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How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

Hello, I currently work as a mechanical engineer in a company that makes tooling and racking for the metal finishing industry. I am 1 year in to this position.

We currently have three engineers being fed by seven salespeople, so there is a huge backlog of projects. Our projects are submitted by the salespeople to us and include a request, specs, and a deadline. We are rated in our performance based on meeting this deadline, but there is no method of tracking our productivity or capacity.

For instance, if ten requests come in in one hour that all say they're due tomorrow, and we don't get them done tomorrow, then we're late. Now out in the shop they schedule every single person's manpower down to the fifteen minute bathroom breaks. The manager in the shop knows exactly how much one person can produce per day in terms of parts, setups, etc, and won't let us schedule any more fabrications than can be completed by our manpower.

In engineering we are expected to be able to complete infinite projects on arbitrary deadlines constantly.

To add to this, our salespeople are consistently providing us with incorrect information. I've had the same project come back four times because the salesman has gone from "we need to rack the part in this hole on this angle for drainage and they want two different concepts and prototypes" and after we design, draw, estimate, and make their protos, it's "actually it's this other hole" and we design, draw, estimate, and build the proto. Now it' come back for the fourth design/drawing/estimate/proto because the salesman or customer keeps getting it wrong. Not to mention every single one of these has had the sales comment "Oh these guys are hot to trot on this one..." "This is going to be a big order..." "How soon can we get this out?" Maybe it would be faster if the salesmen could do more than e-mail forwards.

Another problem is that we work in the same office, so the (relatively new) salespeople have no problem walking up to any of the engineers who are trying to work and pestering them with questions that should be going to the sales manager (25 year veteran). We each lose an hour a day minimum on these little walk-up questions that range from "If I want to sell a fabrication that we don't yet have a drawing and estimate for, do I need to request a drawing and estimate?" to "This customer asked me for a fabrication we've never made, out of a material we've never used. Can we do that for them? He's on the phone right now and needs an answer. Want me to transfer him over to you?"

No, we don't want to talk to the customers.

In addition, and most upsetting, is that sales expects engineering to be their personal staff instead of all working for the same company. We get one salesman in particular (20 year veteran) who submits his requests with sketches and dimensions attached.

When we hold to his sketches he always says "Why so expensive? They'll never pay that much." (Well you could trim up your margin?) "What if you... machine the parts faster?" Yeah great idea I wonder why I didn't think of that I'll tell them to kick the spindle up to 20,000 RPMs for you, and only for you.

When we trim some fat he says "Did you get the sketch I attached? Why aren't we holding to the sketch? (Listens to reasons.) Yeah... I think I want to stick with what I sketched for you..."

He'll draw something on a sketch, then see it actually on a drawing we made and want to change dimensions because it doesn't look right. I'm thinking, guy, there are free personal use CAD packages out there, or break out a sheet of graph paper.

When we hold to his sketch and it works he takes credit for the design to the sales manager.

When we hold to his sketch and it doesn't work he says "How could you do this to me? I need you to prove this out?" Actually, no. I don't need to prove your half-baked all-intuition no-engineering ideas work. All I need is to have documentation of where the specific parameters that don't work came from. And those parameters came from sales.

When he includes a design for reference from the same customer and we take dimensions from it because those dimensions obviously already work with the customer's overall equipment line dimensions, we get "Oh, I only said reference drawing XX for the general style of how we're designing this, not for any dimensions. No, I only said REFERENCE XX meaning take a quick glance at it but don't actually reference any features or dimensions."

This guy uses these tactics to squeeze as many re-designs, re-draws, and cost cutting re-estimates out of us as possible.

Since I program machines on the production side and do design/drafting/estimating on the engineering side, I get hit from both ends. And if there are any typos or errors or little slips in the dozens of different excel forms, cad files, cnc files, work order software files, BOMs, etc, and it's our job to check every shop order that passes through our hands to make sure that each of the numbers on every sheet of paper matches all of the numbers of the other sheets of paper. The shop manager is pushing as much fabrication and machine work as possible into engineering, so that we program it and in his words "he could get a trained monkey to load the material and push the green button." Nevermind consulting our fabricators for their expertise, just push it onto engineering. Buy a sixth different software package for another machine and have Kwerk learn it. He's good with computers.

