Business makeover: Sheet metal shop needs aggressive, low-cost sales strategy

It's too quiet in the back shop at Superior Sheet Metal & Duct.

Blame it on timing — the Anaheim company, which makes ductwork for heating and air conditioning contractors, moved into a space twice as big as its former spot just as the recession took hold.

Since the move, the production crew went from nine people to five.

"There is still work going on, there is just less of it," said Casey Crowder, manager and a longtime salesman for the business that has a total of 10 employees. "Everything got really competitive; everybody is fighting over the same, smaller, piece of pie."

The peak year for Superior was 2008, when revenue reached $1.5 million. Last year it was down to $1 million. Also in 2010, the company was hit with the loss of its leader and co-founder, Thomas Loftin, who died suddenly.

Crowder is trying to turn the company around. He has added salespeople, created defined sales territories and experimented with in-person sales calls instead of relying solely on phone pitches.

"We have a good base of customers, but it is really tough out there right now," said Sue Loftin, Thomas' widow and now the company's front office administrator as well as owner.

Superior Sheet Metal is headed in the right direction but the company needs to do more to pump up sales, fast, said Phil Borden, a principal at Essergy Consulting in Long Beach. He said Crowder "needs an aggressive and integrated sales strategy" that doesn't cost too much.

Borden and Joseph Ames, a senior associate at Essergy, recently met with Crowder to discuss the business.

The Essergy team recommended:

• Set sales goals and reward success. "Talk to each of the salespeople individually and try to set a goal somewhere between the company's needs and the salesperson's abilities," Borden said.

Then give bonuses, in addition to commissions, to energize sales efforts. They don't have to be big, and creative is better. A $100 plane ticket to visit a relative will have more impact than $100 in cash, he said.

"Money alone isn't always the best motivator," he said. "People actually forget about money, believe it or not, and it only raises the ante and makes them compare what they got to other people."

• Train the sales team. "Have them watch or listen to him [Crowder] closing a sale, or pick one aspect of sales and devote an hour or half-hour to it on a regular basis," perhaps at weekly staff meetings, Borden suggested.

Learning "how to find the right customers, when to know you have a live one, what is the status of the contracts they are working on" will create a stronger sales force, he said.

• Invest in a sales software program. The sales team uses Microsoft Outlook to track customer information, but that program doesn't allow Crowder or others to easily access the information without going to the user's computer and looking it up.

A good sales or customer-relationship program would put all of the customer contact information in one place, accessible by Crowder and the sales team. It would have room for short notes about each sales call, including information about the contact person. And it would keep track of sales activity for each client.

• Focus on top customers. "Right now the sales effort is shotgun," Borden said. "Superior needs to focus on its top 50 customers, especially those of Crowder's that are producing about 40% of all company revenue."

Relationships with current customers offer the best chance for immediate sales growth and cost less to cultivate than new ones, he said.

• Reward returning customers. Superior Sheet Metal is "the newest kid on the block and they are the smallest kid on the block," Borden said. "They have to do something to maintain loyal customers and help somebody remember them and a pen isn't going to do it."

Sports tickets, golf accessories, even a box of macadamia nut candy for a customer with a soft spot for Hawaii can do the trick. Personal is better because business in the field seems to be based on personal relationships. But even small tape measures imprinted with the company's logo would be a good start, Borden said.

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