From 1985 to 1988 I did one of the most unusual and interesting jobs in the railway industry. I was a Speedlink Sales Executive.
About a dozen of us covered the country, working from home but supported from regional offices. We were provided with a company car (would you believe my first was a yellow Vauxhall Chevette), and were given a considerable degree of freedom. Essentially we were sales men and women – reps on the road. My patch stretched from the Thames to Northamptonshire, across to Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire.
The support we were given was excellent. British Rail was very keen to make a success of Speedlink, and we were given external sales training and were properly managed by sales managers who set and monitored targets.
I think what was unique about our job was that we didn’t really have a product to sell. Every customer needed a bespoke product. The only thing in common was that we were offering freight transport using rail as the main mode.
For example, my patch had virtually no manufacturers or distribution centres with rail connections. To get goods from A to B I had to include collection by road, transfer to a rail wagon somewhere, the rail haul using mainly Speedlink’s wagonload network, and then delivery by road at the other end. None of this was “off the shelf”. There was no brochure, no price list.
Our approach was this:
- Find a customer. BR employed some market research techniques, but our main approach was excellent local knowledge, searches of directories, and a lot of soul destroying cold calling by telephone.
- Persuade the customer to see you. Not easy. They were normally busy and very happy with the service they got from road hauliers.
- Meet the customer and find out about his or her business. What did they make, what did they move, from and to where? In what quantities? How is it being moved currently?
- Decide on the spot whether rail could potentially play a role in their supply chain. This really meant having a thorough understanding of both the road haulage market and the capabilities of rail. Price was obviously key, and only rarely would customers tell us what they were paying. So we had to estimate the road price and decide whether rail would be likely to compete.
- Sell the concept of rail to the customer – presenting the range of services available and the benefits of changing mode.
- If rail could play a role and the customer was interested, we would go away and pull together a package of services including finding a road haulier for collection, getting a quote from them, similarly for a rail terminal, similarly at the other end. We would decide on the best wagon to use, and find a suitable Speedlink service from our timetables. Hopefully there would be enough money left to get some revenue for the rail operation plus, ideally, a discount for the customer over his existing prices.
- Go back to the customer with a proposal / offer. Negotiate!
- Generally we would offer a trial run, often for free. For the trial the sales exec. would be on site to see the wagon loaded, and would travel to the other end over night to see that unloading went smoothly too.
The packages we offered were a unique combination, often involving five or six different companies (collection haulier, loading terminal, wagon provider, unloading terminal, delivery haulier). For that reason, while many of our colleagues in British Rail could spend their entire career and not deal with any company outside the organisation, we were adept at dealing not only with our private sector customers but also our private sector partners in the terminals, haulage, and wagon leasing industries. The partnerships formed were very open: any company could front the operation. So a haulier or a terminal operator could be the prime mover, and simply come to us for a rail haulage price. As sales execs our job was as much to provide support for terminals and wagons operators as it was to sell direct. At the same time we needed a good feel for rail operations and services, materials handling techniques, and logistics in its wider sense so that we could identify and home in on any opportunities to add value.
I will definitely come back to my time as a Speedlink Sales Executive in later blogs – stores about the terminals on my patch, and why most of my trial runs went disastrously wrong!