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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Coffee coupons, an early start and late career

Craig Cosgrove (second from right in this photo) represents Alpine Construction Supplies, an Ottawa-based business that hardly rivals Craig's previous long time employers; multinationals one of whom (Dow Chemical) employed more than 35,000 people. After a long career as a technical representative, he lost his job in a downsizing operation. He found employment -- too briefly -- at a competing multinational.

So, out of work much later in one's career than one would like, he needed to do something else -- and ended up at Alpine, which employs just a few people and has some exclusive distribution rights for specialized products in eastern Ontario.

Last night, he greeted me at an Ottawa Construction Association barbecue. I knew Craig many years ago from voluntary work we did with the local chapter of Construction Specifications Canada (affiliated with the U.S.-based Construction Specifications Institute). He still does the type of selling required to move building products from manufacturer to end-user, but as we viewed vintage cars and motorcycles owned by OCA members, he shared with me his model for selling effectiveness. As an old hand in the business, he taught me many new tricks. You may learn something here too.

1. Coffee coupons work wonders. Canadians (especially in Ottawa!) are really into Tim Hortons coffee. It is good, inexpensive, and available through dozens of locations. Craig buys books of coupons worth a couple of dollars each at Tim Hortons, and staples the coupons to his business cards. When he is meeting current clients, or job site prospects he wishes to do business with, he hands them the card/coupon combination. He says the generosity almost always brings a smile to the recipient. ("I don't need to bring coffee to the prospect but they really like the coupons," he said.) For good reason. The gift is small enough that no one is going to f eel uncomfortable (or in violation of ethical standards) in accepting it. To use it, the recipient has to at least look at the business card. And its convenience and easy transferability makes it a great sharing opportunity.

2. Service is vital, and going out of the way brings dividends. After much persistence, Craig finally received his first order from a superintendent, for an obscure product that no one had in stock locally (including Alpine). Craig scoured the Internet, discovered the manufacturer, obtained a referral to the appropriate Canadian distributor, and put in a rush order to have the product delivered within two days. The small order of course proved to be a test for something much larger.

3. Many purchases are still made early in the morning, at the job site. Craig says mcuh of the construction supply business is managed carefully by the larger contractors who have centralized purchasing operations and would never allow job site superintendents to order something, on the spot, on the morning of a job. But that leaves the remaining element of the business -- where things are still operating much seat of the pants. You get there first, you get there early, and you'll get the business. (But beware, your competitor may only be a few steps behind --or ahead -- of you.)

4. This end stage purchase point is still where the actual order occurs. Of course, it is important for product manufacturers and distributors to work with architects and specifiers -- you aren't going to even have a chance of getting the order unless your product/technology is specified -- but in the end, you need to sell the end-user --the contractor or sub-trade actually installing your stuff.

I told Craig I would like to take a picture of him to post in this blog (and later in Ottawa Construction News). Craig didn't miss the opportunity. He found a group of employees of mechanical contractor Black and McDonald and arranged to be in the same photo as them. Current/future clients? Of course.

As we wandered around the catering 'ranch' barbecue venue, Craig greeted others, including one of his direct competitors. They exchanged notes about someone they both knew who they had learned had recently been fired. He had worked at a large company for many years, lost his job, and then was hired by a competitor, only to lose his second job. I remarked that the only 'security' I have as a self employed person is the ability, to some extent, to control my own environment. But that isn't always easy.

There is something to be said for hard work, a willingness to carry on, and an appreciation that selling is a mixture of moving very fast and being very patient. Yesterday, more clearly than ever, I saw how really good technical representatives combine these qualities to achieve success for their employers. We all have lessons to learn.

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