Earnest Machine CEO Talks Sales Transformation Lessons Learned - Modern Distribution Management

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Earnest Machine CEO Talks Sales Transformation Lessons Learned

Earnest Machine CEO Kirk Zehnder explains the company's transition to an integrated sales model that now includes several specialty teams.
VOIP headset on desk with computer desktop at customer service and marketing support workplace. Office supplies of customer service. Communication support, call center and helpline concept.

A few years ago, Kirk Zehnder, the CEO of Earnest Machine — a Cleveland-based master distributor and manufacturer of industrial fasteners — realized his company’s sales model wasn’t working. While the traditional model might have served a purpose in the past, it was now passé.

He decided to embark on a sales transformation journey, which led him to attend MDM’s Sales GPS conference in Colorado. He took some of the lessons from that event and implemented an integrated sales model for his fastener company.

“We used to be your standard old company running the inside sales team and a few outside sales teams,” he says. “They didn’t like each other and were mad all the time. So, we decided to get rid of that. We got rid of the titles and we went ahead and built out these integrated sales teams that included service support in a sales lead. That was a year and a half ago.”

After leading a successful transformation at his own business, Zehnder is ready to share his approach with others. He will be one of the presenters at the upcoming MDM’s Sales GPS conference, to be held Nov. 1-3 in Chicago. At this year’s event, in person for the first time since 2019, Zehnder will outline the sales transformation process he orchestrated at Earnest Machine and share best practices for attendees to take back to their teams.

A solid plan

In advance of his presentation, Zehnder shared a few topics he plans to cover.

For example, Earnest Machine now has three integrated sales teams, including two that manage special accounts, such as one for Fastenal. The specialist teams launched in April and Zehnder says he expects to create more of them down the road.

“We still don’t have a sales manager,” he says. “We don’t have a need for that. We have a sales operations manager, which is a new role since I was at MDM’s Sales GPS conference two years ago.”

The sales manager is in a supporting role for the integrated sales teams. That person doesn’t manage accounts or price quotes because Earnest Machine’s sales staff knows how to do those functions. Instead, the sales manager sets up the structure and the people to manage the order flow, quote flow, support issues and call volumes in order to create the best customer experience for Earnest Machine’s customers.

“The plan is to continue to grow both the integrated teams that manage specific accounts, and also see where else we can segment the specialty accounts,” Zehnder says. “Then we have a VMI team, that’s the vendor managed inventory team, that’s just focused on the VMI type of accounts because they need things that are just a little different.

“We needed people that are just a little different to really support them [customers] the best way. As that business grows, I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to identify another specialty team that we really need to create. They could be called catalog MRO, integrated suppliers or something like that.”

The fact that Earnest Machine started working on its integrated sales model before the pandemic hit last year, which included moving all of its software into the cloud and using Zoom for some projects, meant the company was able to make a hard pivot over to remote work.

“We had our whole sales team working from home within less than a day,” Zehnder says. “People came in and got their stuff in the morning. They were up and running at home as soon as they got home.”

Zehnder says there was a cultural hurdle to clear when it became time to move to the integrated sales model. Of the 14-15 employees on the sales team, Earnest Machine has hired 10 over the last two years.

“I would say to stop worrying about the people that aren’t going to be happy,” Zehnder says when asked what advice he had for distributors that are just starting their sales transformations. “That’s what gets in the way. What about the 10 people we want to hire? Shouldn’t we be setting it up for them and not for the people that are already here?

“It’s hard to say without sounding cold hearted, but if you use that as a barrier to ‘We can’t do anything because we have this existing team, or people or structure and people are comfortable with that’ then you’re never going to be able to embrace the change.”

As for the ongoing labor shortage, Zehnder says that hasn’t been a big factor for his company, due in part because the company has its new culture and training in place.

“If you only want to hire a purple dinosaur, they’re hard to find, but if you say ‘Hey, any reptile will do,’ we’ve got a good system and culture and we can train you,” he says. “I don’t want to say it’s been easy, but it seems like it’s been a little easier for us than it has for some of my peers. People want to work here.”

Visit salesgps.mdm.com for more information on Zehnder’s upcoming session and to learn more about the conference.

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