Today's major logistics companies have to deal with every aspect of a supply chain. This can stretch from procurement of goods to order fulfillment, warehousing, inventory management, shipping and final distribution. The business has rapidly evolved from basic transport or freight forwarding to become a global industry which offers customers a stunning range of value-added services and tests the ability of any salesperson to the full.
"We are seen by customers as consultants," says Nancy Lee, major account manager for UPS Parcel Delivery Service Ltd in Hong Kong. "We help them improve productivity and save costs with better management of the flow of goods, funds and information through using automation."
In order to provide the right kind of sophisticated logistics solutions, a salesperson has to be versatile and resourceful. This requires understanding the full supply chain and the available range of products and services and means becoming familiar with the key processes of the main manufacturing industries. "We focus on the clocks and watches, garments, electronics and toy industries in Hong Kong," says Ms Lee, "so we have to learn certain industry-specific knowledge such as the related customs requirements and shipping regulations."
"Only day-to-day practice and real-life experience can develop the soft skills required for sales and relationship management"
Ms Lee started in the logistics industry as a telesales representative. After graduating from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University with a degree in shipping technology and management, she joined UPS in 1999. With her outgoing personality and an interest in dealing with people, she was a natural for sales and chose that path for her career.
As a telesales representative, she looked after small accounts handling their sales enquiries and providing quotations. Occasionally, she visited larger clients or those with potential and the role helped to strengthen her product knowledge, which was essential for getting ahead.
Within a year, Ms Lee's outstanding performance won her promotion to account manager level and, as a major account manager, she is now responsible for the company's key customers. The day's work involves many customer meetings and, as a result, the company provides comprehensive training in sales, communications, relationship building and problem-solving skills.
Account executives and managers are responsible for relationship management, customer retention and acquiring new business. The focus is as much on pre-sales and post-sales work as on concluding sales transactions. As Ms Lee explains, "We actually aim at continuous services, building long-lasting relationships with customers." In this respect, she points out how important it is to be organised and able to work with initiative.
There is keen competition in the logistics field with a growing number of international companies and third-party providers offering similar services. Consequently, anyone in a sales position must be ready to work hard. "We must be very well-prepared for customer visits," Ms Lee emphasises. "For example, we research websites to learn about a customer's corporate history and search our own database for records of previous transactions."
To keep up with market changes, continuous training is necessary. There are courses offered by major universities in Hong Kong for procurement, supply chain management and logistics, which are all relevant to the industry. Ms Lee is currently taking a Master's degree in international transport and logistics at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
"A formal course gives you the hard knowledge but only day-to-day practice and real-life experience can develop the soft skills required for sales and relationship management," she advises.
To start in sales in the logistics sector, a degree is not essential. Telesales representatives may be F7 graduates though account executives usually have a degree in business or logistics, two years' sales experience and a good command of English, Cantonese and Putonghua. "We look for people who are aggressive, proactive, friendly and able to work well under pressure," Ms Lee adds.
A number of factors favour growth in logistics activities across the border. The CEPA agreement, new infrastructure projects and the manufacturing base in South China will all help. As evidence, UPS operations in China have recorded a near 60 percent surge in export volumes in the first quarter of 2004.
However, despite this, Ms Lee cautions that there are not many opportunities currently available for logistics sales professionals from Hong Kong. Most companies run separate mainland operations and Hong Kong staff are not required to travel or be seconded. Employees from Hong Kong may, though, be stationed in China in more senior positions with regional responsibilities.
Language proficiency in Putonghua is, of course, mandatory and knowledge of other Chinese dialects, such as Shanghainese, is an advantage. Early familiarity with the customs regulations and legal requirements for mainland import and export trade would be expected.