The Dark Energy of The Industrial Sales Process

Ed Marsh | Mar 5, 2021

The Invisible But Massive Sales Process Fail

When we talk about sales process for manufacturing sales we often focus on buying journeys, personas, ICPs (ideal customer profiles) and widely trained and practiced methods. BANT, SPIN, Solution Selling, Strategic Selling, Conceptual Selling, Sandler, Challenger Sales, and MEDDICC (and various versions,) as well as more generic 7 and 8-step standardized sales processes are common.

But let's pause and get metaphysical......

According to CERN, "Here's a sobering fact: The matter we know and that makes up all stars and galaxies only accounts for 5% of the content of the universe!" Dark matter is 27% of the total and dark energy the remaining 68%.

The analogy here is that the topics of focus listed above, including selecting accounts, asking the right questions, identifying buying roles, etc. are analogous to the 5% of the universe that we can see.

In complex industrial sales like machinery and capital equipment it's the dark energy that we have to address - and that's almost always overlooked.

Understand the Buyers Perspective

Let's consider a typical situation.

A company has millions of dollars of plant equipment across the full range of their manufacturing process. In many function areas they'll have multiples, and often for reasons of familiarity and efficiency they'll harmonize around a common brand. It's likely that there was some problem at some point - an incident of poor service, low quality, lack of parts availability, ability to handle an emerging requirement, etc. that might have led to the procurement of a competitive machine. That might have caused more problems, or alleviated a few, but it didn't materially change the operation. Therefore, there's a lot of gravity to overcome to get a new machine brand installed.

Yet that's exactly the typical sales playbook. Along comes a regional sales manager looking for qualified project opportunities to add a capital equipment sales deal to their pipeline.

You know what's next....

Probing questions to uncover potential inefficiencies in the current operation (down time, product waste, changeover delays, utility costs, training requirements, cost and availability of spare parts, etc.)

Catching a whiff of something that's suboptimal (and ignoring the full panoply of other higher priority problems the contact, plant, management and company are facing) a strong sales manager might try to quantify the bottom line or opportunity cost of that issue. Most, though, will just rely on assumptions and jump to proposing the solution.

And the solution they propose, is of course, the expensive, disruptive, and unwelcome sudden disruption of the status quo with the new addition of the "right" machine - remarkably a panacea that will solve all the problems the factory faces and pay for itself in a matter of months.

Of course the contact, wowed by the perspicacity of the sales manager, will immediately present this idea to management demanding immediate capital approval - indeed to do otherwise would be negligent!

NOT!! Awaking from the dream of the capital equipment sales perspective, and pausing to consider from the caution of the buyers perspective, you realize just how absurd this "sales process" really is.

No wonder it frequently fails and almost always engenders skepticism and cynicism from buyers.

A Series of Yeses, Trust, and Confidence Are the Dark Energy of Machinery Sales

If you can step back and look realistically at the scenario above you'll have to acknowledge it's kind of embarrassing!

Let's agree, but instead of chiding ourselves, look instead to a better alternative.

If you want a buyer to make a major personal investment of professional credibility on your behalf (to recommend someone buys your machine over the defacto standard) you have to build confidence.

That comes with a series of small "purchases" or investments that consistently deliver value as promised.

Initially the "consideration" or payment will be in time and attention. Later it should be in small but symbolically significant payment of money. This progression is critical - and it's the missing step, again, the dark energy - of nearly all sales processes in the industrial sales space.

Progressive Sales & Yeses

"BUT!" you say. We build complex engineered capital equipment systems. That's what we do. We can't dabble in things we don't know well, can we?"

Good question. And here we have to challenge the mindset of most industrial manufacturers.

Let's look at some examples of what you might sell and the "consideration" or payment you might receive.

