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The 25 things every specialist should know


Mac Fuller has an amazing skill – he reads faces.  It’s like reading palms (ala the Gypsy Fortune Teller) only Mac Fuller makes it seem more scientific.  A few years ago I attended a seminar where Mr. Fuller demonstrated his craft.  He would look at a person’s face, share a few observations, and then proceed to tell the audience all about the subject’s personal traits.


After the demonstration, I sought out Mr. Fuller and engaged him in some pointed conversation.  His thoughts still echo in my mind.  He said, “Frank, if you know what you are looking for ahead of time, you will gather and retain a hundred times more information about the person’s face on the first meeting.  And, if you are truly focused on gathering information, you will learn more about the person behind the face.”    He suggested that I study a preset group of facial patterns ahead of time to prepare my mind.  Once in face-to-face conversation, I would quickly gather more information.  To this day I still can’t read faces, but I do notice more about people.  Conversely, those I meet naturally recognize that I am intently interested in them as a person.


As Specialists we are like the untrained face reader.  Bombarded with thousands of bits of customer, technical and application specific information, we often find ourselves swimming up stream in a giant tsunami of data.  Without preparing ourselves this potentially valuable information washes past us.   But armed with this list of twenty-five customer-centric questions, we will recognize and quickly assemble an accurate picture of our clients. 


When you sit down with close friends and family – you can probably “read their faces”.  Similarly, I bet you know the answers to these questions for your best (and favorite) customers.  By thinking about this list, or a new list of your own creation, you will recognize and quickly fill in the blanks for new customers.


Company Specific Questions:

It’s amazing how many people miss the general questions that frame your customers business.  Because Specialists are employed to bring a little extra oomph (and value) to an account, these are “must do” questions.  Hopefully, the Salesperson you work with can fill you in on the details of an account and cover the majority of these questions.  Armed with this basic information, you can contrast types of customers and establish personalized industry comparisons.  Think of the differences between the packaging line in a food processing plant and a similar packaging line in a consumer goods plant.  These become transferable knowledge that allows you instant new customer insight.


1.      What is this customer’s primary product?  Who are their customers?

2.      What is their source of revenue?  Widgets sold, Services, etc

3.      Who are their major competitors?

4.      Does this customer fall near the top, middle or bottom of their industry?

5.      What is this customer’s primary competitive strategy?

6.      Does the company regularly outsource segments of its work?

7.      What magazines cover the ins and outs of their industry?


Competitive Situation:

Distributor Specialists work a leadership role in the sales team.  Understanding the team’s position is critically important.  Decisions of effort and resource investment are driven through this knowledge.  Long ranging decisions and future marketing plans thrive when this information is included in the decision making process.


8.      What is the estimated usage for our types of products?

9.      Do they use supply contracts?  What is our company’s position with this contract?

10.  What is your company’s competitive situation at this customer?

Specialists specific products - company in total

11.  Is the salesman assigned to the account well connected?


Manufacturing/Work Process Related:

Specialists direct the time and sales investment on behalf of their assigned product/technology segments.  Adding value with a well thought out strategy maximizes success. 


For example, suppose you are a Lighting Specialist working with a customer whose complex work cells stream high pressure water spray randomly throughout the facility.  Major costs are associated with unplanned work stoppage.  Could you use that information to provide some very finely directed product recommendations?  You, bet your life you could!


12.  What is their manufacturing – work environment?

13.  What is dollar amount associated with downtime or work stoppage?

14.  Total number of products produced per hour/day/week/etc?

15.  What is the percent of waste/scrap produced by the plant?

16.  Is there a dollar amount associated with this scrap/waste?

17.  If a reject is produced what else is ruined?


People Oriented:

The shortage of skilled labor is a big deal in North America according to the new business gurus.  As Specialists, we are often asked to suggest labor saving devices and/or provide training to our customers.  Understanding the dynamics of People will guide your recommendations and improve your hit rate.


18.  What is the burdened labor rate for labor?

19.  Are qualified people hard to find?

20.  Does the company provide training to its employees?


Financial Oriented:

Whether it is from solving some massive customer problem, leading a great product training workshop or as part of a salesperson’s flag waving, Specialists find themselves in the corner office with Mr. Big.  Talk about golden opportunities – these are the magic moments that can blow an account wide open. 


Ankle your way across the deep plush carpet and sit in the finely crafted leather chair across from Mr. Big.  Open your mouth and ask financially driven questions and you will be heralded a genius - spew product details and you’ll be labeled as another geek with a beanie-copter.


21.  How is payback measured in your plant/division/company?

22.  What payback level is needed to meet company standards

23.  Does this customer understand and measure the cost of Transactional items?

            Cost of an invoice? Receiving an order? Maintaining inventory?


Energy Oriented:

With gasoline surging to $3.50 a gallon, energy is on everyone’s mind.  Add concerns about the East Coast power grid plus potential natural gas shortages, and you will find, nearly everyone is looking for ways to make better use of energy.  Customers look more  to Distributor Specialists (particularly those tied to the Electrical Industry) for leadership.  Tie energy savings to your product profiles and you can position yourself for success.


24.  What is the cost energy?

            Kilowatt hour?  Demand charge? Fuel charges?  Sur charges?

25.  How are the costs of other in-plant utilities measured?


Some parting thoughts:

Before we part company, I want to stress an important point.  I do not recommend you go into your best customer tomorrow and say, “Hey Joe, I want to ask you 25 questions.”  Nor do I mean to imply that knowing the answers to these questions lies strictly with the job description labeled Specialist.  If you are working with a great salesperson, she will know the answers to most of these questions.  But, you need to know them, too.  If the salesperson isn’t go great – this might be an opportunity for you to provide leadership.


In a previous article we touched on the importance of targeting accounts.  You may already have surmised – gathering this kind of data takes time and a good deal of effort.  You shouldn’t try to gather this data for every account in your portfolio.   You should have this information (or be in the process of gathering it) for each of your target accounts and every one of those 20 percent who generate the vast majority of your paycheck.


I am interested in the other points you as a Specialist feel are important to your job.  Send the 26th question to and I will send you a postcard from Iowa.  It’s a 25 cent value, but you will be the first on your block with a postcard from the Tall Corn State.


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