Learning from the very best
Thomas Melzer is one of the most successful salesmen on the German market. The Global team accompanied Thomas on a typical working day to learn all about sales and what is needed to succeed. We could not possibly have had a better teacher.
The autobahn pulsates like a black line through Bavaria in southern Germany, which is clad in the green colours of early summer. The car covers mile after mile and the Global team pass one picturesque village after the next in the German countryside. We are on our way to meet Thomas Melzer, Volvo Trucks’ top salesman in Germany and something of a legend in the industry.
After slightly less than an hour, we leave the autobahn and it does not take long for the GPS/Sat Nav to confuse us as we travel along winding, zigzagging roads, passing church spires on the way. We finally arrive in the village of Eckental and outside a white, well-maintained house stands Thomas, who welcomes us enthusiastically. Thomas was born and grew up in East Germany, but life and the opportunities in the west proved irresistible.
“My wife and I succeeded in obtaining an entry permit to West Germany in June 1989, just five months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I acquired my first experience as a salesman at Volkswagen and Audi and I joined Volvo in 1992. The first thing I did was to take part in sales training for new sales staff. That was more than 20 years ago and I am still benefiting from it.”
Can you tell us how you work?
“I always begin a customer meeting by creating a positive feeling inside myself. I’m proud of our products and that gives me power and conviction. After 20 years selling Volvo trucks, I have a good network, but I’m on the look-out for new customers every day. One swallow doesn’t make a summer and selling trucks is a question of creating long-term customer relationships. At the weekend, I am out looking for new customers. The truck stops along the autobahn are good places to go hunting! I find out how old the trucks are, which types of goods they transport and which trucks companies have in their fleets.”
Sales staff in southern Germany has to travel long distances between customers and Thomas drives an average of 60,000 kilometres a year. Customer visits are all well and good, but preparations are at least as important in order to be a successful salesman.
“Successful sales are based very largely on preparation. I spend several hours a day finding background information, writing proposals and agreements. Some agreements are really complicated and take two to three days to complete. As I see it, it’s important to be well organised and I still have all my agreements since 1992 in order to answer any question my customers might ask.”
All tidily filed in binders.
The first customer of the day is Fink Logistics (FST). The company has some 20 trucks and is run by Tanja Fink, who took it over from her father. Last year, Tanja purchased five trucks and it is now time for the next. She is considering a Volvo FH Classic. Thomas and Tanja have known one another for a long time and the atmosphere is relaxed. FST does a large amount of business with Sweden and Norway and Tanja explains that one of the advantages when it comes to Volvo Trucks is that it has a well-developed service network with a high level of service in the Nordic countries.
“In the past, customers were interested in the price. The price determined whether or not a deal was made. Nowadays, customers want a total solution. They want to know the total cost per month, including service, repairs, insurance and so on,” explains Thomas.
[Editor’s note: During my work on this article, I received a note from Thomas that Tanja actually bought the three trucks he offered at that meeting.]
We leave FST and head for the autobahn. The traffic is light at this time of the day and the journey to the next customer is quick. Max Bögl is the direct opposite of the family company, FST. Max Bögl specialises in transporting components for wind turbines, but it is also involved in roadbuilding and the construction industry. With 4,000 employees and 300 trucks, 60 of which are Volvo trucks, it is one of Thomas’ largest customers.
“No two customers are the same and personal contact with customers is decisive. Each customer has different needs and you have to visit your customers. That’s where things happen. Sitting in the office never earned anyone any money! I always have two jackets in my car – one business jacket and one leather jacket. The one I choose depends on the customer I am meeting. I divide my customers, in a very simplified way, into two groups – business jacket and leather jacket!”
Thomas’ transformation and customer adaptation is planned down to the smallest detail. He does everything to ensure that the customer feels comfortable and to create a feeling of confidence. He even has two different pens – a simple plastic biro and an exclusive Mont Blanc pen. The jacket and pen are external attributes and they clearly demonstrate how Thomas adapts to his customer’s requirements, but the most important things take place internally. Thomas adapts to the way the customer speaks, he studies body language and makes sure that the conversation is pitched on the appropriate level between formality and informality.
“I think like my customers. You need to understand what makes people tick and get close to your customers. This makes them feel secure and regard you as a partner in the sales process and not as a salesman.”
Max Bögl has placed an order for eight Volvo FH16 trucks with Thomas and the contract is going to be signed today. Even though they have already met several times, the meeting has an extremely formal character. Thomas is very well prepared. Once the contract has been signed, an intensive discussion begins. Peter Guttenberger, one of Bögl’s MDs, is thinking about ordering even more trucks from Volvo Trucks for the next two years and he put a large number of sophisticated, strategic questions to Thomas. Transporting wind turbine components imposes special demands on the trucks and the customer wants not only to test-drive a truck using one of its own drivers to see how things work but also to examine the full scope of the business. The discussion continues and Thomas appears to be enjoying himself. He listens and allows the customer to do the talking.
Dust and smoke fill the air as we drive into the yard at the third customer. This is the home of Theodor Diepold, a mid-sized company with 30 trucks in its fleet. A brightly polished Volvo FH is the jewel in the fleet crown. Thomas knows both the owner and his wife and he is here to maintain their relationship and talk to the customer about his future plans and requirements.
Inside the workshop, there is a strong smell of oil and other chemicals and along the walls there are shelves full of various aerosols and tools. The owner is driving a small red industrial truck and is working on two trucks with two mechanics in their 20s. After a relaxed chat, Theodor and Thomas leave to have lunch, where the conversation continues without discussing business. The subject is instead the family and everyday things and the atmosphere is really warm and friendly.
“I have known several of my customers for many years and I sometimes attend both birthday celebrations and funerals. Other customers can be extremely reserved. You talk for two minutes, then five minutes and seven minutes and you eventually establish a confidence-filled relationship and can talk to them for two hours. It’s a question of having stamina and not giving up!”
The day begins to draw to a close and we decide to use our Sat Nav again in an attempt to find our way back to Eckental. We are more successful this time and at about 7 pm we pull into the drive of Thomas’ house. It has been an intensive, exciting, rewarding road trip, but Thomas’ working day is not yet over. Several hours’ work await in his office at home. Today’s customer visits need to be analysed and documented and tomorrow’s visits have to be planned – from prospective customers and proposals to the choice of clothing and pens.
You work very hard and you are so involved in your work. How do you charge your batteries?
“I like being out in the countryside and taking part in activities that enable me to move about and get plenty of fresh air. I cycle and walk a lot and swimming is also relaxing, although I naturally do most of it indoors.
“Having a sauna is a great way to relieve stress and I have a sauna at home and I use it a lot. If I have a really important customer meeting, I get up an hour earlier than usual and take a really hot bath to gear myself up. I can really recommend it.”
After a day with Thomas, it is impossible not to be impressed by his knowledge, drive and job satisfaction. Perhaps the most impressive thing, however, is his ability to give so much of himself in order to adapt to his customers’ needs. There is no question that his way of working is successful. The long-term sales figures speak for themselves.