And you thought your job was hectic? From overseeing multiple projects at the same time, interfacing with customers, colleagues and manufacturers while trying to stay on top of the ever-changing landscape of electrical products, the technical sales specialist profession is a fast-paced and critical arm of a distribution firm that requires its representatives to possess in-depth knowledge, experience and precision. In the following article, IMARK Now captures a day in the life of a technical sales specialist as seen through the eyes of several of the industry’s busiest and most successful professionals. They offer a behind-the-scenes look at the ins, outs, rewards and challenges that make up their typical day.
IMARK NOW: How did you get involved with your current job and how long have you been doing it?
John Steele:, outside sales manager, Electric Supply Inc. (ESI), Tampa, Florida): I’ve known of ESI since 1977 and have spent 41 years building relationships with the company, especially as an Osram Sylvania employee selling to ESI between 1991 and 2000. I’ve been part of the ESI family since 2000.
Rick “Ras” Rasbitsky,: application engineer, Stoneway Electric Supply, Kent, Washington: Though I’ve only officially been with Stoneway since July 2018, I’ve been with Stoneway’s parent company, Crescent Electric Supply, for the past 18 years. The Stoneway team really made it an easy transition for me because they’re proactive and know their market space.
Peggy Hill:, LC, manager of lighting design, United Electric Supply, New Castle, Delaware: I started with United Electric in 1981 in the company’s sales trainee program, which exposed me to warehouse, counter and purchasing activities, as well as the telemarketing department, which I grew from one to five people in nine years. During that time, I got very interested in lighting and sought out manufacturer training and the Department of Energy’s green lights survey certification. I’ve been involved in lighting design since 1991, achieved my Lighting Certification (LC) status in 1994 and have enjoyed the opportunity ever since.
Jennifer Conley:, solutions specialist, Florida team leader, Mayer Electric, Tampa, Florida: I’ve been in the electrical industry for 14 years and started out with a manufacturer’s sales rep firm. I began my career at Mayer 10 years ago as a specialist for our Energy Services group.
IMARK NOW: What are some of your primary responsibilities as a technical sales specialist at your company?
Conley: My responsibilities include customizing options for customers in such areas as connected solutions, lighting, controls, energy, digital tools and low voltage-technologies. My current role with Mayer allows me to be a coach for a team of specialists and a resource for my fellow associates, as well as a technical support source for our customers.
Steele: I provide specialized sales, product and technical support to fellow sales reps and customers and also help coach others.
Rasbitsky: My primary duties are very similar to everyone’s on the team—e.g., taking care of the customers’ needs—but more specifically, my role is to provide both pre- and post-sales technical support for our full line of automation products. From a pre-sale perspective, that involves sales calls, trade shows, lunch-andlearns and training classes; from a post-sale perspective, it includes providing technical support and conducting training classes for maintenance staff after installation. I’m also involved in coaching our team of account managers so that we can all grow as an organization. I truly think that listening to and helping our customers achieve their goals is among the most important things I do.
Hill: My main responsibility is to meet with customers, determine their lighting needs, produce photometric layouts using AutoCad and AGi and provide them with the best lighting alternatives agnostically—e.g., without manufacturer bias. I also prepare return on investment (ROI) reports, help customers take advantage of current utility rebates, provide technical support to our sales personnel and mentor trainees interested in taking the National Association of Innovative Lighting Distributors Lighting Specialist training program.
IMARK NOW: What do find most fun and interesting about your job? What’s most difficult or challenging?
Hill: The most interesting aspect of my job is meeting with customers, getting to know them and their specific motivations and producing the best possible alternatives. The biggest challenge is “competing” with the internet; given how much time and effort goes into helping customers, it can be frustrating when customers end up buying something from the internet after they pick your brain.
Conley: This business allows interaction with a variety of customers. I enjoy being able to see behind the scenes of so many businesses and learning about what they do in our community, all while finding them the best possible solutions for efficient operations. One challenging part of the job is educating customers on what to look for when they seek comparable options. If they choose to look for information on the internet, it could be like taking a drink from a fire hydrant when we’ve already poured them a practical glass of water.
Steele: The most fun part of my job is staying current with the ever-changing industry landscape. I also love building and maintaining customer relationships and becoming their trusted go-to partner by faithfully putting their personal and professional needs on a pedestal. Challenges include staying focused and calm in today’s information age—communication is traveling at light speed, an increasingly high volume of customer requests for service are coming to us at a machine-gun rate and customers and colleagues alike are struggling to manage their precious time.
Rasbitsky: I’ve always loved the challenge of solving a problem, especially when a customer is depending on us. I truly love the job—the product mix, the folks on my team and the territory. It all keeps me getting out of bed each day. The most difficult part is trying to stay ahead of the customers’ needs within today’s ever-changing technological and product landscape. Competing with online buying trends is also a challenge, but I’ve found that face-to-face interaction, solid technical support and real empathy for our customers’ needs can still be a differentiator.
IMARK NOW: How can a successful specialist manage to balance time spent selling, providing technical support to customers and coaching colleagues? How do you engage with less-technical sales colleagues?
Rasbitsky: You have to manage your professional life well. Most times I’m on the road seeing customers during the day, which leaves little time to address other customer issues that could arise, so I have to do most of my pressing follow-up during the evening after I’ve put the kids to bed. When working with less-technical sales colleagues, I usually take the lead on sales calls. Some sales professionals I’ve worked with over the years have had limited technical ability, and in those cases I’ve simply walked them back through the sales call. I point out our purpose, how we will interact, what to say and what not to say.
