In these uncertain times, there are approaches that can help manufacturers improve their sales performance. By Kevin McGirl

Manufacturing in the US is entering a period of uncertainty. We’re now far past the halfway mark for 2018 [at time of writing] and we’re seeing an upturn in overall output, but the economy, the status of various international trade agreements, and political considerations have added a layer of dangerous ambiguity to the industry on global scale.

Momentum also fluctuates in accordance with product sales, which can be temperamental for a number of reasons – some controllable, some not. The unfortunate reality is that manufacturers have little influence over these issues, particularly when it comes to those firms and factories which operate on a smaller scale.

But there are areas where manufacturers can exercise their influence and maximize their sales productivity and performance. Here’s what they should do.

Use new sales channels
Direct-to-consumer sales models are growing in popularity amongst manufacturers – along with e-commerce solutions (the most famous being Amazon). Skipping the middleman in this way (or adding a technological one) may disrupt the traditional supply chain, but in many respects, it may be unavoidable.

So, in future, alongside existing sales channels, manufacturers should look to target customers via a direct model – on their website, and on relevant e-commerce sites. It’s essential that they should maintain relationships with traditional suppliers, but with an eye on the future. Customers take many roads to find a product, and manufacturers should have a presence on as many of them as possible.

Digitalization of customer experience and operations
There’s an understandable hesitance to embrace digital transformation among manufacturers: it’s an age-old industry, and one where certain processes and tools have been in place for generations.

But digital technology has changed the entire sales and customer experience processes – and manufacturers must adjust to this new normal. A prospect’s experience in finding product information online; sales reps keeping track of prospect activity; automating the production of sales reports – all these things and more can be boosted with a CRM system and digital technology.

Crucially, operational efficiency will also be improved – and manufacturing is all about operations. In certain heavily-commoditized sectors such as FMCG and electronics, a smoother production and logistical process can be a key differentiator between a business and its customers.

Using historic data
The information a business has can often dictate its commercial future. When customers interact with a manufacturer, they leave a breadcrumb trail of historical data: one that can provide insights into their behaviors and preferences, and provide a blueprint for future action.

Using this historical data, a manufacturer can understand what customers need, when they need it – improving retention, loyalty, and profits. It’s obviously necessary to ensure that the business is fully compliant with data protection legislation, but otherwise, it’s time to put useful, dormant information to work.

Embracing servitization
Finally, manufacturers need to go beyond sales. If a product is heavily commoditized, they can’t rely on customers to understand the difference between their offering and their competitors’: they must therefore look past the product itself.

Because when product is the exclusive focus, manufacturers inevitably find themselves racing to the bottom: slashing prices in the name of gaining a competitive edge. This is short-sighted, because eventually there comes a point where prices cannot be slashed further without incurring major losses.

Servitization – adding value-added services such as equipment training and maintenance programs – can do a lot more to impress customers than slashing prices. The aim should be to sell the brand, not the product: to forge a long-term relationship by looking at the customer’s broader needs, rather than just their immediate ones.

The atmosphere for manufacturing remains fraught, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t options available to manufacturers. If they embrace digitalization, servitization, data, and new sales channels, they’ll remain prosperous in the immediate – and long-term – future.

Kevin McGirl is CEO at sales-i. Founded in 2008, sales-i is a sales performance software designed to make every sales call more personal and profitable. sales-i allows sales professionals to clearly identify and target high-quality sales opportunities within their current customer base. Equipped with customer buying behaviour alerts, salespeople can make insightful, personalised, quick business decisions, realising repeat sales, reduced customer attrition and maximized profit margins as a result.