Sales teams have been adapting to the recent crisis, exploring new ways of connecting with and serving customers and building on the best practices of the recent past. In the process, companies are discovering improved productivity and a new model for developing customer relationships for the future.
“Selling today is completely different than selling pre-COVID-19,” says Steve Nichols, vice president of sales and marketing for Glenroy, Inc., based in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. “When you can’t meet customers and prospects in person, you have to adapt and change how you operate.”
For Glenroy, that has meant learning how to engage with current and potential customers over a variety of platforms—including social media, digital ads, and the company website, as well as direct selling via phone calls.
With so many other companies now focusing on digital outreach, it has been a challenge to break through the digital clutter and connect. “Our customers are getting bombarded just like you and I are with tons of email. Everyone’s trying to reach them,” Nichols says. “For us, the key is really understanding who you are, what your message is, and what you’re trying to get across. Then, once you have the individual’s attention and you have an opportunity, learn what matters most to them. Find out what keeps them awake at night. And then be responsive and available at all times.”
Gordon Galloway, director of sales and marketing for Bema Incorporated, based in Elmhurst, Illinois, agrees that following best practices today requires renewed agility and flexibility. “Reaching out to customers has changed dramatically since COVID-19,” he says. “You have to have a good, strong, online presence for people to be able to see your products. They need to be presented well on your website or on your social media platforms, or whatever you choose to use.”
“You’re going to have to be able to present your business virtually,” Galloway says. “You’re going to have to communicate effectively online and have the right infrastructure to communicate live with customers via Zoom, Skype, Teams, Google or whatever your customer prefers. You must be prepared to do it all. And you and your people must be trained to do it all.”
Galloway believes trade shows, while declining in attendance in recent years, will continue to exist. But they’re going to be heavily supplemented by live online events and videos. “I think we’re going to go from working online for special events to having that be an everyday type of process,” he says. “That’s going to be a challenge as we work to reach new customers. You may not be able to hand them a sample across the table; you’re going to have to show it virtually in a 3D image or on a live video conference. Instead of walking new customers through a factory tour, you’ll show it virtually.”
These are not difficult adjustments to make, but sales teams will need training and time to adjust to new methods and, in some cases, unfamiliar technology. “The first time we all tried to do a Skype call, it was miserable,” Nichols says. “So, we continue to learn how to be effective on a video conference call. It’s selling a different way, but the selling piece of it isn’t different. And good salespeople tend to be good communicators in general, whether it’s in person, over the phone, or in a virtual conference. The medium might change, but the message doesn’t: We’re still talking about the value-based selling proposition, about why your product should be considered over the next-best alternatives.”
The virtual-sales arrangement has been working so well that Nichols believes it is signaling a new best practice: Glenroy sales teams may be able to travel less in the future, saving time and money. “Despite the anxiety and uncertainty, productivity is at an all-time high,” he says. “So, we actually may not need so much proactive traveling. Instead, we’ll do more reaching out via phone, and continuing to take advantage of all the different ways of staying in contact with customers and prospects. I’m not saying we won’t hit the road at all, but we can do it less frequently.”
“We’re using video technology in ways we never dreamed possible,” adds Paul Frantz, chief commercial officer with Novolex based in Hartsville, South Carolina. “With COVID-19, we started using video calls internally as a way to connect with our team members. It was such a good way to stay connected, our use of the technology evolved. Today, we’re also regularly doing sales meetings by video with our distributors and product presentations over video with our key customers. We’re finding that there’s a great deal of efficiency associated with utilizing technology versus the way that sales historically worked—which was primarily in person.
“As a result of COVID-19, we’re accelerating our understanding of what technology can do for sales. It is efficient and effective. And we can talk with many more customers by using technology as opposed to getting on an airplane.”
Changes and Challenges
Of course, there are sales challenges in the industry that extend beyond the impact of COVID-19.
For Frantz and his team, the biggest challenge is addressing customers’ fluid needs with competitive prices that still allow for product innovation.
“Understandably, many of our customers are looking for greater efficiencies, and we’re committed to supporting them as much as we can, helping them to solve problems,” Frantz says. For example, the company prides itself on dedicating time and resources to helping its customers buy as little product as possible, helping them to reduce overall cost and waste.
