Manufacturers who offer a broad range of solutions rely on face-to-face conversations with prospects in order to find the best fit, but the pandemic has reshaped the sales relationship into a virtual experience. In this week’s episode of The Kula Ring, Brian Wellhouse, Supplier Marketing Manager for Sensor Products at TTI, talks about how virtual prospecting drives the conversation to be more action-oriented sooner. He talks about how his company conducts virtual prospecting with engineering teams, how they use LinkedIn to find new prospects, and what kind of marketing materials they develop to find engineers on LinkedIn.
Using Video Prospecting to Sell to Engineers Transcript:
Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.
Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, mate?
Carman Pirie: Look, I am doing well, and I’m excited to be here with you today and bring our listeners another fabulous guest, you know?
Jeff White: Yeah. And I think it’s an interesting story too that we’re going to be talking about. I mean, because of course, so many of the manufacturing marketers that we’re speaking with are deeply, deeply invested in selling to engineers. It’s one of their most important personas. I think it’s also one of the things that’s probably most misunderstood.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, exactly right. And not only are they invested in selling to engineers, but that sales flow, if you will, and what’s been possible in the last year has changed dramatically, so we live in interesting times, as it were.
Jeff White: We certainly do. And so, looking forward to our guest to shed some light on how they do that, and his unique role in marketing sensors, as it turns out. Which is a thing that we always like to learn about, too.
Carman Pirie: It’s odd. We’ve had a number of sensor manufacturer clients at Kula Partners, which is just kind of one of those… If you aren’t in manufacturing, you don’t even know it exists, you know? Well, without further ado…
Jeff White: Joining us today is Brian Wellhouse. Brian is the Supplier Marketing Manager at TTI. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Brian.
Brian Wellhouse: Thanks for having me, gentlemen.
Carman Pirie: Brian, it’s good to have you on the show. Where are you joining us from today? Is it Fort Worth?
Brian Wellhouse: Yes, sir. I work for TTI, so our headquarters is down here in Fort Worth, Texas.
Carman Pirie: Jeff and I have this ongoing love of the film No Country For Old Men. Of course, as you know, set in Texas, so we will be going to the West Texas desert at some point to retrace that movie in some sort of drunken stupor before this business partnership is over I would guess. We’ll have to look you up in Fort Worth and get some assistance.
Brian Wellhouse: There you go. Swing through. We’ve got some good sites.
Carman Pirie: Brian, why don’t you introduce us to TTI and your role there?
Brian Wellhouse: TTI is an electronics distribution company, so we’re a Berkshire Hathaway company. We were acquired I believe in 2007. Our focus is really providing a number of different what we call IP&E components, so interconnect, passive, and electric mechanical. Components to circuit board manufacturers, OEM, cable manufacturers, really a wide range of customers, from industrial, transportation, contract manufacturing, medical, so we really cover all areas of electronics and the manufacturing of them. I’ve been with them for about six years and my main focus has been to grow our sensor division here, so a lot of TTI’s business in the past has been based around passive components. On board capacitors, resistors, power inductors, things of that nature.
And now connectors are a huge part of our business, and a lot of connectors are attached to a lot of sensors in this world, so it really goes hand in hand with what we’re doing, and they’re being utilized more and more in applications every day, so it’s an exciting area to be in, as well.
Jeff White: Well, and I have to think, so what are the majority of the sensors that your manufacturing partners are producing? Where are they going, for the most part? Like what are your end customers for those?
Brian Wellhouse: Yeah, so on the pressure side of things, pressure sensors for example could be on a small circuit board for like a medical device. Last year, breathing devices, ventilators for example, were being manufactured at a very high rate, so we had a lot of medical device applications. Another example would be the non-contact temperature sensing, so whether it would be infrared cameras, or handheld thermometers, a lot of temperature sensors. Small, onboard style. If we look at a pressure sensor in a more heavy industrial application or even transportation, that could be the oil pressure on that engine. Fuel pressure, if you will. Same type of solution there. And we work in industrial oil and gas environments, as well, so heavy compressed air and compressed liquids in those environments.
We’ve got such a range, as well, from our suppliers, that like I kind of mentioned earlier, we’re hitting so many of those markets with our product range that it really opens up a lot of customers for TTI. You know, really, who isn’t using some sort of electronics? If you have an electronics engineering report, we’ve got some solutions for you right now. I think a lot of sensors are also… can be specialty packaged. As I mentioned on those ventilators, there can be some humidity, or when we’re breathing, we’re putting out some droplets of liquid through that breathing process, and those pressure sensors need to be sealed so that doesn’t affect the internal components of that sensor. Where if we’re just dealing with dry air, you don’t need that sealant. We’ve got a little bit lost cost applied to the part.