In all, I'm using my BS in Mechanical Engineering to do very little engineering. Most of the work is filling out forms for our ISO certification, programming various machines, drafting in CAD, being the only person in the office who can work in 3D, being dragged into talking with customers who don't know what can physically be built and won't take our advice, and little government projects for the owner.

Any advice? I mean I know I won't ask my boss to restructure the entire company, and he feels the exact same way I do on most of these issues. How do we do our engineering when the whole structure of the company is fighting us?

Thanks for your time!

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

From what you describe, sooner or later you need to get another job. Reason is that management knows about the issues but they do nothing about it, this does not sound very healthy.

Not sure how many years of work you have since graduation; anyway 1 year in same company is not very much, and most likely will be perceived as short by prospective employers especially if you are a fresh graduate;

I guess you need to bear patience and use the current situation in your advantadge to build endurance skills and to learn how to be resilient - part of your engineering skills. Also learn as much as you can.

"If you want to acquire a knowledge or skill, read a book and practice the skill".

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

Looks like you are getting pretty good experience on both design and manufacturing sides. Give it another year, learn as much as possible, try to connect your "book smarts" and "street smarts" together to work for your advantage.
Pretty soon you will work out unbeatable combination of skills - you have no idea how many Engineering "experts" never set foot to the shop floor.
Don't forget to add people skills to your technical ones, but that is another story. smile

Good luck!

"For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert"
Arthur C. Clarke Profiles of the future

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

Been there, done that, got the t-shirt to prove it. Only my experience with this setup was on multi-million dollar custom designed 12-axis water jet cutting machines. The sales/engineering handover process was a true disaster.

The first thing you will need, and this is only a first step, is a "gate-keeper", a known and accepted position in the handover process by which engineering officially accepts or denies a project and all its parameters in both design and schedule. Nothing gets on the engineering schedule until he has approved and accepted it.

This person could maintain a publicly visible engineering schedule to identify dues dates for information from sales or vendors, project milestones, and the next open slot. It could also identify if a project is on schedule or slipping or badly behind.

Engineering is still held to a schedule, but it is one to which they originally agreed. This gate-keeper also serve as the go-to guy for all engineering related sales questions. The sales group is his "customer". That's how you sell this to them. It will help them. You also instruct ALL engineers to respond to ALL requests for information/help/tips from sales people to say, "I'd love to help you with that but I'm on a schedule here. Please take your question to Mr. Gate-Keeper."

This person should have no direct engineering, design, or production responsibilities. His full-time job is in dealing with sales and insuring adherence to the schedule.

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

Sounds like you need a beer, or two

I've been in similar situations, and getting things to change is like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier with a canoe paddle but you can consider:

1) provide 1 contact engineer to handle the walk-up questions. My former company was famous for sales people polling engineers until they found someone to give the answer they wanted. We created 'the answer guy' as the only official responder
2) create a FAQ/reference specification that defines what the customer gets if they don't ask for something different. We used to have engineers that would start with a blank page just because. We used to have salemen who wouldn't know enough to offer our standards as alternatives
3) whenever new business comes in, have the sales department identify the priority and whch job doesn't get done or pushed out. I had a boss who would say you don't order steak if all you can afford is hamburger. Sales has access to X hours of engineering resources - they decide what they want done with it
4) maintain metrics on how well each job is executed - cost overrun, sales order change requests, corrections to drawings. No one will care but over time you will be able to anticipate easy-medium-hard jobs and when you eventually get asked why some jobs go easy than others you can identify the positive things people can continue to do. Most project autopsies hammer people for the mistakes, not the things that make the job easier.
5) Change your mind about not wanting to talk to the customer directly. I would get sales documentation saying a customer had 10 specific requirements to get the deal. In talking to the customer only 3 requirements of the 10 were critical and there was a 4th requirement that wasn't even in the spec

It will take a long time to turn this around

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

6) Order status reviews to identify problems with interpretting the sketches sooner rather than later

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

Thanks, all! Truckandbus, I do call the one salesman in to explain unworkable aspects of his sketches with a 3d model or CAD sketch. When he gets these, he acts like he expects a full drawing complete with all dimensions, bom, and annotations, like I'm cheating him by making a mock up of his idea instead if fully furnishing designs, drawings, estimates, and BOMs.

