Learning Customers from the Inside Out

In an online exclusive, a vinyl extrusion salesman shares how he learned his customer’s needs, first-hand.
By Jim Legacy, Royal Group Technologies
August 15, 2008

Being in field sales your entire career, you sometimes lose sight of what is required by operations to provide the very products you’re out there peddling. I guess you could say that most salesmen think, “If I sell it, they will build it.” But from time to time, salesmen need a refresher course in operations to keep them sharp. In April, it was my time for that refresher. But this time I wanted to do it a little different.

Hands-on learning is nothing new for me. I came into the fenestration industry in 1998; part of my training was to work in my employer’s (Truth Hardware) plant. I worked on the die cast line with machines that poured molten zinc, huge punch presses to stamp out hinge and operator arms, assembly wheels that put together the final product. It was a great experience. I learned first-hand about the products I was about to sell.

Once out in the field, I worked in many of my customers’ plants as well, usually during a hardware conversion or new product introduction. I learned about that product and its application but never ventured much further than that.

In June 2007 I started a new position with Royal Window and Door Profiles in much the same way I did when I first started in the industry. I trained in Royal’s facilities, learned the process of extruding and the products of my new company. I quickly became aware of the complexity of the offering and the challenge that lay ahead of me. I knew I needed to hit the ground running. One advantage I had was many of the same customers I was selling hardware to were now my extrusion customers. I continued to build on those relationships but needed to get deeper. My “TCU” (Total Customer Understanding) needed updating. I needed to know more. I needed to dive in deeper.

So, I approached Joe Vespa of Superseal Manufacturing and asked him if I could work for Superseal. I said to him, “I need to learn more about the business from a fabricator’s perspective. I’ve got the hardware down, I’m deep into the extrusion part and this is the next step in my sales evolution. I’ll be a better resource to Superseal, and my other customers, if I could do this.”

I suggested a schedule and Joe said, “No.”

No! What? Why? I’m getting crushed. Pushed aside. It’s a bad idea. Crazy thoughts begin to run through my head—maybe there are secrets to their fabrication that I would compromise. Maybe I’ll find the Holy Grail of windows in their plant? Maybe they don’t just make windows. I ponder the possibilities for about three seconds. Joe looked at me and said, “It’s too early in the year. If we’re going to do this you need to get real dirty. Let’s wait until things pick up.” I took a deep breath and pulled myself together. It’s a go!

I started my first day with introductions and a tour of Superseal’s facility in South Plainfield, New Jersey. I’ve been in Superseal’s plant many times before. But this time was different. I was an employee today.

As with the first day of any new job, my first stop was meeting with human resources—Sandra Guzman and Dee Castillo Cardenas. They gave me the rundown of their own history with Superseal and how the company has evolved over the past decade. They share an office and have family pictures throughout. You can see that they’ve been friends for a long time. Their office overlooks the plant floor where they watch over people they’ve hired. Some just a few months ago and some there longer than Superseal has had a human resources department (a trend that I find throughout the company). Dee takes me on a little meet-and-greet in the offices. During our rounds, I have the pleasure of meeting Marco Carmona, a very pleasant, soft spoken man. He turns into the first great story of the day.

Marco came to this country from Columbia seven years ago. His first job was with Superseal. He worked on the glass line, pulling glass units from the oven and putting them into racks to be delivered downstream in production. He performed this job well but was being underutilized. When SuperSeal instituted lean manufacturing they asked their employees questions about their talents and expertise outside of the plant. They needed “home-grown” talent to help implement the new systems, policies, and procedures of being lean. When they came to Marco everyone was pleasantly surprised to find out he was an architect in Columbia. Form, function, layout and design are all key ingredients of an architect—and, as it turns out, everything Superseal needed to help with the layout and floor plan of the production floor. Who could be better for this role than someone that has worked on the very floor he will now help design for maximum efficiencies? Marco is now part of the company’s lean manufacturing team. He doesn’t just move IG units out of the oven and on to racks anymore—He moves entire production lines.

Next stop: customer service. These ladies are the eyes and ears of the institution. Kathy Conner and Michelle Petrillo, like their human resources counterparts, are both long-term employees; Kathy for 24 years and Michelle for 10 years. During our conversation, they field a few calls and check with one another on orders, updates and customer information. You can see they know each other, their customers, and their jobs inside and out. We discuss their interactions with customers and their sales department. As in so many window and door companies, it’s obvious that these women are the face of Superseal. They talk to Superseal’s customers more than anyone else. They can’t have a bad day or miss a beat. They are the gate keepers and I’m impressed with their knowledge, customer understanding and pride of working for Superseal.