We’re seeing very specific parts for very specific applications, as well, which is interesting. We’ve got a lot more options than we did a couple years ago, as well.
Carman Pirie: Talk to us about the process of getting in front of these engineering teams and kind of how is it that you go about selling, basically?
Brian Wellhouse: Typically I kind of act as a technical liaison, if you will, so I’m helping support our sales team. I’m the technical expert from our suppliers. I get that training first and have that knowledge so I can enable our sales team. I kind of joke sometimes that I basically translate nerd to sales talk. We need to make this so that we can consume, and I’m a sales guy, as well. I just happen to be able to catch on to some of this electronic stuff pretty easily.
How do we make it bite-sized, so that we can take all this technical data and really focus their training on the applications, and the types of devices go into, so that they have a good idea of what we can target with those customers. My role typically was I was out on the road 60% of the time, typically visiting with OEMs, and helping support our sales team on that direct sales level, so obviously that’s changed in 2020. But it opened up so many opportunities for us. I no longer was sitting on flights weekly waiting to go to a customer. I could schedule a customer virtual call most of my day, so it really brought down some of those hurdles, but we lost that personal connection with the engineer, as well.
Part of the challenge on the electronics side is we’ve got a huge range of solutions for engineers. I’ve got multiple parts that could work for you, but we want to find the best one, the most efficient, the best current consumption, that best sensor that’s gonna fit your design. That’s a conversation. That’s not a pick something out of the catalogue type sale and we fulfill it with our inventory and good pricing to support the customer. It’s an ongoing sometimes months-long process to figure out those best components. There’s hundreds of components on that circuit board, typically, so we try and help really the engineers select those, what’s available, what’s the best pricing? Especially right now, we’re gonna run into some shortages I think in the market, so part of being at a distributor is that we’ve got this group of suppliers if you will that we can offer. We’re not gonna be locked into a limited set of suppliers, so I think especially over the last year, working with engineers, that’s been a huge value.
If they come to us and say, “Hey, I’m looking for a pressure sensor, a temperature sensor, XYZ,” whatever it is, we’ve got that capability to offer multiple options. “Hey, this one’s a little bigger, but this one’s current consumption is lower.” I think we’ve been able to be more specific with how we approach engineering, rather than, “Hey, here’s a general conversation about sensors. Tell us what you’re interested in.” And I think that’s one of the positive changes I’ve personally seen on how we’re approaching engineers maybe a little more recently.
Carman Pirie: Brian, what you’re saying, because of COVID, because of the way that you have to communicate with them now, you find that it’s driving the conversation to be more specific and action-oriented sooner? I don’t want to put your words in your mouth. I just want to make sure I’m understanding you correctly.
Brian Wellhouse: Yep. I totally agree. Exactly. It’s just a little bit of a different approach. If we’re even kind of talking leading into some of those changes, we may cover that a little bit as well later, but you know, I think it’s that people’s time is valuable. Yes, we’re at home, but I think we’re working more, you know? We’re always at our computers. We’re always available to work in some cases, right? What may have started as, “Hey, let’s have a virtual meeting to touch base and recap some projects and see where they’re going,” now it’s, “Hey, I need to talk about this specific sensor we’re working on. I need some options here.” It doesn’t have to be almost such a production. It’s becoming very targeted and just a quick exchange of information, yet we’re still face-to-face.
Jeff White: I think it’s interesting and I’d like to explore this just a little bit further, because it certainly is something that we’ve talked about on this show before, the changing nature of sales as a result of the lack of person-to-person, in-person contact, I guess. How have you found that and has it gotten easier? Are you happier working this way? Or do you miss being on the road?
Brian Wellhouse: Yeah. I think any salesperson that’s been on the road for quite a while, there’s always some days where you’re going, “Oh, man. I’d really like to be out on the road. I’d really like to be meeting with some customers and have a cup of coffee and a little conversation.” Especially to get to know these people. Our customers and our salespeople, we have a very experienced sales team and a lot of people that have been at TTI for a long time, so these customers are their friends. We’ve been visiting them for years. People have been in this market for years. I think on that local level, there’s a little bit of that missing, where I was traveling on a national level, for example, I’m kind of in and out, in and out of cities all the time. Personally, I kind of like that home, being at home, and being able to be more efficient with my time. Less TSA checks at the airport and just kind of those times where you can’t really work. You can’t really use your time efficiently because you’re traveling.