Step "Sale" "Consideration" Goal
1. Knowledge, information and insights - this is the premise of inbound and content marketing for manufacturing. Understand the questions that key players in all buyer persona roles are asking themselves (and Google) and answer them. The answers have to be rich, engaging, detailed, informative and genuinely helpful. Time and attention (don't underestimate the value today - and don't abuse it with vapid content) Earn initial credibility and authority. Secure a position as a resource worth consideration.
2. Meeting - to share salient and actionable insights which could, for instance, help them look with new perspective at a chronic and overlooked problem. Time, attention, possible mention to colleagues as a resource (start to socialize the brand) To secure a plant tour
3. Plant tour to observe and understand as much of the process as possible from beginning to end so that best practices (without violating any NDAs) from other non-competitive manufacturers can be shared. And of course to evaluate the core functions in which you work to identify latent opportunities or ongoing issues. Time, attention, institutional process (visitor approval, booking conference room, etc.) To learn more about the operational context than your contact might be willing to share or have context to understand.
4. Make a referral - demonstrate you're willing to provide value without any expectation in return. Connect them with a trusted resource with expertise and insight into some aspect of operations from which the buyer would benefit, completely unrelated to what you want to sell. Demonstration of trust and credibility - that they'll invest time with a stranger based on your recommendation. To further build trust and credibility.
5. Provide free or very low cost branded tools that your buyers can use to experiment and start to quantify and establish the bottom line cost, operational impact and opportunity cost of changes your machinery would help to address. Efficiency tracking / audit templates, automated maintenance scheduling reminders and workflows (even if it's not your equipment), proprietary industry research, and roundtable type communities, and industry training (brand agnostic) courses are examples. Here you start to receive an expenditure of effort and engagement by your buyer. They are going to take steps besides just listen to you - they're getting involved. You might charge small amounts of money. You should definitely assign dollar values even if you provide the tools at no charge. Get them engaged, get them to pay you a token amount (or recognize there's concrete monetary value to what you're providing), start to create brand recognition and awareness throughout the organization.
6. Simple, single sale of expertise - Audits are a good example in a manufacturing environment. You have to ensure that it's not just a sales pitch (go too far the other direction) but rather a codification of your company's expertise in the industry and ability to present it in a series of actionable and impactful steps. (You'll need some solid examples, case studies and testimonials to make this sale.) Now you're receiving some material funds. This may be a loss leader, but what's significant is there's a payment that will impact someone's budget and which will require someone's approval. (perhaps $9,100 so it's below $10K approvals but enough to merit consideration.) Your audit will help your deal champion do their job better and elevate their perceived role and expertise. You'll build loyalty and they'll be a more effective champion. Most importantly you're going to build the credibility that your firm is able to bring real, impactful insights to their operation. And this gets you (a couple of your folks) into the building for a day or two, out for dinner and cocktails, and meeting various key folks in operations. Ideally you'll present results to a management team as well, upon conclusion, and build connections there.
7. Substantial Entry Sale - this is a key step. It's a sale that makes a difference in their business strategically, and which is tangentially related to your primary product/service. But it's lower cost, simple to implement, can start with a pilot, and ideally involves ongoing sales and revenue - along with ongoing access to information, facility and people. (More on this below in practical applications.) This represents material revenue. If you only achieved this sale, you'd have created a valuable client relationship. It's likely that over time this will lead to other sales opportunities of your primary product/service because of the relationship and access you'll have and the credibility and authority created. Create revenue, ensure access to insider insights /opportunities /strategies /news, make a difference in their business.
8. Capability Sale - the logical next step (and the one which sales managers often jump to first.) This is where you sell the $1MM capital equipment solution into a facility that's already heavily invested in competitors' machinery. Immediate revenue - selling the stuff you build With the sale of your machinery you also create opportunities for important, high-margin future service and parts revenue, and the basis for repeat sales in future


This is an example; a guideline if you will. Your process will be different, but you can't skip critical steps. Many companies have started #1, but don't really have solid content. Instead they've got promotional, self-serving material. Many move quickly through 2 & 3 because those are rote steps in the process - but without understanding how they build (or should) larger momentum.

And steps 4-7 are almost always overlooked. In fact, step 7 is enough to give most VPs of sales angina. The idea that their top notch regional sales managers would spend time selling anything other than core product is anathema!

It's Not A Free Trial

As buyers we've been conditioned to expect free trials. Wondering about a different project management software? Sign up for a free trial (the industry calls it "Product Led Growth") and give it a go. Even if you never log in and use it, there's no downside.

In contrast, changing a factory floor layout, investing in plumbing and electrical contractors, adjusting production schedules, training operators, diverting maintenance resources and all the other disruptive aspects of installing machinery are vastly different than a free trial of software.

A well-designed B2B sales process needs to account for that realistic buyer reality that from the very beginning.

Practical Applications - IIoT, Blockchain, Track & Trace

"OK," you might say. "I get it. But.....what in the world would we sell? After all, we build machines. That's the business we know"

That's the $64,000 dollar question.

Let's use the example of a food manufacturer (many of my processing and packaging machinery clients sell into the food industry.) Your industry might be a bit different, but I guarantee you there are analogs.

Food manufacturers face operational challenges around flexibility, uptime, efficiency, product waste and regulatory compliance. They also have opportunities created by market expectations, as clean labels, sustainable farming, organic labeling and track and trace for product origin narratives become more popular.