As I continued to walk through the offices, I started to notice a pattern…12 years, nine years, ten years, 24 years. To heck with the pattern—the first four people I meet have a combined 55 years with Superseal! In the age of two-page resumes and changing jobs, it’s great to see that kind of commitment. This pattern continues throughout the day—Rudy Elias, the controller, had his seventeenth anniversary on my first day there; Isidro Fernandez, seven years; Alvaro Londono, 21 years. I kept waiting to meet someone that started last week but couldn’t find anyone.

I see this trend consistent throughout this industry. When I made the move from Truth Hardware to Royal Window and Door Profiles, a long-term customer and friend said to me, “We (the industry) never get rid of anyone good, we just recycle them.” Sure, people bounce around the industry. Every once in a while someone even bounces out. But it’s only a matter of time before they bounce back in. If you’ve been in the industry for awhile, trade shows and golf outings are more like class reunions. You can never go to one without running into an old friend wearing a new logo. The competitor of yesterday could be your supplier today. For the billions of dollars this industry pumps out, it’s amazing how small it is.

After I met the team upstairs I grab a cup of coffee—which was a good thing, because little did I know how necessary the caffeine was going to be. I was about to get a workout. I was about to sit in on the daily production meeting.

The meeting consisted of six attendees plus me around a table in the manufacturing manager’s office. Everyone exchanges pleasantries and introductions are made for the people I haven’t met already. This takes a little longer than usual because I’m there, but soon enough we dive right in.

Five pages are handed out to everyone. Each page has what looks like small BINGO cards arranged on them, four on each sheet. Inside the BINGO cards are numbers, dates, and descriptions. The manufacturing managers start with what happened yesterday and where that puts them today. I can see in everyone’s eyes that this is just the warm up to the real workout that this meeting turns into. After the previous day is discussed, in what I’ll call organized chaos, everyone starts talking and jumping into the discussion with numbers, dates, times, lots, sizes, truck routes, customers, suppliers. I try to keep up and stop them a few times to ask some questions. These people are a well-oiled machine and what seems so overwhelming to an outsider is casual conversation for them. It reminds me of the stock market in full trading action (without the blue suits). Paper is flying and everyone’s talking, and yet when it’s all over, everyone knows exactly what to do.

Before I know it, an hour has past. The rest of the day has been planned. Orders are laid out, shipping is scheduled, and everyone gets up to leave. They know exactly what to expect for the rest of the day. Except for me, that is. I’m still waiting for someone to call BINGO.

Once I get up from being hit by the information truck, I collect my thoughts and hit the production floor. It’s time to get dirty.

Isidro Fernandez, one of Superseal’s manufacturing managers, takes me out to the floor. We hit their glass line first. I try my hand at putting together an IG spacer. Looks simple, right? Wrong! After I watch it done a few times, I figure this is easy. First shot out of the gate, my spacer is perfect—for a window that doesn’t need a spacer! I decide to leave the spacer assembly to the experts and move down stream. We hit the Argon machine. It reminds me of a creature from a horror movie. I wrestle the machine to submission and fill and seal some units. I give Isidro a smile as if I just accomplished a great feat. He smiles back, gives a chuckle and we move along. I now realize it’s going to take a lot more to impress Isidro.

Next, I move to Superseal’s 1250 single hung line. We’re finally here. This is where the rubber hits the road. I feel like a proud father watching Royal’s lineal being made into what it wants to be—a window. We run through the line front-to-back and Isidro introduces me to everyone on the line. I notice the same trend on the line just as I did in the offices. Almost all of the people I’m introduced to have been with Superseal for five, ten, fifteen years or more. They take pride in what they do and you can see the teamwork that’s been cultivated through the years. Everyone has experience on each part of the line and they know if they make a mistake, it affects someone else downstream. The name of the game is speed and quality. Everyone is responsible for both and today I’m part of the game. I work the saws, welder and final assembly. By the end of the day I’ve got a window to call my own. Twins actually. I keep their picture in my wallet.

