Monday 23 September 2019

Alan O'Neill: 'For success in sales you must identify the decision maker'

When approaching a major organisation with a product or service, it's vital to know the needs and wants of its relevant stakeholders at every level

The IT team will want to know what support in terms of manpower and finance is required. (Stock image)
The IT team will want to know what support in terms of manpower and finance is required. (Stock image)

Alan O'Neill

Some years ago, a good friend of mine went out shopping for a new car. For three or four Saturdays in a row, he visited approximately 15 different showrooms in Dublin. From Volvo to Mercedes and from Renault to Ford, he tried them all.

Arguably a shy but friendly man, he browsed and kicked tyres as he pondered to what extent each car suited his needs. He did the rounds on his own as his even quieter wife stayed at home and left him to it.

In each showroom, he'd sit in to the car and fiddle around with the seat controls. He'd push the seat as far forward and as high as he could, looking like an eejit as his nose nearly touched the windscreens. This man's wife is 4ft 10 and his primary buying criterion was for the seat to be adjustable to suit her. Now you may be wondering why she didn't go with him. Don't even go there, she just didn't.

But here is the interesting thing: only some of the salespeople engaged him in conversation (usually with pushy selling questions), and not even one asked him why he was doing it.

Which of your Customers' Stakeholders is the Decision-maker?

There are two significant issues of relevance here. One is that salespeople continually miss the opportunity to ask the right questions of a customer. The best salespeople know how to extract relevant information (buying motives) from the customer.

In every industry, there are usually a handful of topics that the saleperson should uncover information or opinions on. In Cash and Carry Kitchens, the designers want to know the measurements, your likes and dislikes about the old kitchen, your preferred colour and finish, your lifestyle and what accessories you'd like. For car salepeople, standard questions should include "Who else will be driving the car?".

The second issue is, who else is involved in making a decision? Very often in large organisations there are multiple players involved in the decision-making. I experienced this personally when selling training programmes to Symantec Corporation.

The head of human resources invited us to meet her to discuss the training needs of the localisation department. Her main concerns were the approach we'd use, the trainer's profile and the cost. I then met with the head of the department, whose primary concern was timing, content and business impact as a result.

So I went away and developed a proposal to match their needs. After presenting the proposal and getting the green light from both stakeholders, I then discovered that it had to be approved by the head of procurement. Guess what that person's primary concern was? Yes, it was cost, payment terms and process. I never made that mistake again.

Matrix Selling

Frequently, McArdle Skeath (profiled below) find themselves in multi-level negotiations with customers. The complexity of logistics and the number of key people involved on the customer's side demands a matrix-type response. The key to success is to recognise that within your customer's organisation, different people may have different needs. Here are some examples by way of illustration.

CEO: His or her focus will be on vision, strategy, capability, profit and loss.

Marketing: Consider fit with brand, digital and traditional marketing plan, packaging, customer feedback and analytics, provenance.

Commercial: If your customer is a re-seller, show how your product fits with their current portfolio, customer base and territories. What new knowledge and skills will the sales team need to sell this product? Will your product bring added sales? Will it match margin expectations?

Product Development: This team might be interested in collaborative innovation, manufacturing ingredients and process, packaging and pricing, and results of market research.

Supply Chain: How can you make life easy for the supply chain team? Consider paperwork, lead times, cost efficiencies, order tracking, returns, sizes and weights,

Operations: Pack and pallet sizes might be a concern in a warehouse situation. What level of compliance and equipment is required for handling goods, especially for high-value goods, food, pharmaceutical or hazardous goods?

Finance: The commercial finance people will primarily be focused on return on investment, business case, impact on balance sheet or profit and loss.

Human Resources: HR cares about impact on attraction and retention of good people. Think of recruitment needs, training, communications, culture and cost.

ICT: The IT team will want to know what support in terms of manpower and finance is required from a technology and networking perspective. They will also be curious about security, risk analysis, roadmap,

Last Word

This list is in no way intended to be a definitive list, as every industry is different. The message is more about taking time to consider each stakeholder's needs in advance and to tailor your sales strategy and pitch accordingly.

