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Helpful Hints From Your Friendly Sales Person

Author(s):

Marilyn Gettinger
Marilyn Gettinger, President, New Directions Consulting Group, Cranford, NJ 07016, 908-709-0656, mgettinger@aol.com.

83rd Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1998 

Abstract. The Purchasing Department can provide valuable knowledge and expertise to the organization. However, without strong interpersonal skills from department members, the potential cannot be realized. Purchasing personnel need to learn how to deal with "The Internal Customer", build alliances and trust, sell their ideas and add value to the company. Purchasing personnel learn everyday about products and product ideas from the sales people who visit with them. The best of these sales people have become so because of their expertise in interpersonal skills, understanding of human relations, knowledge of their customers and a commitment to solving customer's problems. The sales person who provides outstanding customer service is the role model for the purchasing professional who wants to provide outstanding service to his/her "Internal Customer".

Purchasing's Objectives. The main objective of the professional purchasing department is to provide products and services to the various internal organizations that make up a corporation. Specifically this means supplying the right quality, right price, right quantity, at the right time, from the right supplier, and with the right service; keeping in mind that the word "right" may mean one thing to the buyer and something quite different to the engineer, executive secretary, warehouse manager, etc.

Additionally, the buyer also provides the organization with new ideas and concepts that will assist the company in staying competitive. In considering this dimension, the question becomes how to get the decision makers in the company to listen to these ideas and concepts.

The buying staff must wisely consider the company's interests at all times. Oftentimes, meeting these objectives requires discussions with those in the organization who are requesting the goods and services and informing them regarding any discrepency. In this situation, effective communication skills are absolutely critical.

The Internal Customer. The term "The Internal Customer" is becoming an important concept in developing successful relationships within a company. This means each employee providing quality information and/or product to those within the organization who are his/her customers. Ultimately the winner is the external customer.

There has been an effort over the last few years to educate the purchasing professional to the concept of "The Internal Customer" and the need for identifying and communicating with those in the firm who use the services of the purchasing department. There has also been an emphasis on selling the organization on the benefits of its purchasing team.

Because purchasing handles the requests of pretty much most of the organization, by keeping "The Internal Customer" concept in mind, buyers can make a tremendous impact on the corporation. The buying group knows materials, supplier management, negotiation skills, analytical techniques, etc. It is imperative that all purchasing agents must learn the language of customer service and how to build relationships with their "Internal Customer."

Help Is Close By. Purchasing staff deal with various suppliers every day. Those sales people who are very successful offer buyers far more than the product. They listen closely to the buyer looking for opportunities where they and/or their product could be used. They do not wait to be asked for information. A sales person uses new information as a reason for making a sales call. Sales Reps know staying in contact with the customer is important and establish channels and schedules to accomplish this. A sales person learns about the customer by listening and asking questions. From this information, a sales representative can diagnose the customer's problems and how best to use communication tools to sell the buyer on his/her company and product line.

The sales person who makes the buyer's life easier by offering not only a quality product that meets the right level of needs, but also helps solve problems, provides the latest updates on orders, keeps the buyer current on industry information, communicates effectively, and understands the challenges of the buyer's organization is the perfect role model for the purchasing professional who looks to offer outstanding "Internal Customer" service to those in his/her organization.

Offering outstanding customer service requires some extra effort on the part of the buyer. The rewards for the buyer, however, far outweigh that additional work. One benefit is trust between the "Internal Customer" and the buyer making future interactions easier. By opening a dialogue so that everyone has input, the buyer creates an atmosphere for open communication which provides an avenue for the buyer to get his/her ideas to be considered. Quality internal service also sets an example for others in the organization.

"Helpful Hints From Your Friendly Sales Person". The successful sales person who visits the purchasing department knows his/her customer, knows the basic wants of any customer, understands human relations and behaviors, uses the language of customer service, is an expert at listening and asking probing questions, communicates so that the customer gets the information, is looking for opportunities to solve the customer's problems, and is committed to creating a long-term alliance with the buyer through on-going communication and continuous improvement.

These are the very same skills every purchasing professional needs to succeed in providing quality performance in the area of the internal customer. The role model is the friendly sales person who calls on that same purchasing professional providing quality service to his/her external customer, the purchasing department.

Identifying The Customer. Buyers need to develop a base of information similar to that a buyer uses to manage material and supply bases. This list includes everyone of their internal customers, what do they buy, knowledge of the products and services the internal customer uses, dollar volume of their purchases, problem areas, guidelines on how best to communicate, and ideas on how to best serve these customers. Internal customers may be divided into "A, B, and C" designations with initial effort placed on the "A" customers.