Personally, I’ve been able to be more efficient I think in some of those cases. Where I think we have lost maybe a little bit on that side of things is my suppliers. You know, again, just as my local salespeople have their customers, TTI suppliers are really my customers as well. I’m making sure that our marketing programs are running, and getting leads, and engaging with our branches, and we’re focusing on the right parts. But it’s nice to get together for some of those annual meetings. That exchange of ideas and things like that. I’m missing a little bit of that working at home, to be quite honest. Where I think my efficiency is better, maybe my creativity isn’t to that same level as it was.
Jeff White: That’s a nice, honest answer.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think that there’s a craving to get back to that in some way. I do think the strength of preexisting relationships has helped people be reasonably productive via video selling or what have you. I’d be curious, however, how have you found it in terms of making… It’s one thing to have existing friends that you sell to. How have you found it about making new ones? Has the prospecting net new relationships been more difficult?
Brian Wellhouse: Yeah. I think it has been. One thing that I think TTI specifically tried to do, we saw that challenge upfront. It’s not easy to stop by, or I know an engineer that used to work there that now works here. Again, some of that side conversation I think may be lost over less social selling, if you will. Really one of the things that I thought we did very well was engage more on social media. Typically, we’re kind of used to making a phone call, sending an email, doing those types of things, and our president, Don Akery, really led by example for us. I mean, he was, “Send me your customers. I’ll connect with them on LinkedIn. Here’s my numbers, look how many suppliers we’re connecting with and look at these opportunities we have to engage with our customers through social media.”
He really enabled our sales team to get on LinkedIn, reach out to new customers in your territory by social media rather than maybe our traditional ways of doing, so working with our local sales reps, and manufacturers. Growing new customers is always important, but I think it’s one of the most difficult things to do in sales, as well, is to keep that inflow, especially when we’re working on… You know, I mentioned our designs sometimes take months and years to finish in some cases, so once you get your foot in the door, you really are continuously working with those customers and getting out into new ones and starting that process all over again can be a challenge sometimes. I think LinkedIn especially gave us a great opportunity to… “Mr. Engineer, I work for TTI, this is what we do, I thought of a pressure sensor that looks great for your application. Love to chat. Here’s my email.” Quick, informal, just a reach out and touch base with engineers. It’s nothing special, but it allowed them a new way of doing so.
That was something we really pushed on all year. And on the marketing side of things, we tried to provide easy, one-page PDFs. Specific application guides for HVAC, or refrigeration customers, for example, or medical devices. Really targeted things that weren’t, “Hey, here’s a new product brochure with 50 series of products in it,” that it’s very hard to get through. Maybe again more bite-sized content and giving things for our salespeople to push out through social media, post on their LinkedIn, or just have something relevant and new to talk about.
Carman Pirie: What I find interesting about LinkedIn when it comes to talking to engineers is that marketers are very much of two different minds here. Some would tell you don’t bother with LinkedIn at all if you’re trying to connect with an engineer. Engineers aren’t on LinkedIn. Only marketers and salespeople are on LinkedIn. That attitude. And then talking to you, Brian, you’re like, “Man, we were connecting with engineers all over the place.” Maybe the folks that have trouble connecting with engineers on LinkedIn just aren’t connecting in the right way or have something worth talking about. I don’t know.
Brian Wellhouse: Right, and I think personally it’s some of the canned message. You know, if you want to talk specifically about something to me, I have gotta be interested. It’s not just, “Hey, I want to book an appointment and talk to you.” You know, especially on the marketing side, it could be things that aren’t even relevant to your job. We get those types of emails all the time. And I’m sure engineers get the same thing. That was really our message, is if you’re sending that message to the engineer via LinkedIn, be specific on what you want to talk to them about and why you think they’d be interested.
The failure rate is always there. You send the 100 emails or 100 messages, sometimes you’re hoping for 10 replies. I think that did apply there, but the thing for me on LinkedIn is I maybe get 50 to 100 emails a day. On average. Maybe I get one LinkedIn message or maybe five a week, so a lot of people aren’t looking at it as frequent as their emails, as well, but I think it was a unique thing to try and something new to reach out to our customers with. And especially those new customers that didn’t know TTI.