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

Your company needs to establish guidelines for how long it takes to do the design/pricing, and make sure the salespeople understand. That's the first step.

Then, any requests that come in that require special urgency need to be routed to him/her, then he/she can dole them out to the engineers depending on skill set and availability.

That's a starting point.

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

You need to get Management on your side if you want to see things change. Unless you can get their backing, nothing really will change. Additionally, you need to discuss this with the other engineers in your office. I'm certain that they're tired of the undue stress of all of the items you mentioned. If possible see if you and the other engineers can do the following:
1. Keep track of how often you are interrupted by Sales to deal with questions.
2. For redesign work, see how many projects and how much time was spent on redesign.
3. Calculate how much time was spent for 1 & 2 and present it to management

You need to demonstrate to Management that due to the problems, the additional costs the Sales Department are using (time wasted x engineering pay rate = additional costs). Additionally, if the Sales Department is held accountable, the engineering workload should be reduced due to a reduction of redesign work.

Additionally, it is good for Engineers to get out of the office once in awhile. You'd be amazed at the problems that might be eliminated if someone knowledgeable is along with Sales. The customer may want a widget that will last forever, or might not care if it only last for a year if the price was right. The customer's needs versus Sales ambitions (e.g., in addition to the customer's needs, Sales tries to find out ALL of the things the customer may want, but may not afford) may not always align, and the main thing is pleasing the customer when possible. By knowing what is important and what items can be eliminated in the design would make your life a lot easier.

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

Zelgar, we have been on visits to customer facilities, myself and the salesman I dislike working with. He dreams up fabrications in his head that do everything all at once and are cheap and last forever, talks about it with the customer, and then proposes that I have everything designed, drawn, and estimated in two weeks. Really fair to me, on the spot in front of the customer as I try to take actual notes on their equipment and model numbers and power capacity and so on.

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

@ JBoggs, if you hadn't said water jet cutting machine I would have sworn you had the office beside me

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

Sounds like fun. Some tips:

1) Always use email to confirm your understanding of a sketch or a quote, and for any other clarifications. Only accept email responses, or send a "per our conversation" email if it is discussed verbally. This handles all of the "well I meant this not that" and "I don't remember saying to go that direction." Do it for every project, so you know it is there if needed. As an added bonus, this helps keep your name clear after you are gone. If you are lucky, the sales guy will read the email to the customer and jot down notes about the responses, and you will build what they are expecting.

2) If you answer at all, spend that little extra bit of time to explain your clarifications (again, in writing.) The sales people may not listen or remember what you say, but you can refer them back to an email and after the 3rd or 4th time they might remember the information, or at least remember where to look.

3) Ignore your boss if he tells you to "just go talk to people" and "stop with the long winded emails." When your front end clarification email keeps your department's reputation clean after something hits the fan, you'll be glad you have the correspondence. If the boss tells you to stop, what they really mean is "I don't want to see the emails so leave me off the cc line."

The common theme here is that you can't change the way the business operates, but you can be more efficient at making sure nothing sticks to you. Organize your approach to the recurring problems, and work on being able to identify them before they manifest. That way it's just one more thing to put on the to-do list.

"Frank sold another mystery widget, I better make up a complete and reasonable scope and email it to him so he can check it with the customer" is a lot easier to handle than "I have no idea what we're supposed to be making here, again."

Stick it out for awhile, and try different things. Believe it or not, these are very valuable skills to have, and it is a great opportunity to develop them early in your career. Don't quit because it is too much of a challenge, quit when you can handle everything that gets thrown at you and you aren't learning anything new.

