Sales Survival: How to Stay Vital and Essential

By Tom Wood, vice president of sales
E-S Plastic Products LLC

Editor’s Note: Wood will be speaking on this topic during the two-day MAPP Sales Process Forum, to be held virtually on July 15 and 16. For more information, visit

On March 12, 2020, our state mandated that all non-essential workers “shelter in place” until April 27 – which recently extended to May 26.

As I reported home that day, I learned from my wife that I was considered “non-essential” at home, too. Talk about a man without a country. I felt like Private Zack Mayo in the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman” when he said to Drill Sergeant Foley, “I got no place to go!”
A realization occurred to me as daily interaction, internal meetings and normal communications disappeared without warning:

Salespeople must add value to our organizations to become vital or “essential” to our companies. We need to do this tactfully, carefully and humbly.

With the mindset of “It is amazing how much you can accomplish if you don’t mind who gets the credit” (Harry Truman), our end goal should be to orchestrate and influence outcomes that benefit our companies. Our value is not found in doing everything ourselves – it’s developed by honing our skillset to influence desired results as we strive to be known as the person who gets things done.

Sales is a #1 priority – This article assumes we know our annual report card lists “adding new profitable business” at the top. This involves effective prospecting, solid networking and the ability to close new business deals. In other words, the ability to sell is a given.

Where else can we bring value to our organization? Other responsibilities of our role include:

  • Part Price Monitoring
  • Account Rationalization
  • Accounts Receivable
  • Excess/Obsolete Inventory
  • Key Account Relationships
  • Accountability

Each topic warrants deeper discussion, but, in this format, we will provide a general overview on each.

Develop a proactive approach to Part Price updates. Adjustments can be justified to restore margin erosion or to capture inflationary business operating costs. Raw material adjustments (up or down) create another price change opportunity. Have the discussion with your customers via video conference or, when possible, in person. Use facts and control the narrative with a bullet-point message.

Account Rationalization: Review your account list and qualify each customer for total sales potential. Determine a tactical plan to increase business, maintain current status or possibly exit the relationship to simplify your account list, allowing you to focus your resources on more desirable prospective business.

Accounts Receivable: Your CFO/Controller will appreciate your interest and assistance in collecting any past due invoices. A customer’s parts are free until the invoice is paid, so you have earned the right to ask for payment status. Have Accounts Receivable advise you when a customer is past due and then decide on an action plan to approach the customer.

Excess/Obsolete Inventory: A practical first step in this process is to schedule a meeting with your CFO/Controller, Purchasing and Engineering departments. Review distressed inventory (six months, one year and beyond) – which includes resin, custom colors, inserts, labels and packaging. Spreadsheet the details and start discussions with your customer to find a workable solution. Collecting on obsolete inventory is difficult at best and more difficult after time. Everyone gets amnesia when you try to put a storyline together after a program ends or projections weren’t met. When you stay on top of this area of your business, you demonstrate to Senior Management that you have a broader understanding of customer supplier/relationship beyond making a sale.

Establishing Key Account Relationships is the secret sauce of your sales strategy recipe. Strong bonds with your customers create value in our organization. Make yourself available in any crisis or difficult message situation. Be the point person and take the lead in those situations. Building relationships is a process, with the end goal of earning trust. There are a number of strategies to build personal connections. It takes time, but our ultimate objective is to earn our customer’s loyalty and confidence. If you manage others who handle your significant accounts directly, look for ways to form your own relationship. We need to have personal connections with our major customers.

Accountability for your results is a key to tying all of these activities together. Provide self-imposed project deadlines, and provide end of year reports. Another powerful tool is to meet with your CEO/CFO monthly to do a sales overview and part margin review.

One last concept that I tried this year: As part of the annual review process, invite your management team to provide input into how you can improve your support of their department. Essentially a 180-degree review. A suggestion is to ask for one positive and two constructive observations. The key is not to take this feedback too personally but view this as a stepping stone to becoming a better team player.

We all have been forced to pivot from day to day “in person” communication to more emails, texts, conference calls and teleconferences. Fortunately, in our organization, the concepts and strategies outlined in this article are in place and operational. It takes time to develop tactical plans. There will be trial and error in the process, but these are solid suggestions to increase your value within the organization.

The challenge of sales will increase in post-COVID-19 business. There will be less travel, fewer customer visits and fewer personal sales calls. As a group of sales professionals, we need to take ownership of these changes and find creative ways to be VITAL and ESSENTIAL.

Tom Wood is the vice president of sales and a shareholder at E-S Plastic Products, LLC. Over a 30-year career in plastics, he has taken on the challenge to build or replace sales revenues in seven different scenarios. This experience led to having trust in the value of persistence, networking and building strong relationships. He is passionate about formulating strategic plans for each business situation and opportunity. Wood joined E-S Plastics in 2012, with an opportunity to be involved in a turnaround acquisition.