This is a guest blog post from Vanessa Merit Nornberg, President of Metal Mafia, and a member of the Inc. Business Owners Council.

Before I started Metal Mafia, a body-piercing and accessories designer and wholesaler, I was a sales rep for a similar kind of company.  Like many entrepreneurs, it was my love of selling that I leaned on most when starting my own business. Not only do I love to sell, it's what I'm best at. I have always devoted a lot of time to maintaining good relationships with all of my clients, no matter how big or small they were and over time, I developed a nice stable of specialty boutiques and larger buyers. My accounts were consistently in our top 100 list of customers—at least for the first five years the business was in existence—and my sales team has always coveted my book of business. 

By my fifth year of business, my workday had gotten filled with a million other things to do and to worry about, like any business owner of a 10+ employee company selling more than 6000 products. I still managed to keep in touch with my customers, albeit less than before, and I was proud that I was able to wear so many hats. No matter how busy I became, I always knew that time with my customers was worth it for me as a way to stay in touch with the business. What I did not realize, however, was that my customers weren't getting the same attention they were used to and I probably did not want to admit that the quality of the relationships wasn't nearly as high as it once had been.  

 

Soldiering On

 I was no longer able to carve time out of my day to call my customers and let them know about our newest products. At best, I might talk to them when they called in needing to order. When I was traveling, I let any available salesperson take their orders whenever they called. By the end of the sixth year, my sales to the specialty retailers had gone down significantly, but I soldiered on, trying to be everywhere at once, and like most owners, refusing to see that there might be another way. 

Then various business issues disturbed cash flow, and I began looking for solutions. I figured out ways to cut overhead, pushed for lower stock levels, and monitored weekly sales for the entire team, but still was blind to my own shortcomings. That is, until our director of sales sent me what was clearly a hesitating and fear-laced email in which she suggested-- with as much tact as possible--that many of my accounts which had once been in the top 100, had fallen off the chart. Audaciously, she went on to propose that I might consider relinquishing some of those accounts to our sales reps, who could better service them—consistently and with care.  

 

Time For A Change

I was pretty upset. I was not going to give up my accounts! The numbers did not lie, so I knew something had to be done, but I‘d fix it myself. I would simply have to make more time and get back to the phone. But how was I going to do that? Where would I find the extra time? What would have to be pushed aside in order for me to execute those specialty sales? As I considered that question, I came to realize that my director of sales was right. I decided that I would comply with her brave request. I would give up my specialty accounts to our sales team. But before I did, they would have to demonstrate that they deserved them. 

Winning my accounts would be done in two ways. First, I would separate out certain of the more sensitive accounts —sensitive because of their volume, of their personality, etc. These few accounts would be awarded to reps who had proven their merit already, with their sales figures, their service innovations and their follow-up practices. The rest of the accounts would then be the prize in a month-long sales contest, based on specific product upsell challenges.  

 

A Sales Contest

The reps were given a list of five items that were eligible to be counted in the contest. Each rep had to sell a minimum dollar amount of at least three of the five items to gain eligibility. Eligible reps were then ranked according to their total sales for all the items and could participate in a draft-style pick for my accounts. The products were varied—old and new, expensive and cheap, across several types of product lines so that each sale would make sense for the customer buying--not just be a way for the rep to make customers spend senselessly. I wanted to push them to learn about and sell items they had not thought to offer on their own. This contest was not meant to be easy—the reps needed to care enough about their future customers to compete for them. 

The reps were told about the contest and happily accepted the challenge. Most rose to the occasion. The successful reps were those who listened carefully to their customers and sold across multiple categories to put the right combination of items together—in the process energizing their own customers with their enthusiasm. Those who were not as successful did the opposite—they focused on items in their comfort zone rather than stretching to meet their customer’s needs as fully as they might have. By looking at their choices and statistics, I was able to see where they lacked training, and we are now working on developing them in those areas. 

 

Back On Top

In the first two weeks after the transfer of my accounts, one rep alone brought three of my accounts back to life. We are now 2 months into the new account ownership, and 7 of my accounts have climbed back into the top 100. Even though, it still pains me when I hear a call from one of my favorite accounts go to someone else, I feel relieved that I managed to free up time to grow our sales to large customer accounts, happy that my reps won the trust of my customers so quickly, and most importantly, proud that I was able to see the forest for the trees by making a choice to do something differently, even if it felt like a sacrifice at first.