During a recent speech, a strategy I mentioned for differentiating a company's products or services elicited a collective gasp from the large audience. What secret sales weapon triggered such a response? Taking prospective customers on a tour of their company or factory.
It's difficult to stand out from your competitors. While the physical and financial aspects of your business are easy for you to take for granted, they can open a meaningful window into your operations for your prospects. A tour can be an inexpensive way to forge a connection and could make your proposal rise to the top of the stack—and win the order for you (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/2/06, "Connections That Close Deals").
I once read about a salesman who was trying to win a big sale, so he arranged to pick up a group of decision-makers in a limousine for lunch—but first, he took them on a tour of his spotless, efficient factory. They watched products being made, met the friendly receptionist, and schmoozed with the personnel in accounting, quality control, and shipping who would be handling their orders. In the end, the prospects left with a warm personal relationship that couldn't be bested by the competitor's glossy brochures.
Sign Me Up
In the 1980s, I worked in sales for Amdahl Corporation (now Fujitsu (FJTSF)), which manufactured and sold enormous computers. Like all the other sales reps in this company—and there was even one who wore a Boston Celtics championship ring—I had to spend my first year at company headquarters giving factory tours and helping with customer presentations.
I saw firsthand the effect on prospective clients of a visit to headquarters. After spending time with our company's hardware engineers and software experts, and joining the president for lunch, even prospects who were initially skeptical often left ready to sign on the dotted line.
A variation on this idea is to take your prospective clients to visit customers who are already using your products or services. This serves two purposes, as your present customers will feel flattered when you ask them to show how they use your products and explain why they chose you over your competitors.
Synchronize Your Watches
When you take your clients on a tour, add some creativity to the jaunt. For example, if the decision-makers are car buffs, perhaps you can rent a Hummer for the drive, or if it's a warm, sunny day, hire a convertible. If they're into the arts and you know of a mural or sculpture that's a bit off the beaten path, make sure you drive past it.
You'll be surprised how much clients will open up when they're outside their office. Just remember to get a clear understanding of exactly when they must be back at work. You don't want the visit to end on an anxious note.
A third way to use facility or factory tours to sell more is to host targeted group events. Perhaps your chamber of commerce or business or community groups would like to see what goes on behind the scenes in your company. If you have just installed an impressive printing press or other visually exciting machinery, you can show it off and explain how it will help you serve them better.
A Family Feeling
A fourth, more general, type of tour is to host a community open house. A dairy near my home did this recently and I brought my young son to see the cows, watch the machines, and get free samples of milk and ice cream. Now, when I see their milk in the stores, I have a warm feeling about their brand because I've been to their factory.
A month ago, I toured Ford's vast Dearborn Truck Plant in Dearborn, Mich. It's part of the Ford Rouge Factory complex that was originally more than a square mile in size. Built in the 1920s, the Rouge was the product of Henry Ford's vision that the basic materials to build cars—sand for glass and ore for steel—would arrive by ship, truck, or rail car at one end of the factory and finished cars would drive out the other side.
Ford (F) not only sold me a ticket to tour their impressive plant, they also "sold" me on a new brand concept for their entire corporation—caring environmentalists. For example, at one stop on the tour, we took an elevator up to an 80-foot-high observation deck where a guide pointed out the sedum plants growing on the roofs and some areas of porous pavement that allow groundwater to return to the earth.
Be a Tour Tourist
I must admit, I love factory tours. When I was growing up, my parents were schoolteachers and we traveled during the summers. We went on a lot of tours. I recall watching candy, breakfast cereal, and even plywood being made. Last Christmas, my husband even bought me a book of factory tours, Watch It Made in the U.S.A.: A Visitor's Guide to the Companies That Make Your Favorite Products.
To get ideas for your tour, research the factory tours available in your area or those you will pass on your next vacation. Perhaps you can take the whole family on a "tour of tours," just as my family did years ago.If you want a powerful way to differentiate your offering, give your clients a chance to see with their own eyes what your company makes and how you run your business. Show them the right things in the right way—and then you can show them where to sign your contract. Happy selling!