The Purchasing Department needs to take a good look at the level of service that it offers to its internal customer through questionnaires and one-on-one or interdepartmental meetings. This information can be used as a benchmark and offers feedback on areas of success and on areas that require training.

What Does Any Customer (Internal or External) Want?

  • That the buyer really cares about his/her problem.
  • That he/she is listened to.
  • That he/she is not made to look wrong or stupid.
  • That he/she is treated fairly.
  • That he/she is given accurate information in a timely manner.
  • That the buyer follows-up and follows-up at the time promised.
  • That he/she is treated courteously and professionally.

Understanding Human Relations and Behaviors. Every buyer needs to accept that everyone is very different and each internal customer reacts to information and issues based on their own background of experience not that of the buyer. The purchasing professional will develop far more successful alliances when they can accept others as they are. If a buyer tries to change the customer and/or makes them wrong, the internal customer will prove to be uncooperative and will become even more determined to do it his/her way.

There are several studies such as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Transactional Analysis, Life Scripts, Hygiene Theory, Theory X and Y, and Theory Z which provide interpretations on how and why people do what they do. These are important tools in learning to understand and accept those internal customers with whom the Purchasing Department must work.

  • Using The Language of Customer Service.
  • Use active and positive words when speaking to the customer.
  • Speak in a friendly and warm tone.
  • Eliminate "fight starter" language.
  • Use the customer's name frequently throughout the conversation.
  • Show the customer you know about them and their needs.
  • Use "Please", "Thank You", and "May I Help You" often.
  • Eliminate "You should", "You have to", "You ought to".
  • Take care not to blame the customer or make them wrong.
  • Get back to the internal customer when promised even if there is no information yet available.

Listening. Purchasing professionals need to practice their listening skills. Listening closely is a powerful tool in letting the customer know that the buyer is interested in them. It also prevents errors, misunderstandings, and duplication of effort.

Most professionals have very little training in using any of the communication tools. Listening involves one person having a thought, putting the thought into words, sending it in some form of communication medium (such as verbal, written, silence, body language), the other person/persons receiving it, and interpreting the message based on his/her past history.

The message may not be received at all or received inaccurately by the receiving party/parties. All human beings have filters which get in the way of this communication process. A few filters are anger, tiredness, worry, dislike of the speaker, or discomfort with the speaker.

Effective listening requires creating a background and a commitment to listening. This calls for people sitting down without interruptions and sitting in an active position ready to listen. There are several techniques used to assist in staying focused to the person doing the speaking. These are paraphrasing, asking oneself probing questions, outlining, or repeating the speaker's words as the person is communicating.

Using The Various Forms Of Asking Questions Effectively. Two of the many forms of asking questions is the open and closed type. The open question cannot be answered with yes or no but requires the speaker to provide information. The closed question requires the responder to answer yes or no and offers no additional information to the listener.

The skilled use of questions allows the buyer to not only gather information from the internal customer without annoying the person but also shows interest in helping them.

Speaking Into The Customers Listening. Customers speak and listen in different ways. Some are auditory and listen very well. Others are visual. Therefore, written information is their communication strong point. Others communicate well kinesthetically or by hands-on experimenting or learning on their own. People effectively communicate in the area or areas of their strength.

Many internal customers think and speak in numbers and percentages. Others tend to be relational communicators and require friendly chatty conversation before discussing business matters. Others are achievers and must communicate in terms of accomplishments and goals. Other customers are busy and want only the facts and possible solutions.

All internal customers want to know "What's in it for me?" When buyers want to enroll their customers into looking at new ideas or trying a different product, it is important to know what is important to that customer and to emphasize the benefit of the idea and/or product to that customer.

Opportunities To Solve Problems And Offer Service. Purchasing personnel need to be out talking to their customers on a regular basis learning where they are experiencing difficulties and letting them know that purchasing is part of their team. Problem solving and presenting new ideas that can save customers' time and effort should be treated as an important part of the purchasing function not as a random service.

Book references:

Solomon, Muriel, Working With Difficult People. New York, Prentice Hall, 1990.

Albrecht, K., Service Within. New York, Dow-Jones-Irwin, 1991.

Holton, Bil and Cher, The Manager's Short Course. New York, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1992

Farber, Barry J., State of the Art Selling. New Jersey, Career Press, 1994.


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