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Production vs Prototype Sales

weld“There are two kinds of welders in the world…” Tom Armfield

Tom Armfield was my manufacturing counterpart when I worked for Honeywell. Although Tom had little formal education and started his career as a welder, he moved through manufacturing positions, managed field service activities, and was ultimately put in charge of all manufacturing, test and field service for our division. One day, Tom explained to me how you hire and train welders. He said, “There are welders who can look at a new drawing and figure out the tools, techniques and sequences need to make what is described in that drawing.” Then he went on to explain, “There is another kind of welder who can produce the same piece over and over again while at the same time continuing  to perfect the operation by reducing cleanup, lowering waste, creating more efficient processing steps, etc.” And then the wisdom: “You can make any welder better, but you will never transform a prototype welder into a production welder and vice versa”.

As I look at my career, there are production engineers and prototype engineers. I also see prototype and production people in a wide variety of other professions. I especially see prototype and production salesmen who like welders, cannot be interchanged.  I believe that this is not an issue of training, but of basic and fundamental personality differences.

Successful business developers and prototype salesmen are the ones with great creativity, broad knowledge bases, and excellent listening and questioning skills. They are often internal entrepreneurs who shepherd new business ideas and fix broken ones. Unfortunately, once the basic offering and the path to customers is clear and the marketing effort is underway, the “hero” (prototype) salesman often fails to achieve the expected, steady state revenue volume. He simply does not have the necessary attention span to contact enough customers each day, to reliably follow-up, and to resist the temptation to invent new customer pathways and offerings. In short, successful prototype salesmen all too often become failed production salesmen.

Production salesmen live off the quota. They react to their customers by following a flexible script. Most often they cannot explain their activities as a process, but if you study them, you will see some core processes. For example, they are always looking around to see who is selling better.  As a result, the successful production salesmen are often assigned to new products that have high investment to the firm.  In the course of executive decisions, the most successful salesmen (by sales volume) are assigned to develop the market strategy.  Unfortunately, their very success suggest they likely do not have the creativity and ability to quickly assess the wide variety of possible options. They tend to apply techniques from their past sales successes in often inappropriate ways. You also see this same tragedy play out when a successful production salesman suddenly has a different market environment such as new competitors or customer base strategy changes.  He will dogmatically stick to the old ideas and approaches that have served him so well in the past.  This is painful to watch.

In both cases, true to Tom’s statement, more training will not help. As a sales manager, it is my job to understand if there exists a problem that requires a  prototype salesman or if I have a known problem that needs a production salesman. Moreover, if I leave salesmen too long in the same place, they will receive reinforcement for their successes. But will promotion lead to their destruction if the new assignment requires a different set of sales skills?  In other words, does the new assignment require prototype or production skills and experience?

I am a prototype salesman. I do magic when shaping the offering, profiling customers into groups, and identifying decision-making patterns and decision leaders. I work best when I am surrounded by production salesmen. They create the environment where I can practice my craft.  They realize the value of my work by converting the recipe (prototype) into perfected meals (production), and they stop me when I become too creative. One or two good prototype salesmen plus a good manager who can identify where each salesman is best suited is the magic recipe for creating a highly successful sales force.

Final note: Indirect sales are only production sales:  Never give a product with an unproven sales recipe to a third party sales organization.  Another hint– when you see your front line salesman increasingly talking about joint marketing efforts, new sales literature, and new avenues of market research, this is a strong signal to you that your production salesman is facing a prototype problem.

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