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Selling Intangibles
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I have spent well over half of my fifty-year career selling intangibles. Sometimes I have looked across the fence to those selling products you can touch and feel with envy. At other times I have not. Say, for instance, if I decided to sell Corvettes. They sell pretty well, but if you come onto my lot wanting a red one and I only have blue ones--no sale! That's the downside of selling tangibles, you either have what the customer wants, or you don't. With intangibles you have the flexibility of modifying your product or service, but often, in the intangible world, the customer makes the decision to not buy.

Internally to a mill, maintenance is an intangible sale. If you are dealing with a boss or management team that does not believe in maintenance, they will defer it, using the argument "things are running fine right now." When the culture doesn't believe in maintenance, there is almost nothing you can do to change it. I have even seen this culture prevail when items are literally falling out of the ceiling. The culture was so bad that people just thought that was the way it is supposed to be.

In northern climates, in older mills, I have seen frost build up on cracks in the doors up to 25 cm thick, not because there was no air makeup system, but because no one wanted to spend the money to maintain it. In the south, I have seen machines so foggy that the fourdrinier was barely visible for the same reason. Of course, a few years later they were wondering why their edge computers were failing.

NACE International reports that the annual cost of corrosion in the United States is $276 billion per year (and this is an old study--2002!). And this is just corrosion, a subject that most pulp and paper mills ignore, except when it gets to the level of shutting down the electronics.

Yes, selling maintenance is selling an intangible. But you can't sell maintenance until the culture is accepting of the long-term savings a decent maintenance program can deliver. If you are senior executive, spend some time studying maintenance and understand how much a great maintenance program can add to your bottom line. I'll bet it is equivalent to adding 10% to your top line sales at your current margins.

Jim Thompson is CEO of Paperitalo Publications.

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