The COVID-19 pandemic brought huge market shocks for manufacturers. Broken supply chains. Worker layoffs and furloughs. Plant shutdowns. Surplus capacity. Sudden consumer shifts from bricks and mortar to online shopping. Demand plunged in some sectors and surged in others as consumers shifted to more home-centered activities — such as working from home (WFH), DIY improvements and redecorating, dining-in, entertaining in friend-family bubbles, and so forth. Now, sharply rebounding revenue growth is ushering an entirely new set of challenges for manufacturers, four big ones being: 

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The trends of 2020–21 have made three things patently clear:

Multiple Buyer Personas and Customer Journeys

Sales in manufacturing generally follow one of three paths:

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The distinctions are important as they represent different buyer personas, each requiring different sales approaches and precisely crafted buying journeys.

Selling to B2B and B2C via mid-sized distributors

Selling through SMB distributors or retailers means one is selling to a business owner, president, or other top-level executive. Not only do you need to convince them to stock your brand(s), but you also need to either:

Either way, you win by:

The first four fall generally within the purview of manufacturing sales organizations. So, let us consider relevant opportunities for using technology to improve sales process efficiency in manufacturing—

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Step 1: Work to maximize distributor/retailer profitability

Improve forecast accuracy — for revenue control, pipeline visibility, better margins, more accurate demand

Industrial distributors and retailers make money in two ways: first, by marking up your products and second, by minimizing inventory carrying costs. To minimize carrying costs, they need to be accurate at forecasting demand, and require the manufacturer to be highly reliable in terms of product availability, delivery lead times, and product quality. 

To deliver that reliability, you also need to excel at forecasting your own sales and demand. From a sales efficiency perspective, key questions for manufacturing sales leaders to explore:

Step 2: Become a preferred manufacturer with personalized sales and service

Personalize customer journeys for multiple buying personas

Ask any industrial distributor why they prefer doing business with one specific manufacturer and they always cite personalized service, responsiveness, product superiority and ease of doing business. They love having knowledgeable, local sales reps on call to educate them, respond to their inquiries, and so forth. But broad field sales networks are expensive to fund, not always feasible, and difficult to keep staffed especially under today’s tight-labor conditions. Modern, fully integrated manufacturing CRM solutions can help to fill the gap by:

An integrated manufacturing CRM offers access to complete account histories, including what prices, average delivery lead times, deal sizes, payment terms, and margins satisfy specific customers in negotiation to carry and sell products. By capturing all interactions — from email and web ad clicks to web-site hits, sales inquiries, support interactions, event attendance, requests for quote/RFx assistance, pricing negotiations and so forth — a manufacturing CRM enables reps to easily interact and emulate those highly personalized local-rep experiences. 

This is an area where Artificial Intelligence (AI) can play a big role in bridging the gap between flexibility and personalization on one hand and maintaining sales efficiency on the other. It also means being able to detect, early on, when an individual distributor might be losing faith or becoming disgruntled with your brand by recommending corrective actions and timing for such interventions. 

Make it easy to do business with you

For small and midsize businesses, ease of doing business also equates to allowing them to transact on their own terms. Say, one distributor might be happy to order through your EDI system, while another wants to pick up the phone and talk to a person. Some manufacturers will be capable of receiving digital invoices or paying electronically, while others still want to receive paper invoices and pay by check. Sales leaders need to ensure their manufacturing CRMs and other technologies have plenty of flexibility designed in. For example, by offering:

Step 3: Help distributors and retailers to sell more 

Enable efficient management of educational content/ collateral

When it comes to distributing and managing technical product education and sales/marketing collateral — brochures, posters, spec sheets, instruction manuals, regulatory compliance documents, certifications to industry standards, etc. — manufacturing sales leaders have four distinct audiences to address:

  • Their own sales reps (inside and field)

  • Independent reps or rep networks they might be using

  • Distributors’ top executives (who plan on buying/stocking or strategy)

  • Distributors’ sales or customer service reps

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Manufacturers making use of automation to ensure ready availability of high-quality products

Now, imagine the potential sales efficiencies and insights to be gained from centralizing management of that content using a manufacturing CRM integrated with digital asset management (DAM) and learning management (LMS) platforms: 

Selling to large corporate distributors 

Selling to large manufacturers and corporate distributors usually means interacting with trained procurement professionals who can be:

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Step 1: Improve your RFx response game 

Re-level playing field when dealing with procurement professionals

Professional procurement teams are more likely than SMB counterparts to use sophisticated AI tools to give them negotiating advantages. For example, they might deploy a tool for analyzing conversations to determine how far they can push your rep in a price negotiation. Manufacturing sales leaders can re-level the playing field by adding tools that can analyze multiple discovery call notes, discounted quotes and overall deal cycles to help them on the sales side. 

One example is a manufacturing CRM that uses AI to streamline RFP response management. It might prefill standard fields, lookup and retrieve pre-written responses to common RFx questions, or analyze RFx responses for high-risk SLAs. AI might also be used to compare RFP responses from different deals to identify the responses typically associated with wins, high-profitability deals, and so forth.

Manufacturers selling through multiple channels — OEM direct, retail, distribution, and SMB clients — often struggle with pipeline management and forecasting as they have different cadences, intent signals, gates, etc. A CRM for manufacturing can help alleviate those issues by automatically adding RFP pipeline to an existing sales pipeline.

Support less knowledgeable reps with CPQ for complex dealmaking

In addition to streamlining complex quotations, CPQ functionality can assist newer reps by avoiding unnecessary discounting or yearly billing errors and ensuring bundled configurations are accurately priced. CPQ modules also enable detailed call logging in complex deals, creating opportunities for sales leaders to capture knowledge their teams can leverage for closing future deals. 

Step 2: Pursue greater integration to lock-in partnerships

Win more long-term, partner relationships

Corporate procurement teams working for OEMs and large distributorships are also more likely than SMB counterparts to cultivate long-term deals that might extend over 3–5 years at a minimum. 

A potential enticement is to offer Partner Relationship Management (PRM) functionality where you extend a lite-access version of your manufacturing CRM, giving certain pricing and quoting autonomy to large corporate distributors.

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Anytime you achieve digital integration with a customer partner, you raise their perceived (and real) costs of switching to other manufacturing partners. That increases your chances of remaining a preferred supplier over the long term. 

Something else to consider is a manufacturing CRM with automated quoting / price optimization that empowers your reps to offer best-value rates to preferred customer partners and to recommend sensible product bundling configurations based on insights from past buying histories.

Wrapping up

Challenging end-market conditions are expected to persist for some time in manufacturing. While revenue growth may be slow to revive, manufacturing sales leaders can focus on digital enablement to expand market share — by being better business partners — and to boost profitability by operating more efficiently. To accomplish both, look for a customer engagement tool like a manufacturing CRM that: