution needs to be able to do the following:

  1. Enable collaboration around processes:  Humans bring creativity and context through collaboration.  Your processes depend on this. Don’t try to suppress this.
  2. Ensure the system integrates with email:  Many internal and external teams won’t come onto your system.  Ensure you choose something that works well with email.
  3. Make data collection collaborative:  Your system should help people to collaborate around gathering data, rather than imposing rigid databases and rules.
  4. Enable first, manage later:  Get buy-in from your team/users to find out whether it actually makes their work easier or is seen as ‘extra work’.

     

Step 2:  Assign accountability for each step of the collaborative process

In order to assign accountability for each step of a collaborative process, you need to be mindful of the following:

  1. Don’t over-structure your processes:  Collaborative processes are inherently human and variable.  Rigid structures suffocate creativity and collaboration.
  2. Democratize accountability:  Make accountability transparent and negotiable to ensure that it actually works.
  3. Get broad participation:  Don’t restrict participation to team leadership or to particular departments.
  4. Ensure only the right teams are involved:  Broad participation does NOT mean everyone on every process…eliminate the ccs and unnecessary notification.

     

Step 3:  Measure non-value addition activities in real-time.

In order to measure and reduce waste in your collaborative processes in real-time, you’ll need to do the following:

  1. Create a single thread for each process:  Your tool should be able to visualize for every single activity for each instance of every collaborative process.
  2. Measure actual wasted time:  Your tool must measure non-value addition time from the underlying activity data in real-time.
  3. Ensure your analysis can be audited:  You can increase trust in the data and get buy-in from your team if the data is transparent and auditable.
  4. Respect your people:  Reducing wasted time can worry some people.  Focus on improving average response times and not individual delays.

Part 3: Potential solutions

Great, so what are my options?

You currently have three options:

  • Email / chat + spreadsheet
  • Email / chat + project management tool
  • Email / chat + CRM or ERP

Let’s take a closer look at these options.

Email / chat + spreadsheet:

Tools

– Gmail, Outlook, 360, Slack, Whatsapp, Microsoft Teams, Flock

– Excel, Google Sheets, Access

Advantages

– Easy to get started

– Wide existing adoption

– Intuitive to use

Disadvantages

– Does not bring everything into one place (at least two tools required)

– Unable to assign ownership for each stage of the collaborative process

– Email & chat groups / channels / teams tend to over-notify / cc

– People have a tendency to over cc emails

– Cannot measure non-value addition activities in real-time


Email / chat + project management tool:

Tools

– Gmail, Outlook, 360, Slack, Whatsapp, Microsoft Teams, Flock

– Asana, Trello, Microsoft Projects, Airtable

Advantages

– Can assign ownership to each process stage

– Cloud project management tools are collaborative

– Quick to setup

Disadvantages

– Does not bring everything into one place (at least two tools required)

– Email & chat groups / channels / teams tend to over-notify / cc

– Cannot measure non-value addition activities in real-time

– Generic use cases that are not built for sales

– Unable to capture sales process data


Email / chat + CRM / ERP: 

Tools

– Gmail, Outlook, 360, Slack, Whatsapp, Microsoft Teams, Flock 

– SAP, Plex, Arena, Greenlight Guru

Advantages

– Built for sales processes

– Good analytics

– Can be built to gather any type of data

Disadvantages

– Does not bring everything into one place (at least two tools required)

– Email & chat groups / channels / teams tend to over-notify / cc

– Cannot measure non-value addition activities in real-time

– Long setup and implementation/adoption times

– Very difficult to assign ownership to each collaborative process stage

– Processes are over-structured

– Data collection is not collaborative

– Primarily another management tool – not user-friendly

Part 4: There's a better way

If you think those options are cumbersome, there’s an easier way...

We built Unifize specifically for collaborative sales processes at manufacturers of customized products.

It helps sales teams increase visibility, accountability, and efficiency by:

  • Bringing collaborative process activities into one place
  • Assigning accountability to each stage of the collaborative process
  • Measuring (and reducing) wasted activities in real-time

     

Specifically, Unifize enables users to do the following:

  • Collaborate from anywhere on simple-to-use, cloud-based mobile and desktop platform
  • Increase accountability with objective-driven conversations that have a defined status, owner and participants
  • Get visibility into all sales activities with a real-time list of conversations mapped to every instance of every sales process
  • Reduce email ping pong and unnecessary follow-ups by bringing everyone into the right place to discuss specific objectives
  • Create an auditable, measurable trail of time-stamped activities relating to each objective
  • Make data collection easy & collaborative with customizable forms for each sales process
  • Get fast-track adoption by allowing users to collaborate on sales processes right from their inboxes.
  • Give managers a bird’s eye view of what’s going on in their organization without having to be involved in a single conversation
  • Get actionable sales insights and data from customizable forms and dashboards
  •  

Is it easy to setup?
It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen or implemented before.  We can get you and your team up and running in less than an hour.  You can start seeing results by the end of the day!

Will this integrate into your other CRM / ERP or other software? 
Yes, of course. You don’t have to worry. It easily integrates into the most common tools you are already using.

How much did this cost to build? 
We spent $1M building and testing this suite over a period of 3 years.

How much does it cost to use?
The platform is free for life for up to 5 users, so you can get started right away.  After that, it’s USD 40 per user per month. We offer bulk discounts for larger companies.

Is there a free trial?
In addition to being free for up to 5 users, we can also give you a 30 day free trial if you need more users from the get-go.

What happens if it doesn’t work for you? 
We offer a 30-Day-Money-Back-Guarantee after your trial – just in case you sign up and don’t implement right away, or you are not experiencing positive results within 60 days. 

What if you don’t have budget for this solution?
This is a process efficiency solution. This means that when you use it, you will save time and money – it’s a tool that will give you an ROI. Think of it as an investment, not a cost. But we are giving you a free trial to try it out anyway, so you are not risking anything.  

Do you have to be technical to use this?
No. We designed the solution to make sure everyone is successful. We provide kick-off calls and support. Anyone who knows how to turn on their computer can use this product. 

How much time does this actually save us?
We have data showing we’ve been able to reduce sales process cycle times at manufacturing companies that make customized or technical products by up to 95%.  Think about that for a second….

What happens if this doesn’t work for you? 
If this doesn’t work for you, just get your money back – No harm no foul…

How should you present this to your boss / senior management?
Use the trial and bring them results, first. Lead with proof and save everyone’s time

Let’s sum up this offer: 

  • Free for life for up to 5 users 
  • 30-Day-Trial
  • 30-Day-Money-Back-Guarantee After Trial (60 days risk-free) 
  • In-Depth Support 
  • No Contract (cancel anytime)
  • No Cancellation Charges

If you serve in a sales function and want to improve accountability, build visibility and increase the efficiency of your team – and you want to work with experts – please book a call with us!

https://www.unifize.com/book-demo

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