Reducing waste, in general, continues to be one of the industry’s main priorities. “The challenge for the whole industry involves sustainability and the need for recyclable products,” Galloway says. “But we have to address sustainability in the right way—without losing the integrity of the products on the shelf, without losing the protection our flexible packaging gives to the product inside, without dramatic cost increases to the consumers, and so on. Consumers want recyclable products. And they want a product that is safe and that protects the product inside. But there’s a gap between our intentions for recycling a product and how that process actually happens.”
“I believe we, as an industry, can do a better job of working with grocers, consumers, and local cities, towns, and counties to make the recycling process simple,” he continues. “For example, in my community, polyethylene is not considered recyclable. In other communities, it is. Some products can be dropped off at the store where they were purchased; others need to go to a recycling center. As an industry, we need to figure out how we tie these things together. It’s doable. It’s not hard to make the product in a recyclable form. Now we need to look at what we can do to make sure the entire process fulfills our desire to be good stewards of the environment.”
It is also important that those outside the industry have an informed understanding of the benefits of flexible packaging and manufacturers’ commitment to safety and sustainability. For Nichols, correcting the mistaken, negative impression that some have regarding plastics is the biggest industry challenge. “Flexible packaging is a great solution for food safety and convenience,” he notes. “We need to continue to find ways as an industry to educate consumers, our customers, our prospects, and even our own employees. The challenge here is educating and communicating with consumers without being defensive.”
As sales leaders look ahead, they are positive regarding the current state of the industry and hopeful about future opportunities.
“We continue to see tremendous movement toward all things related to home delivery,” Frantz reports. “It wasn’t that long ago that getting groceries delivered seemed like a unique idea. Tomorrow, it will be fully accepted.” Novolex is working on ways to facilitate safe and secure grocery delivery. “If a package gets dropped off outside the house, we look at how we can protect contents with a moisture barrier. If a quick-service or fast-casual restaurant wants to deliver food, we want to provide a container that ensures hot food stays hot and cold food stays cold.”
“If I were to highlight three areas where the flexible packaging industry continues to do well, I’d start with e-commerce,” says Nichols. “E-commerce is huge. It pays to figure out how to play in that space. How do you get with the right brands? How do you then educate consumers? How do you educate companies like Amazon about why certain flexible packages are better than the next-best alternative? One of the other market segments that has taken off is personal care, products like body wash and hand sanitizer. This segment represents a huge opportunity.”
“And then, of course, I think the third biggest opportunity is finding ways to offer sustainable products. Even a simple step improvement—like offering post-consumer recycled (PCR) content products or offering the ability for store drop-off recycling and, eventually, curbside recycling—will bring opportunities for all flexible packaging companies.”
For Galloway, liquid packaging represents a big growth opportunity in the United States.
“I think we’re a little behind Europe and other parts of the world when it comes to moving from rigid containers to flexible containers for liquid packaging,” he notes. In addition, “Convenient to-go snacks and meals are booming, along with supplemental nutritional products and other food and snack products. Our culture continues to focus on the need for convenience, and fulfilling that need is creating a boom. There’s a huge opportunity for flexible packaging that is convenient to use, to carry, and to dispose of.”
One of the key moves for the industry going forward will involve understanding how to better adapt to existing infrastructures—established workflows that may be keeping potential customers from fully embracing flexible packaging. “There’s always a barrier to change when you’re trying to replace glass jars with flexible packaging, for example,” Galloway says. “No matter how many benefits your flexible package may deliver, the customer already has an infrastructure built on the current package. It’s established, it’s paid for, and it’s cost effective. We have to look at designing products that are still flexible, meet all of our sustainability goals, but fits as seamlessly as possible into customers’ environments. If we’re going to give a bottling company a viable alternative, our solution should be designed with the goal of having to change little or nothing in their current infrastructure.”
Galloway is optimistic about the future for integrating technology into flexible packaging, such as RFID (radio-frequency identification). “RFID technology is being developed that can be part of the packaging, allowing a shopper to fill a grocery cart and then walk past a scanner that automatically records every item,” Galloway says. “We’ve seen demonstrations of this. I think it’s going to be an important technology going forward. We need to make it more cost effective than it is now. But it will be particularly important if grocery stores continue to limit physical interactions with cash, credit cards, and touchscreens.”
As an industry, the various companies can benefit by continuing to work together to solve the problems and seek better solutions, Nichols says. “As a result of everything we have gone through this year, we will continue to communicate and educate people about the benefits and value of flexible packaging. We are an important part of the entire packaging industry.”
Robert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist.