A reader writes, "Whenever possible, I advise my sales reps to ask any new prospect they're calling on for a tour of their facilities. They tell me they would like a tour but feel unsure about the right time to make that request. What are your thoughts?"
Sales representatives should always ask for a tour of the facilities. It adds to their overall knowledge of the company they hope to do business with. Timing does matter, though.
When the sale moves beyond the discovery phase and a potential new customer shows a reasonably strong interest in your company's product or service, that's the right time to inquire. Suggest the reps say something like, "When it's convenient, would you mind asking someone to give me a tour of the assembly warehouse?" (The rep should be specific enough in their request to show they've done their homework.)
Most decision-makers welcome the chance to conduct the tour themselves. If they're too busy, appointing someone else never seems to be a problem. The better you know their business, the more you will be able to help them. Seeing a manufacturing floor, a laboratory, or a warehouse provides the rep with new and interesting information to consider before putting a presentation together or submitting a proposal.
Reps should resist the urge to treat the tour as a pleasant walk-through that kills a little time. High performing salespeople take notes, ask questions, and when safe and permissible, take part in the process. If you get introduced to other employees, ask how long they've been with the company and doing this particular job.
Anyone working at a machine or assembling a part appreciates a chance to talk about what they do all day long. You never know what they might say that might give you an idea for a current or future presentation.
Look for Opportunities to Learn
During the tour, most hosts let their guard down at some point. I remember a president saying to me one time, "See that machine over there? That was my job. It helped put me through college." Another admitted that when he's really stressed out, he comes onto the floor and helps sort the returns.
Others might talk about expansion plans or moving a particular machine from one area to another. Regardless of what they say, it's usually great information to have.
If some time has passed since a rep toured the facility of a long time client, encourage or remind them to suggest another. Typically their contact at the company will say, "Not much has changed, but OK." Once the tour starts, it usually turns out that quite a bit has changed.
During the expedition, the rep might ask, "The last time I was here, wasn't this area empty?" The customer might say, "Well yes ... has it been that long? We moved our laser machines over here. Now over to the left, you might not know about this either." At that point the tour is off and running, with the sales rep jotting down all kinds of new information.
Handling Remote Locations
Many reps make sales calls to an administrative office with a manufacturing facility in another state - or even overseas. Each manager has to make the decision as to whether a trip to this facility makes economic sense. If the expense seems reasonable and the company could or does do substantial business with your organization, I highly recommend having the rep make the trip.
When the expense proves too great (at least in the short term), have the reps inquire about some type of virtual tour. Perhaps they could Skype with a few of the key employees at the facility. Though it won't take the place of an in person visit, the rep's efforts will get noticed and they'll learn a great deal.
A lot of companies, especially larger ones, have security confidentiality concerns. As a salesperson, you may never make it past a conference room - let alone be taken on a tour. Some organizations ask visitors to sign non-disclosure agreements before entering the building. It never hurts to ask for a tour, but company's individual security policies need to be respected.
Play Back What You Heard / Saw
Salespeople can and should do their best to incorporate things they've learned from their visit to better serve the customer. Though they won't use all of what they learn in any one presentation or proposal, having a thorough knowledge of what a customer does and how they do it will help close more deals and build stronger business relationships.