The good thing about LinkedIn is we’re one click away from them learning about our company. If they’re not familiar with that, we don’t have to send additional information. They can go to our profile page and know what we’re about.
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Jeff White: Well, I think one of the things that’s interesting in this relationship that you have, kind of the continuum of the manufacturers or how you refer to them as suppliers, and then the distributor relationship, and then the end engineer customer who is hopefully speccing your sensors into their OEM products. It seems like an uncommon relationship to have an outside entity like a distributor being so engaged in that sales process, and going so deep, and having the knowledge of the product at a level that generally you would only anticipate the manufacturer to have. Talk a little bit about the relationship that you have with your suppliers in terms of how you help them identify your target accounts, and how your role there versus their role in this relationship, I’d be really interested in that.
Brian Wellhouse: Sure. I think one thing that is maybe unique about our relationships, especially over the years, is that TTI, we’re a specialist distributor, so our model behind that is we want to be a top-three distributor for every line that we have on our line card, and we want the biggest and the best in interconnect, passive, electromechanical and sensors in that limited product range. Where a lot of our competitors, we kind of joke some of them have 600 suppliers. 100 of them start with A and that’s our whole line card, but we really found that we’re significant to each other. We give them a large mind share and they give us a large mind share, as well.
In our industry in general, I think our manufacturers, a lot of them even have a third-party rep, where they don’t have a wide network of their own direct sales folks in that region. Distribution is a large focus for them, so a lot of those, what I would call maybe like an area salesperson, where they support the direct customers as well as distribution in those areas, we’ve got a lot of territories where that’s that type of relationship we have with our supplier. They want to drive business through the distributor because we will have inventory, we will forecast, and work on those things that we’re very good at with the customers, and they can focus on the manufacturing side of things. Getting those parts out the door.
Over time, I think we’ve just really proven how well we do that with our suppliers, so it’s really made a great relationship to build on when we have that trust with each other, and there’s always an exchange of leads between us, as well. Hey, supplier X, please come into this customer with me, let’s do a joint call. We have that common goal and we’ve got some things in our industry where there’s not gonna be a large discrepancy for buying directly from a manufacturer or buying from a distributor. That’s kind of the reasoning sometimes, that there’s a price delta between the two. And our industry has really had a lot of programs to make that work for each other, so we can both be profitable, and when the distributor puts that upfront effort in with engineering, that long timeframe, we’re protected for that business and we have that established throughout that timeframe that hey, we’re attached to this business, moving into manufacturing.
And we have some means to organize that and we call them design registrations, so they’re critical in making sure that we protect each other, and we win those projects together as partners, rather than as kind of more of a one-way street sometimes we think. I think that’s a unique thing with our suppliers. It’s very much a partnership. Our growth as a distributor is critical to their overall sales growth. I mean, I don’t know if that’s necessarily unique to a distributor and manufacturing relationship. I think a partnership is always something that’s very important. I just think we’re dealing with such small parts at such high quantities. We joke at TTI, our average selling price is about five cents. And we do billions of dollars of sales every year, five cents at a time.
That can be a lot for a manufacturer who’s focused on manufacturing and doing that efficiently to manage on the logistics side, and-
Carman Pirie: Just gave me the image of industrial penny candy, almost.
Brian Wellhouse: Right. I mean, honestly, some of these parts are so small, it’s an electronic component that looks like a spec of sand. A tiny little component. It’s interesting. The quantities on these things are insane. We’ve got 50,000 pieces on one tiny little reel that’s the size of your hand, so it can be interesting sometimes, but going back to that core relationship, where we have that limited supplier base, we’re pretty specific about new lines that we want to take on, because we want to make sure that they have that same expectation that we do. I think some of our advantage with our suppliers has really been built from the core of our company. You know, our CEO, Paul Andrews, started this company in the ‘70s, and he had a buyer mentality. He was a buyer before he started TTI. And he knew sometimes that that one cent, two cent part was the hardest one to get, so he really built it and built that supplier base to again just be significant to each other.
Carman Pirie: Brian, earlier in the conversation I think you said something like you translate nerd to sales. Did I hear that right?
Brian Wellhouse: Yeah. Yep. Sometimes that’s kind of what I feel my main duty is.
Carman Pirie: You’ve been doing this translation gig for a while. I want to know your best secret for doing that. What do you think is the thing that you know that others don’t about getting that information across to salespeople in an effective way?