Along the way our line had a welder problem. Cristian Apostolescu from maintenance comes over to work on the machine and I’m intrigued by the thought of helping out. So, without really asking I throw myself in the role of assistant maintenance man. I feel like a little kid working on my Dad’s car in the garage. I keep poking my head in the way, asking a lot of questions and keep forgetting to hold the flashlight still. It takes awhile but we get the machine adjusted perfectly once again. For all of the technology that goes into this industry, much of it is still an art. I won’t be able to grasp this artistry by just being here for a few days. I’d need years of experience to accomplish what these guys do, so for now I’m happy holding the flashlight.

The next day, I hook up with Alvaro Londono, also a manufacturing manager. We hit the 1850 double-hung line. We run through the line and I meet everyone involved. We waste no time and I get right to work. I jump into applying the mechanical sill and corner cleaning the head. Al lets me know that he’s got to attend to some urgent matters and leaves me on my own for awhile. Over the next few hours, I found myself going through a complete cycle of production. At first I was intrigued by the work—the application, form and function of the lineal in process. This was really helping me understand how Royal’s products affect Superseal’s production.

After the first dozen frames I noticed myself losing some attention as the repetitiveness of the work starts to affect me. But I was being watched and didn’t even know it. Adrian Valladares was at the end of the line installing sashes into the frames I was making. He pointed out some of my mistakes and showed me how to correct them. More importantly, he showed me how to do it more easily. I took his advice, corrected the issue and pushed on.

Alvaro came back and apologized for leaving me on the line for longer than anticipated. I looked at my watch and for the first time realized that I had been putting the frames together for three hours. I couldn’t believe it. I was so engulfed in the process I was completely oblivious to the time. It’s the feeling you only get when you work with your hands. Something I don’t get to do as often as I’d like anymore. Alvaro offered me overtime. But he must have been joking, because I haven’t seen any of that money yet.

I completed my time working in operations with renewed respect for their abilities and a wealth of knowledge about Superseal and how fabricators approach their businesses. I decided to take my “embedding” a step further and really get a feel for Superseal’s complete approach. It was time to hit the road with the company’s field salesmen. I wanted to see them in action, learn how they deal with their customers and see the obstacles they find themselves up against.

I hit the road with Rich Justo in the southern part of New York and Mike Vespa in Pennsylvania.

Rich has been with Superseal for more than 18 years. He’s forgotten things that I don’t know yet. We traveled in Westchester, N.Y. It’s an area I know well, being a New Yorker myself. Rich takes me to current customers and new prospects. We make a presentation for some new business and hit some construction sites that show off Royal’s lineal in Superseal’s windows. As good as it felt to see Royal’s lineal being made into Superseal windows, it feels even better to see our products in their final application. It amazes me to think that there were so few degrees of separation between that window in someone’s house and the salt of the earth from which the PVC was created.

My second day in the field is with Mike Vespa in Pennsylvania. We visit some modular home fabricators and once again I’m amazed to see another aspect of our industry. These fabricators have humongous facilities. You could have two or three football games going on inside these buildings all at the same time. Huge screw machines fabricate entire wall sections all at once. Car-like assembly lines push homes downstream as hundreds of workers inside and out scurry about like ants building a new nest. Everything about this place is huge. And just like the stick homes I visited in New York, there are our windows filling the holes just cut. The methods of building are different and yet the products are the same.

Both of my travel days go well and everyone seemed excited to see the support of one of Superseal’s suppliers. I get the feeling what I’m doing doesn’t happen often enough and I don’t understand why. For me, being a salesman has never been about sealing the deal at all costs, getting the PO, or selling ice to Eskimos. It’s establishing relationships and becoming a resource for my customers. We do it every day in our lives and yet it’s the hardest thing to do when we start to talk business. But once you have that, the “sale” part is easy. I had to take a step back and ask myself, “how can that be achieved without doing what I’m doing now? How can that be achieved without having TCU?” If anyone knows please give me a call.

After my time working in the plant and traveling with Superseal’s field reps, I found out they do have secrets! I did find the Holy Grail of windows! And they don’t just make windows. They actually do the same thing I was trying to do. They put time, effort and energy into their most valuable resource—their people. Whether they are dealing with each other as employees, customers or suppliers, the folks at Superseal understand that this industry’s most important asset is the people that come to work every day. I guess that’s why we never get rid of anyone good, we just recycle them.

Jim Legacy is a key account manager for Royal Group Technologies. He can be reached at jlegacy@royalgrouptech.com or 845/496-3702.