As compelling as these all may be, they're ancillary to safely processing food, putting it into packages and getting it out the door. And for lower to mid-level middle market firms, the prospect of hiring firms like IBM for track and trace, or GE or PTC for IIoT support, isn't feasible. So often they simply let important opportunities slide.

But your team is deeply immersed in the industry, so with research and technical / product marketing monitoring, you should easily be able to identify trends, standards, emerging players and promising technologies.

You could create forums to bring together experts in those areas to share helpful info with prospects and customers (via webinar, guest authored articles, or in a grand way via an industry knowledge graph.) 

You could also take it a step further and begin to sell and implement those technologies through partnerships, channel arrangements or even introductions. (And of course license the technology or even acquire the business!)

Examples that I'm monitoring for capital equipment manufacturers that sell to the food industry include:

  • MachineMetrics - an easily implemented machine monitoring technology that sidesteps many of the barriers to implementation that have doomed many IIoT monitoring efforts
  • Applied DNA Sciences - DNA based molecular tagging of product and/or packaging
  • TE-Food - blockchain based, easy to implement, track and trace solutions

Are these the right plays for every prospect? Or for every capital equipment manufacturer? Absolutely not.

But they all share some common attributes that are important to the entry sale, revenue growth and long-term strategic health of machinery builders. They all:

  1. Provide strategic benefit to the food manufacturer - in the case of machine monitoring, the ability to increase efficiency and reduce costs. In the case of the tagging & tracking solutions, enhancements that companies can use for marketing material and messaging, and indeed to direct point of purchase marketing. You'll help them become a stronger player in their space.
  2. Generate recurring revenue - critical for the traditional capital equipment business model to embrace.
  3. Produce data - which can be used at the client level to deliver advisory value, and which in aggregate becomes a valuable asset for propriety industry research, benchmarking insights and market understanding.
  4. Involve ongoing engagement - your team will be in the facility to implement, and will at least support remotely on an ongoing basis if not in the plant. That creates enduring opportunities for relationship building, credibility and authority creation.
  5. Differentiate your firm - compared to the other folks that bend and weld steel and boast of their HMI, you're in a different category. They'll remain approved vendors while you really do establish a value based partnership.
  6. Build management and brand awareness - part of what you'll do is create and facilitate branded reports and metrics which your internal champions will use to promote their contributions and which will simultaneously establish your firm as one that has positively impacted the company.

And then, when the time comes for the purchase of your primary product / service, you'll have been generating revenue while doing your business development.

One caveat - you can't be opportunistic. You must be clear and unequivocal that if they never buy your primary product you will be commercially successful making the entry sale AND the buyer will derive real and strategic benefits in their market. If that's your mindset and approach, then you can't fail.

Overcoming NIH Barriers

Most manufacturers have a rugged mindset built on the premise that what they build is unique, better, and a reflection of their particular expertise and market savvy.

Their products are a reflection of themselves - the two are often more intertwined than anyone realizes.

And this creates a barrier. Not Invented Here is a mindset that may never be publicly acknowledged but will lurk near the surface in every case. And that's an impediment to the critical step #7. By definition this sale stage will involve something that's ancillary to your focus. It's not a product of the core competence and focus of R&D. So that creates a quandary - to diffuse focus and work on developing something new, outside of the area of expertise (a bad idea), or to establish a partner/agent/distributor relationship with a company with developed and mature technology (a tough idea for manufacturers to swallow.)

Nevertheless, that's the right way to do it. Whether white labeled or openly sold as someone else's product, it's the most efficient way to take this step. Sure, your margins may be different, but so is your cost structure. Swallow your "we build the best" pride and get on with it!

The Convergence of Manufacturing Marketing and Complex Sales

Something should definitely jump out at you about this process.

It reflects the unavoidable convergence of manufacturing marketing and industrial sales just as surely as it reflects the convergence of B2C and B2B revenue growth tactics and strategies.

Step 1 (knowledge), Step 5 (tools), Step 6 (single sale) and Step 7 (entry sale) all require extensive marketing support for sales enablement, content creation, technology, etc.

And this typically raises important questions around manufacturing marketing budget, industrial sales CRM & marketing automation, and more.

The bottom line though? The steps you normally waltz with prospects who have "qualified opportunities" overlooks a huge and important series of background steps. Whether you use BANT, SPIN, MEDDICC+P, Miller Heiman Strategic Selling or others - you're likely missing the dark energy!