Ultimately, oil business all boils down to one thing: the price. However, to ensure that it is not only profitable but also pleasant for both sides, DS Group sales staff maintain personal contacts with customers. This also helps to find solutions more quickly in difficult situations. In this interview Bernd Rieke (DS-Mineralöl) explains why personal contacts are good for sales.
Mr. Rieke, how would you describe the contact between your sales colleagues and customers?
We have telephone calls with our customers in which we mainly talk about the price of the goods. On the basis of the market prices we determine day for day what prices we can offer for the delivery of our goods. We announce the price in the morning, but many customers do not cover their needs until midday because they also wait for price information from other traders. If it becomes apparent at noon that prices will fall, we call our customers again and tell them our revised prices.
If it’s ultimately all about numbers - why is personal contact so important to you?
We get to know many customers personally over the years, because this also makes the business relationship much easier and more pleasant. In our department we’re mainly dealing with small companies, mostly family businesses. Sometimes, a member of the family will pick up the phone and pass on our message. This makes it beneficial for employees to be able to talk to each other in a relaxed manner.
Couldn’t you also communicate by e-mail?
The best way for us for doing business is by phone because we handle every request directly. Customers have fixed contact persons, but if the line happens to be busy when they call, someone else from the department can take over at any time. This means that no conversation is ever lost and is always dealt with directly – unlike the case with e-mail.
But aren’t customers and sales staff looking for greater digitalisation of their business processes today?
I believe that a personal conversation with customers is the right solution for us. We discuss many details with our customers.
If, for example, a customer buys three tank wagon loads of product, this amounts to a total volume of 96 cubic metres. We then agree on a period of eight to ten days for him to collect the product. This is usually enough, but sometimes the customer needs more time. If inventories of the product run low during this period, we have to talk to the customer. In this case, our contact with the customer is far more intensive as we have to discuss many details. The fact that we have known most of our customers for many years makes this far easier. Personal contact is particularly important in difficult situations, such as if delivery delays occur.
Do personal contacts also have any advantages when there is no crisis to deal with?
It is worth taking the time to sit down or have a meal together for a couple of hours. This intensifies the business relationship, because afterwards you can put a face to the voice you hear on the telephone. That’s why we also organise customer events where our employees and customers can get together and share ideas.
Because we work with small and medium-sized companies, it is advantageous for us to have details about business partners. It also makes business easier if, for example, we know who and at what times of the day we can contact over the phone. Besides, we also talk about a whole variety of different things such as family, holidays, kids, dogs, illnesses – all sorts of things. This makes it much more enjoyable than just quoting the price – and saying goodbye right away. Otherwise, you could just as easily use a machine or automated forms on the Internet. However, we attach great importance to personal contact.
When you meet in person, it’s always different than just talking on the phone. That has benefits for both sides.
How do customers react?
My impression is that our customers appreciate this way of dealing with each other. And if you have good customer loyalty, they will call you again on their own initiative. They may then tell us what a competitor has offered them and ask us if we can match that price. In this way, customers give us a second chance. This is not possible if you just quote prices and it is the result of the personal contacts that we nurture.
So what qualities must a good sales expert have at DS-Mineralöl?
They must be able to deal with people and, above all else, be able to listen. They have to be able to put themselves in the customer’s shoes. What does he want? Does he just want the price, or does he feel like a little chat?
Sales staff always need a good sense of humour, too because sometimes things just don’t run as smoothly as they should. This is annoying, but can have different causes. We were really put to the test in 2018, when the River Rhine dried up. Customers in Dresden who did not receive any goods asked us, for example, why they were being affected by the situation on the Rhine. But if the storage tank in Dresden is not supplied because there is no train available, then you need empathy and a sense of humour to help customers appreciate the situation. Sales staff should be empathetic – and flexible because the next crisis could be just around the corner. That makes flexibility all the more important.
It sounds very much like you really enjoy your work.
Yes, I do. When I am asked what I do for a living and I say that I sell heating oil, I initially get pretty bored looks. That’s like saying “I’m going to the petrol station.” Not exactly exciting, either. But you can make it exciting and that’s precisely what we’re doing. This is another reason why good customer contacts are so important. It makes the whole thing much easier for both sides and places it all on a personal level. And that’s why we really enjoy the job.