By Dele Sobowale
I ATTENDED a ceremony at Sheraton Hotel, Lagos, during which a few prominent Nigerians who had made great contributions to the construction industry were inducted into the Hall of Fame. One of them was my mentor, brother and friend Obong (Arc) Victor Attah, former Governor of Akwa Ibom State who is truly a man of many parts.
The theme was “local content in the oil and gas sector”. In other words, how to increase the use of Made In Nigeria products and services in that sector. No single person was awarded a prize for selling the Made In Nigeria products and services which constituted the focus of “local content”. It never occurred to the engineers and architects that those products can only remain sustainable if sold to a wider spectrum of customers than just those in oil and gas who were actually a captive market because a law compels them to use local content.
Once oil recedes as a national revenue earner, the market for those products and services will also dry up. That was a glaring error. I was not given a chance to raise the point during the Question and Answer period. I hope some of the organizers are reading this. Their vision is short-term because it is not based on sound sales orientation.
One of the presenters received the loudest applause when he pointed out that almost everybody in attendance was wearing imported suits, ties and shoes. He wondered why “we are not proud of our local attires”. It was a demonstration of our collective hypocrisy because the speaker himself was dressed in a suit. When it comes to patronage of goods nobody can count on the patriotism of fellow Nigerians. Johnson Wax Nigeria Limited, in the late 1990s and early 2000s did not make that mistake when the company decided to enter the growing market for mosquito coils when the steady decline in aerosols became unmistakable.
The market potential was huge; but there was a problem. Imported mosquito coil brands were already here in Nigeria. Mr G. Oteri, who is around somewhere, and former Managing Director of Johnson Wax Company, JWC, is my witness. Close to JWC at Isolo, Lagos, was the carcass of the Berec Batteries company which had succumbed to assault by Chinese Tiger brand batteries among others.
This time, I was engaged as a Consultant/Sales Trainer when JWC went to battle with the Chinese brands. No new products were introduced but in three years, the RAID COIL was by far the leading brand in Nigeria. What made the difference? The same answer: PROFESSIONAL SELLING. JWC sales people were subjected to the most rigorous sales training programme, which was sustained for those three years. Again, it was like a military drill – relentless, programmed and methodical.
Apart from my professional fees, Mr Oteri paid me the extra dividend of introducing me to his former colleague in Ghana – who had become the Chief Executive of a company selling birth control devices – condoms etc. I trained sales people in Ghana for the next two years and from Ghana I was referred to a company in Uganda setting out to introduce locally manufactured soaps and detergents.
Each time, sales improved, not by ten per cent or twenty per cent, but by as much as two hundred per cent or more – all because the sales team was transformed into a selling machine.
My career in the brewery sector followed the same pattern. I went from SmithKline, a pharmaceutical global giant in March 1981 to North Brewery Limited, Kano and by the following March monthly sales had climbed from 350 cartons per month to a record one million cartons – a record never erased till NBK shut down after I left to join Standard Breweries, Ibadan and repeated the same feat.
Yet, in all these sales adventures, not a single sales person was sacked. I worked with the same people who were under-performing and turned them to winners. Our father HRH Soun of Ogbomoso, was one of my customers at NBK and Ibadan. Along the way DOUBLE CROWN, bottled in Kano, became the leading brand in Ogbomoso; and in reverse, CLUB became the second largest selling in Kano after I headed the Marketing team. Nothing else changed, but the approach to selling.
Unfortunately, African businessmen still have to understand that sales training must be continuous. As soon as major improvements are achieved, the first thing the finance people tell the MD is the same old story; “the product is selling itself”. Funds for sales training are deleted and the decline soon starts. On the other hand, all the global companies for which I worked organized sales training programmes for their sales people at least twice a year.
There was inevitably an Annual Sales Meeting attended by all the top managers and even some Board members which invariably includes several days of sales training. That is why those companies remain on top for years. I am also aware that most nations in the advanced economies assist the companies selling globally to train their staff and to make them more globally competitive. MITI in Japan is one. Expense for such training programmes are usually tax-deductible and have been recognized as yielding the best returns on investment possible.
Certainly, if we are serious about making a success of the campaign to get Nigerians to buy Made In Nigeria products and services, we need to get ready to sell them. In that connection, the Federal Government and some of its agencies, especially the Industrial Training Fund, ITF, as well as the Organised Private Sector, OPS, need to spearhead the effort.
Guarantee Trust Bank, GTB a few months ago organized a fair at Victoria Island for local food and drink producers. That was show-casing. Most of the visitors to those stands who sampled the products probably never saw them again and apparently don’t miss them. GTB and other banks financing such ventures should urge the investors to devote some funds to initial training of their sales people. That is what will help recover their investments – not warehouses full of stuff which nobody wants.
FG, ITF and OPS will need to work with training outfits, like the Institute of Certified Sales Professionals, ICSP, to develop customized training modules for a broad spectrum of sales people called upon to sell these products. Bringing a lot of people to undertake the foundation courses will reduce the cost per participant to the barest minimum and we can gradually expand the pool of sales people with the skills and mental attitude to undertake the task of selling locally made products. It will not be easy. If it is every local producer should be smiling to the banks by now. They can still smile; if we want.