Structuring Sales and Customer Service Teams

by Jen Clark, Plastics Business

Sales and customer service teams are a big part of the equation when it comes to bringing in new revenue and maintaining existing clients. But, structuring a sales and customer service staff – especially when evaluating the choice between an internal and external sales force – largely is dependent on finding what works best for the individual company. Two MAPP-member companies shared their experiences in creating a working sales structure and merging the customer service function to provide a seamless experience for the customer.

Team 1 Plastics, Albion, Michigan, has adjusted its sales structure from a system where an owner was the primary sales contact to one where an internal sales representative is responsible for bringing in new business. The company has used external sales reps in the past, but Craig Carrel, president, noted it was with limited success. “We are an automotive molder, and the sales process is such a long one that it can take years to develop a customer and get that first job,” he said. It is a process “that doesn’t usually work for most outside sales reps. In addition to the long sales cycle time, an external rep also begins to have less value as the customer begins to work directly with our company over time.”

Microplastics, Inc., in St. Charles, Illinois, used to employ external sales representatives almost exclusively, said Jim Krause, vice president of engineering, but that changed when the economy soured. Through attrition, the custom injection molding company began to evolve the structure of its sales staff. “Over the course of two to three years,” he said, “we started to focus more on smaller numbers of outside salespeople, combined with a small number of inside salespeople.”

While both companies – injection molders focused primarily on the automotive industry – have different structures for their sales departments, project management and customer service is a group effort. Team 1 has a dedicated, full-time salesperson who works closely with a customer service team. Microplastics uses a mix of internal and external sales representatives, along with a project management team. “We don’t have a customer service department per se,” Krause said. “We feel that everyone is in customer service.”

Part-time sales, part-time executive, part-time growth

Team 1 Plastics specializes in precision switch componentry and light pipes and lenses, along with power train and engine components. Carrel and Gary Grigowski co-own the company, which started in business in 1987. Carrel used to be heavily involved in sales. “Sales always had been my main focus,” he said, “and, I was the only sales guy.”

It wasn’t until Carrel heard Jack Daly speak at the Manufacturers Association of Plastics Processors (MAPP) Annual Benchmarking Conference that the precision injection molding company restructured its sales force. Daly, the author of “Hyper Sales Growth” and a sales trainer and sales coaching expert, noted three sins that can limit company growth. Among them is when the CEO or owner wears the hat of the sales manager.

“That was one of the things Jack Daly talked about,” Carrel said. “He didn’t recommend that approach and thought it was a dumb idea for the owner or president to be a sales guy. Now that we have transitioned away from that approach, I’d agree.”

A 2013 Sales and Management Study for the plastics processing industry conducted by MAPP found that companies utilized a variety of sales tactics, including inside and outside sales representatives. The study also revealed that over 20 percent of the companies under $5 million in annual sales utilize the company owner or president as the sales arm, but less than one percent of companies over $5 million in sales assign the primary sales responsibility to the company owner or president. The statistic indicated that more company leaders understand that functioning as part-time sales executives is ineffective and that a dedicated, full-time sales force is a solid strategy for diversifying and growing sales.

In addition to being pulled in too many different directions, executives who pull double duty through leading the company and managing sales, according to Daly, essentially are growing their business only part-time. Team 1 hired Dave Biondo as its sales development manager in the summer of 2010. Since then, sales are up and the company has experienced tremendous growth. “Making this change really has moved us forward,” Carrel said. “He has brought in new customers to fuel some of our growth, and we have grown with existing customers, too.”

Biondo works remotely from his home near Detroit, Michigan, which is where the company’s customer base is located. He works closely with Team 1’s on-site customer service team, which includes a manager, Michele Warner, and an assistant, Sandy Bunker. At the beginning of a new client relationship, Biondo plays both sales and customer service roles. “Dave is out looking for customers, begins developing those relationships and gets the work in,” Carrel said. “He is the key contact and coordinates projects to make sure we are meeting all of the customer’s requirements – especially in that first job or two. As we get more established and more work comes in from the customer, the relationship begins to transition to our customer service team.”

Carrell said the transition is different for every customer. “There is no hard-and-fast date for when an account moves from sales to customer service,” he explained. “As we continue to develop new projects, win new work and grow the size of our business, there’s a natural transition. Our customer service team is coordinating the communication around orders, shipments and quality issues, so they become the focal point for the customer.”

The transition as an account moves from sales to customer service still is a work-in-progress, Carrel said. “Our goal is to do that as smoothly as possible,” he said. “We want it to be completely seamless to our customer.”

A mix of internal and external sales reps

Microplastics, Inc. found a balance between internal and external sales representatives works best for it. “When our company first opened, we were using outside representatives exclusively. I think both can work well,” Krause said. “We just feel the best balance we can achieve is through maintaining a smaller number of both inside and outside people. We want people who are focused, trained to understand what we do and what we have to offer, and understand the extended sales cycle.”

At one time, Microplastics had 30-40 outside sales representatives. The extended sales cycles proved problematic, though. “We found that we burned through a lot of people who would come on board, but never really developed,” he said. “They either weren’t providing what we were looking for or their frustration levels grew with what can be long sales cycles. It can take six months to two years sometimes from when you start talking about a program to it becoming reality, especially in the automotive world.”

Now, both internal and external sales staff focus on certain accounts, he explained. They are called account managers and have “a targeted account focus – more so than just geographical boundaries,” he said. “We’ve had a little more success going that route.”

The sales representative is the front line of contact with the customer – especially in the early stages, Krause said. “They are the main go-to person when we are identifying new customers, trying to identify opportunities and making proposals. After we are awarded the business, we have an extensive project management system. We assign a project manager to that program, and the project manager then becomes the front line of communication for all general aspects of the program. The account manager still stays involved through the life of the program, but is more of a secondary contact as the program progresses. It really depends on what needs to be addressed. Sometimes, the account manager plays a larger role, especially if it is a pricing, costing or contractual issue.”

The sales department at Microplastics is structured with a sales manager, account managers, a sales quotation coordinator and a quote group, which includes people from sales and engineering. “All the areas work closely together to find the opportunities, plan and coordinate efficient ways to manufacture a part and propose the most cost-effective solutions for the customer,” Krause said.

He said a unique aspect of the quote group is that it takes a holistic look at potential projects and tries to go beyond simply the price of raw materials and what manufacturing costs will be to make a new part. “When we get engineering involved in our quote meetings, we are looking not only at how are we going to make the part, but is it feasible, how will tooling be laid out, what changes might be needed, how the ergonomics of a production cell will work and the number of people and process steps needed to manufacture the part,” he said. “We put a lot more emphasis on the early stages that way.”

Keys to success

Regardless of the type of sales force a company employs, Krause and Carrel agreed communication is paramount for success.

“It is a very important aspect,” Krause said. “We make sure any customer communication is copied between the account manager and the project manager. One person might be coordinating the activity, but keeps everyone else in the loop, so they know what is going on. Also, our sales staff uses CRM software (Sales Force) pretty extensively. It is a good communication tool for our account managers and quotation coordinator.”

Carrel added: “Communication is crucial. Sales and customer service really have to work closely together. Both of those groups are our ‘face’ to the customer and work together to respond to the customer. Since we are focused on customer service and customer service excellence, that means they have to be able to coordinate amongst themselves very closely. Obviously, it’s not just customer service and sales. We have to be able to coordinate internally with engineering, logistics and production teams, too.” Echoing Krause, Carrel said, “The reality is everyone is in customer service.”