The account managers who last the longest are the ones who are willing to put their egos aside and take constructive direction from managers and co-workers.
Hill: I look at everything from a technical standpoint in terms of what will solve the customer’s problem relative to maintenance, lighting quality and value and find that both selling and technical activities are intertwined. I use opportunities with younger or nontechnical sales colleagues as teaching/ mentoring moments. In planning the month ahead, I participate in our firm’s outside sales meetings, consider who I haven’t seen or traveled with recently and encourage them to join me on a sales call so that they can see how I conduct myself.
Conley: Time management is the key to finding balance in anything and this is true of my time as a salesperson and as a support arm for my colleagues and customers. I do my best to inform colleagues about solutions that I feel meet the highest expectations in the market and I offer to assist with selling those solutions to their customers.
Steele: Balancing these activities requires a consistency of attitude and a focus on positive outcomes. Consistently put your friends’ needs first and strive to make new friends/ colleagues/customers while keeping the old ones.
IMARK NOW: What kind of background/ knowledge/experience and industry certifications are important for people to possess to do this job well and find it satisfying?
Steele: Success in this field requires discipline, a strong work ethic, lots of heart and most importantly a positive attitude; you need to enjoy people and what you do. In terms of knowledge, you’ve got to understand the ground rules of the game and how you’re equipped to win. You have to know every advantage you have and how to express those advantages when a need arises. You have to enjoy digging into the details because we have to be prepared and understand every inch of the field.
Rasbitsky: I used to think that a college degree was necessary, but what’s really necessary is empathy, integrity, an ability to listen and a desire to help customers. If you don’t know the answer, don’t guess or give an answer that’s not 100 percent accurate. Customers simply want to know that you care and are working on their challenge. Many industry certifications can be beneficial for this position, but just about everyone has them so they aren’t as much of a differentiator anymore. In my opinion, the ones offered by suppliers are the best. Usually these credentials allow you to pass some benefit (e.g., extended warranty) onto your customer. However, at the end of the day, I’ve never had a customer ask me if I was a member of any professional organization and it’s never affected any potential sale.
Hill: In this role, it helps to be a little bit detailed—it’s a technical and engineering-related field and you can’t just fly by the seat of your pants. The more training, the better—e.g., classes through the International Engineering Society (IES), certification by the National Council on Qualifications for the Lighting Professions and continuing education units through manufacturer-sponsored training will all help keep you in the game. At the design level, it also helps to know software like AGI and AutoCAD.
Conley: I would recommend a minimum of a few years in the industry, specifically in a sales role, to have a full understanding of how complex some of the systems can be. An underlying knowledge of electrical products is important to provide efficient solutions and certifications such as LC, Registered Communications Distribution Designer, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and Certified Environmental Professional can also be beneficial.
IMARK NOW: What type of training do you share with customers? How would you characterize the rate of change for the products/ applications that are relevant to your customer base?
Conley: As a member of the IES Tampa Section board, I continue to promote education in our market for all members of our industry as well as customers. It’s essential that we provide technical programs that review the code and standard changes as they come into effect in our state. Customers also appreciate that we provide hands-on training with the solutions we offer. With the market changing so quickly, it’s imperative to learn about the solutions as they’re being developed. You must stay ahead of the curve in this fast-paced age of technology if you want to be a leader in innovation.
Steele: Training in a range of areas— including legislation and current events, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), light-emitting diodes (LEDs), lighting controls, ROI and other financial measures, utility programs, product advantages, LEED, light sensing and processors—is extremely beneficial. In today’s evolving arena for LED technology, 0-10-volt controls, ASHRAE 90.1, plug load controls, wireless cloud phone app controls and other products/ issues, the rate of change is daily.
Rasbitsky: In this role, we get a chance to see a lot of applications and help customers across many segments. As a result, the experience we gain from helping customers in one specialty transcends into a huge benefit that we can offer to customers in other specialties. In terms of the rate of change, there seems to be a slowdown in game-changing technology (except for moving data upward and faster). However, I think that the emergence of augmented reality for the plant floor is going to shake things up a bit.
Hill: Whether I’m providing one-on-one training or hosting a lunch-and-learn session, customers still request and appreciate the opportunity to learn the technical aspects of a solution. In terms of the rate of change, information gets outdated fairly quickly, which truly keeps lighting professionals on their toes. I attend manufacturer training, listen to technology webinars and interact with utility representatives to ensure that I know about the latest technology and maintain my LC status.
IMARK NOW: What are the most important things your key supplier(s) can do to support you and your team?
Hill: Ideally, we appreciate manufacturers that can truly partner with us and be transparent about it. We also want them to train us and make sure that we’re as current as possible so that we can answer our customers. If I have the right tools (pricing and specs), I won’t need to call anyone. The manufacturers that put the right tools at our fingertips (rather than making us wait for a call back two days later) will get more of our business.
Conley: Suppliers need to keep us well-informed of the newest advances in their product groups, provide a rapid response to pricing questions and supply products quickly. Steele: Suppliers should help keep us current, be available and know their products. In order to guard against obsolescence in such an evolving market, they can help us remain prudent when dealing with inventorying products like LEDs. Our customer recommendations need to be sincere and catch the right—not necessarily first technology wave. The margins are in being right the first time.
Rasbitsky: Suppliers can keep the playing field level and support us when we’re helping our customers. During my 18 years in distribution, a supplier’s ability to follow through has become the most important tool for me. If we need their support, they should return our calls and help take care of our customers’ needs. We understand our market and our suppliers know that, but when needs do arise it’s important to us and our customers to know that we can count on our suppliers.