For McArdle Skeath, they ensure that their subject matter experts buddy up with their counterparts on the customer's side to listen and to reassure them. In other words, everyone is in sales.

  • Alan O’Neill is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to if you’d like help with your business. Business advice questions for Alan can be sent to


Micheál McArdle, CEO of McArdle Skeath. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Micheál McArdle, CEO of McArdle Skeath. Picture: Steve Humphreys


McArdle Skeath helps keep the wheels of commerce turning


Business: McArdle Skeath

Set up: 1968

Founder: Michael McArdle

Turnover: €12m

No of Employees: 120

Location: Hollystown, Dublin 15


Just this past week or so we’ve had Black Friday, Cyber Monday and ‘The Late Late Toy Show’. We’ve been bombarded with reminders that the great Christmas rush has started. Over the next few weeks, the roads will be full of shoppers travelling to and fro doing their shopping. But it’s not just the families that are on the roads and it’s not just about Christmas.

Behind the scenes there is a whole industry that takes care of getting goods from manufacturers to their customers. Without the warehouses and the trucks that manage the physical supply chain, the wheels of industry would stop. From the days when I used to help our milkman in his horse and cart to the sophisticated logistics companies that manage a complex supply chain, the industry has come a long way indeed.

McArdle Skeath

This week 50 years ago, the McArdle family founded their transport company in Co Monaghan. Starting with one truck delivering potatoes, the company soon responded positively to requests from customers to provide warehousing services. The next milestone in 1980 was the addition of transport services across Europe, with Michael McArdle accompanying the first continental journey.

Since 1994, the business has gone on to acquire an enviable portfolio of hard-won accreditations that are as long as your arm. Worn with great pride, these awards make up the essential USP that differentiates the company today. 

The dairy nutritional, pharmaceutical and medical devices industries have stringent requirements for the storage and movement of goods. Compliance with hygiene, temperature, handling and other standards is critical and a challenge for most logistics companies.

On my tour of the Hollystown facility in Dublin, I couldn’t help but be impressed with the pristine and high-tech premises, from the front door to the back. Had I been served a sandwich off the floor, I would have eaten it!

Being approved by regulatory bodies such as HPRA, BRC, achieving AEO status and having been successfully audited on behalf of a client by the US Food & Drug Administration is one thing. And that requires heavy capital investment in facilities, temperature control, processes, people and refrigerated trucks. But keeping the accreditation year in year out is something else.

That requires strict adherence to standards by having a strong culture and a highly engaged team of people.

Customer Focus

If there was ever a doubt about the importance of customer experience in B2B, then you only have to listen to Micheál McArdle, the second-generation CEO. He humbly outlined his family’s values, which included respect, trust, collaboration and quality. Above all, the customer is key.

This shows particularly in how the business listens to customers. “We have two ears and one mouth, and we use them in that proportion,” he said. This listening has served it well throughout the years. All milestones have been achieved in partnership with its customers, some of whom have been served by the company since the beginning. In frequent conversations with customers, real problems are debated between them and relevant subject matter experts in McArdle Skeath. The added value they bring is in the deep understanding of their customer’s supply chain challenges.

On many occasions such conversations have led to further capital investment in facilities to match customer’s needs. Being a family business with a ‘can-do customer focus’, decisions are made swiftly.

“We have developed a temperature-controlled refrigeration solution for one of our biopharmaceutical clients, whereby we designed a -40°C storage solution, the first of its kind in Ireland,” Micheál added.

The Future

As the logistics industry continues to evolve, further automation will present opportunities for increased efficiencies and margin improvement, both for the service providers and their customers.

Orders and deliveries on demand will escalate and logistics companies that can be true partners and embrace this change will win.

The challenges for nutrition, pharmaceutical and medical device companies in particular will grow further, such as the need for segregation to prevent cross contamination in storage.

That’s what McArdle Skeath will continue to specialise in, with plans to expand its facility in Hollystown.

This will enable the company to accommodate a total of 100,000 pallets in the company. With no hint of arrogance, Micheál believes that the company will double in the next three to four years.

Somehow, I believe him.

Alan O’Neill, author of Premium is the New Black, is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to if you’d like help with your business. Business advice questions for Alan can be sent to

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