Brian Wellhouse: I think first of all, it’s helpful to be a bit of a nerd, which I am. I like this stuff. I like technology. I like mechanical things, and building things, taking things apart, so you have to have a little bit of thinking in that way. I can see an application and it just kind of clicks on what I think I can sell in there. I think part of my advantage is I’ve kind of worked on both sides. I started in this industry as a salesperson really hunting for new business, starting relationships from the ground up with engineers, so there’s some trial and error in that as well. I don’t want to paint a broad stroke as far as engineers are introverts or anything like that, but I think communication with engineering needs to be somewhat direct and with the proper components of technical data. That exchange is not always, “Hey, how’s your family?” Kind of the watercooler conversation, if you will.
They’re friendly. We have a smiling face and we’re gonna come in and be happy people and as salespeople, that’s generally our mentality and our approach to sales, but I think for me personally, it was just working on both sides. I knew that they cared more about technical data, getting some parts, me contributing to the project at their company, more than my personality, for example. I think just over time, I really learned what is important for an engineer to move his project along, and what can I do to help, so I’ve been able to get very good training, first of all from our manufacturers, and then my past companies that I’ve worked at, as well, they had strong training programs to learn this technology.
In some cases, it’s copper wire around a ferrite core. You know, these things are not super advanced, but the basics of electricity and Ohm’s Law and simple things like that, that you don’t need an engineering degree to understand, really help you a lot in this business, I believe. Because for example, a capacitor on a circuit board design is typically going to be chosen because of Ohm’s Law. It’s not because of really any mechanical changes, or any performance, or anything like that. Typically, everything’s pretty close to the same performance-wise. But when we’re talking sensors, we’ve got five different temperature sensing technologies, and different packages, and different things like that, so I think the better, the more technical aptitude that we have as salespeople, we can think a little bit further down the road. “Hey, this is a standard part, but I know we can modify. Maybe we want to change this housing or this housing.”
Some of it I think is also just the training that we give, or I’ve gotten, as well. A lot of my main goal at TTI is to increase that technical aptitude of our sales team, as well, so that makes them ask me when they need that technical support, that second level of questioning, rather than that first maybe probing question in some cases.
Carman Pirie: I think that’s an important lesson. You almost can’t go too far down the road of the technical training and knowledge, and I think for you, Brian, it is fueled by your first point, which was you gotta care about it. You gotta have a passion for it. And if you do, well, then of course you’re gonna soak up every bit of training that’s put in front of you.
Brian Wellhouse: Yep. And you know, being in electronics, I love walking around and just looking at things in the world that I know electronics are in, and that I could have sold to some customers. I mean, it’s just again, kind of that salesman and engineer mentality. I’ve got both sides of that, so I think when you’re in this industry for long enough and working on that intricate level of electronic design, some of that just kind of gets burned into you, if you will.
Jeff White: Well, and the desire to help an engineer to create a better product and for them to be as successful as you are and as your suppliers are. I mean, it’s a virtuous cycle, you know? If you’re able to create better products and help people do their jobs better and you enjoy it and everything, that’s how you know you’re on the right path.
Brian Wellhouse: Yep. And I mean really, for us, I really liked working with engineering, seeing the design through, and then seeing that full product lifecycle. You know, we’re really in a unique point in the industry with electronic design that we really do get to see the conceptual phase at the beginning, all the way through to the end of life production, and a lot of distributors don’t always get to see that full lifecycle, so I personally enjoy that, especially working with some smaller companies, or especially right now, with so many cool things happening with electrification of transportation, electric vehicles, battery technology. And the medical space is very cool right now.
You know, we’ve got a lot of medical devices that I think will be more geared towards home care, for example, and things that we can just wear on our wrists, or easy to use. That’s personally something I enjoy on the engineering side, or at least starting with engineering. Kind of fulfills both sides. You get that engineering fix and then in the back end, you get that sales fix when you start selling these things.
Carman Pirie: Well, Brian, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today on the show. I really enjoyed the conversation. It’s been a pleasure having you.
Brian Wellhouse: Yeah, likewise. Appreciate it, guys. It’s been a pleasure.
Jeff White: Thanks very much.
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Brian WellhouseSupplier Marketing Manager
Brian Wellhouse joined TTI in 2015 as a Supplier Marketing Manager for sensor products. He oversees the overall marketing strategy and execution for TTI’s sensor suppliers and provides technical support for a wide range of customers and applications, including; IoT, industrial automation, medical, and transportation.