How to Sell Safety Products

With these buyers, fear trumps price every time.

AS a safety products distributor, keeping focused on filling the order is Job One: Answer the phone, determine the need, agree on price, and fill the order. That's what keeps distributors in business, right?

But sometimes it seems everything hinges on price. And while price is critical, it's the last step in a long decision path. Before your phone rings, the customer has had a series of experiences. Bring those experiences to the table during a sales call, and you'll spend less time on price and more on what's really driving their decision to buy.

Some of these drivers are emotional; fear, for example. In the case of safety products, fear trumps price every time. If someone gets hurt, could you sleep at night? Will you lose your job? Ask your customer whether the product will be used in a hazardous environment. If so, you can concentrate on features instead of price.

You're the expert on safety, but what you hear on the phone and in sales meetings is all about price. If your customer specifies a product on the low end, you'll want to qualify that choice. In the safety flashlight industry, it is a constant challenge to educate end users about explosions caused by lights. Once they understand the consequences, a cheap flashlight starts looking pretty risky. Tactfully remind the buyer that the right choice won't come back on them.

What about vanity? Nobody will admit it, but products sell because they say something about the people using them. Is the manufacturer a supplier to Military Special Ops or Navy SEALs? Manufacturers spend millions of dollars qualifying their products through military specification (mil-spec) programs. Such products are guaranteed to perform in the most punishing field of all, the battlefield. That qualification rationalizes a higher price, and with that price come bragging rights. In fact, paying a premium price can even add value to the end user's experience.

To some extent, ego drives just about every decision, and a good salesman can use a conversation like a mirror to make a customer feel good. This can go a long way toward winning the business, as long as it's about the business at hand. Compliment a customer's appearance, and his "salesman" radar will start pinging. Instead, when a customer has product knowledge, let her sell you. She'll tell you what's driving her decision--and if she knows what she's talking about, tell her so.

These intangibles become more emotional the deeper you go: Warranty, reputation, pride of ownership, the "geek" factor ("I'm smarter"), style, machismo, and even sex appeal. Unfortunately, nobody wants to peel their emotional onion in front of a safety distributor. The trick is to deflect price objections by reminding them what is driving their decision. And you can use this against competitive pressure, as well.

Play to Your Strengths
We've all heard the standard price objection a million times: "What? I can get the same thing (down the street/on the Internet/from a catalog) for half the price!" Maybe so, but play to your strengths before cutting margins. They came to you for a reason. Convenient location? In-stock product? Number of years in business? Liberal return policy? Product expertise? Let them know you take the long view and you're after their next order, and the one after that, even more than this one.

As a manufacturer, one of the mysteries of marketing is how to measure impact. Advertising, catalogs, public relations, Web sites, and even trade shows are carried out in the hope of winning the hearts and then the minds of end users. There is a classic advertising adage that goes, "The intent of marketing is to create a favorable impression in the mind of the prospect." Very soft stuff, and yet it's all done in support of the distributor. When a customer specifies a product, he does so from a foundation of experience. Tapping into it is the key to both the order and that customer's satisfaction.

Lean on Your Manufacturer
To get a clear picture, imagine a marketing pyramid divided into levels. At the bottom level are the most vague and least specific impressions made on a prospect: word of mouth, a story in a newspaper, or a logo at a football game. Up one level on the decision path, things become more specific: a product sighting, maybe an ad, a catalog, or a Web site. The third level marks a psychological shift in the decision path because it is research initiated by the buyer: What styles are available? What are the key features? How does it work? At the apex of the pyramid is the safety distributor, who answers the phone and gets hit with the "how much" question. Tell me, where did the love go?

One way to keep the romance alive is to lean on your manufacturer. Most have a wealth of images, posters, point-of-sale displays, and catalogs. These marketing tools will connect your sales work to the buyer's prior experience, making them comfortable with you as a trustworthy dealer. At a minimum, you'll need high-speed Internet access to download product PDFs and receive large image files via e-mail. In the time it takes someone to say "I'll be right over," you can jump to the manufacturer's site, sharpen your product knowledge, and download a brochure.

While the Internet has created radical change in distribution channels, there are hundreds of ways it is being used to drive customers to the traditional distributor. Viral marketing is a good example. A press release goes out on a new product and is mass e-mailed to a magazine's opt-in subscriber list. A reader knows someone looking for such a widget and forwards the link, which in turn leads the prospect to the manufacturer's Web site. A dealer locator or 800 number connects the prospect to the dealer. Yellow Pages? That's so '90s.

A safety distributor's Web site is a huge opportunity to differentiate itself from competitors. Again, count on your manufacturers to provide you with images and technical information. Use PDFs to put tangible selling material in your customer's hands at no cost to you. Remember, the goal is to connect your brand to your core customer, so develop safety tip pages, links to government sites, even quicktime video clips (also available from progressive manufacturers) to dress up your site. The only way you can get people to spend time on your message is to pay them, and in advertising, the only way you can do that is by being informative and entertaining. The psychology of buying is actually more important than selling, because if you understand the buyer's experience, you'll have a much better chance of finding what motivated them to inquire in the first place. In the process, you will also tune into what their needs are, so they will leave satisfied that you listened first and recommended a product second.

Common Ground
Intangibles give you something in common with your customer. If the customer mentions the color or says something good about a manufacturer, share a moment and agree with them. Then share something good that you've learned about the product or the manufacturer.

When the talk is positive, you're more likely to book the order without a lot of price talk.

This article originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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