In the business world, salespeople arguably were the most affected by the pandemic. These professionals had to be the most creative when trying to ply their trade. They had to work from home, make phone calls in lieu of face to face, and learn how to use social media networks and newsletters. This was all to reach their customers—who also were working from home. Even when they got vaccinated and managed to hit the road, they often found that their customers’ doors were closed and they were not allowed inside, if their particular contact was there at all.
Many times, they had to resort to meeting their customers in parking lots or restaurants with outdoor dining. And guess what? It’s not even over yet. So, how does a salesperson create success when so much seems to have changed? I reached out to Lee Salazar of Prototron to learn how he met the challenges, and his tips for others who are moving forward.
Dan Beaulieu: Lee thanks for doing this. Would you share some of your background and how you got into this business?
Lee Salazar: I got into the manufacturing side of the business through a friend after college and, since then, I’ve never strayed too far from PCB manufacturing. I moved into sales, then PCB design sales, and later into distribution by selling/installing materials, chemistries, LPI, and related equipment. I had a run representing EMS as well.
Beaulieu: How did Prototron handle the pandemic?
Salazar: I joined the company in 2009. During my time in distribution, I became familiar with many of the PCB manufacturers on the West Coast—their strengths and weaknesses. Our reputation for engineering support, knowledgeable inside sales staff, quality and on time delivery always stood out. With our focus on quick turn production quality prototypes, our services can be an easy sell. That never changed during the pandemic. We hit a couple of speed bumps when COVID hit our operation twice, but we adapted to the new challenges it presented and we were able to maintain a high level of service.
Beaulieu: These are certainly interesting times. What were some of the challenges you faced during the past two years? I bet many others can relate to your experiences.
Salazar: The biggest challenge was making and maintaining contact with customers. Prospects became increasingly difficult because of government and corporate mitigation policies. Many of our customer contacts began working remotely and that created a bit of a disconnect. It was very challenging to find ways to get in front of the customers. Often it had to be through video conferencing. Regardless, we all had to find a way to keep moving forward.
Beaulieu: How have your customers fared?
Salazar: All have struggled to some degree, and a few have ceased operation. COVID, the lockdowns, the shortages of materials, parts, and supplies have slowed the pace at which business typically moves. These are all part of the fuel that businesses run on. So, like everyone else, our customers have had a hard time. But for the most part, the ones who are well-run have survived these hard times.
Beaulieu: Do you have any stories of how customers are meeting the challenge?
Salazar: One example is with customers who had the foresight to place their board orders on time. Because of the challenges getting components, some of our customers would not place the orders for their boards until they had the components. This has been a big mistake. At Prototron we worked closely with our customers. We were open and honest with them. We explained that there were also laminate shortages and that sometimes we had to wait over three weeks to get the laminates to build their boards. Considering this, it only made sense to put their boards on order while they were waiting for the components to arrive so that if and when they did arrive, we would have the material at the ready and be able to turn their boards around in less than three days. This worked well for those customers who were willing to work with us in this way.
Beaulieu: How have you been in contact with customers?
Salazar: The typical methods used in everyday outside sales have changed. Because policies made it extremely difficult to meet face to face with anyone, we improvised by adapting to new ways of communication utilizing Zoom and similar tools. Of course, email, texts, and Facebook Messenger video also played a role.
Beaulieu: I feel that phone calling is a lost art. What are your thoughts on that?
Salazar: A phone call is still a useful tool, and they work for me, especially with longtime customers. A quick phone call can take the place of several emails or texts spread over several minutes or even an hour. But you must be persistent. You must keep trying and you come up with clever ways to leave voicemails as well.
Beaulieu: What other ways do you reach out to customers?
Salazar: I use email the most, but I also use texts for short messages if I have their number. Email is now the most popular way to communicate. Its use was greatly expanded during the past two years, and I believe it will remain number one.
Beaulieu: What new strategies have you employed to prospect customers?
Salazar: I ask for referrals whenever possible, use online publications, and share potential lead information with PCB design and engineering firms. I also use LinkedIn. One of the great things about working for a company like Prototron is it has an excellent reputation, so customers are willing to give us referrals. When you can do such a good job that a customer is willing to publicly say nice things about the company, that really works well.
Beaulieu: Was there anything particularly creative that you used to meet these challenges?
Salazar: Again, I think the use of Linkedin has been extremely valuable. When looking up new potential new contacts on LinkedIn, I look at their work history to see other places they’ve worked. It sometimes reveals companies/prospects that I’m not aware of. This may sound silly, but I think of it as a reverse lead generator. Like everything else, if you are willing to put in the time, it works.
Beaulieu: I’m glad that it paid off. What is something in your relationship with customers that has stood out during the past two years?
Salazar: The willingness of others to meet offsite for coffee or lunch, when possible, just to experience some normality. I’m a people person. I like to meet directly with my customers face to face and I found it a great relief to do that again. I was also surprised and impressed at the uniqueness of virtual meetings using conferencing tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts, and even Skype, which became a life saver.
Beaulieu: What do you think the future holds in sales?
Salazar: I feel the future holds great promise for those who can adapt to the changes in the sales process the pandemic has brought about. Sales to me is like so many other aspects of business and even manufacturing. Each of us is given a basic set of tools whether through education, instruction, or both. How we learn how to use them affects the result and degree of success. We’ve been forced to use these new tools to overcome roadblocks, improvise, and move forward with customers and prospects. That’s the silver lining in all this.
Beaulieu: Lee, do you have any final thoughts to share?
Salazar: I think the future looks bright, not only for my company but for the rest of the industry. We’ve fought the good fight. That has meant a great deal of very hard work. Right in the middle of the pandemic we decided to consolidate our Redmond facility into the Tucson facility with the goal of creating one very strong “super facility” that we believed would position us as one of the better equipped and better run board companies in the industry, certainly the best quick turn facility. Now we are on the other side of that move. We are proud of the work that our team has done, and of the ultimate board fabrication facility that we have today. I want to give a shout out to my fellow members of the Prototron team who made this happen. In the end, a salesperson like me is only as good as the product he sells, and I know I am selling a great product.
Beaulieu: Thank you. It has been my pleasure talking with you today.