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

A couple of thoughts:

Make sure your fellow engineers are in agreement with your analysis of the situation; there's safety in numbers. You and your fellow engineers need to show a united front and let sales know that there is no easy button and that good designs take time, so sales should under promise and over deliver.
Create a project board that has each engineer on it, the projects they're working on (with timelines) and put it where sales can see it. Then incorporate #3 from Truckandbus.
Tell Mr. 20-year experience that you're the engineer, he's the salesman. You don't tell him how to sell, he doesn't tell you how to design. And, should he throw you under the bus in front of a customer about when you can have a design complete, apologize to the customer and give him a more realistic timeline, with the reasons why. Sure, it'll get his panties in a twist, but it'll also let him know that you won't be forced into a timeline that can't be met.
Sounds, too, like your boss needs to find some cajones and protect you guys from an over-zealous sales team who are too intent on making promises you guys can't keep. That is, or should be, part of his/her job.
We have a sales guy here who often tries to circumvent the in place processes, then whines when we refuse to provide him with what he asked for. What he's finally realizing is that the time he spends trying to get around things, and whining, is longer than had he just followed the process the first time.

Jeff Mirisola, CSWE
My Blog

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

Unfortunately, most companies are not dissimilar to the US Congress, where either BD or Engineering hold sway for a period and then the power balance shifts. Your internal engineering management needs to have sufficient backbone to push back on unreasonable demands. That said, NOTHING works better than historical data. It's one thing to talk in broad strokes about time required to do a drawing, etc., but it's much more powerful to have actual data that says, "Here's Project A, where all we got was a napkin sketch for requirements and interface; this is how much it cost to flesh out the actual requirements; this is how much it cost to redo parts of the design because the requirements were changed or were creeping; this is how much it cost to re-test, because the environmental requirements kept changing, etc." The more and sooner you build up this database, the clearer it will become as to which BD guy is doing their job, and which ones aren't. Moreover, your management can then begin to gauge how much particular product developments were actually unprofitable due to higher than desired up-front costs, and can then beat on BD to provide solid, testable, and realistic requirements.

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RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

Hmm, well if you hadn't listed your industry I'd almost have thought you were me under another handle!

We mainly produce a standard range of scientific instrumentation, and that's what most of engineering and the company for that matter is built around. However, we also do customer 'specials' which range from refurbishing old demo instruments to meet low $; tweaking the system BOM to remove some accessories the customer doesn't care about so as to reduce $; custom sample handling customization through to major modifications/stretches/upgrades... of our intruments.

For the last year I've been the point guy for most of the hardware (at least mechanical) changes.

We have a fairly formalized 'special' approval process but if the $ are big enough or the schedule to place the quote short enough or the magical 'end of quarter' close enough then corners get cut and we end up signing up to things that are difficult/impractical/cost more to do than the $ charged. We rarely have time to do much investigation up front and we have sales folks with questionable scruples (shocking I know) that apparently get their bonus on the size of the order not any link to the profit on the order. So they'll do things like offer for us to be the system integrator to get our product to work with a bunch of other instruments from other vendors so they can put all the other vendors parts on the PO that we then have to go and order...

We don't really track the Engineering workload on specials closely, I throw in padding on lead time when I know we've quoted a lot of specials that are likely to come in a similar time frame but then when we get the order often get beaten down on lead time to meet end of quarter goals etc. I tried keeping a log of all the open and quoted specials that impacted me, with estimate of my time for each and communicated to my management and head of sales/marketing but didn't help. They are great at prioritizing but useless at accepting the implications i.e. they'll say priority 1, 2, 3... but when you say 'ok so I stop working priority 2 until I finish priority 1' or 'so it's ok to slip schedule on priority 3' they say 'no it's all got to get done'.

I do the email confirmation thing, I clearly state assumptions when I say something is possible in certain schedule, list out impacts to other projects... but to little or no avail.

So sorry, I don't have a clue what to tell you, but I'd buy you a bear to cry over if we were in person.

However, I got a pretty stellar annual revue yesterday afternoon, my manager pretty much seems to think I'm slaying proverbial dragons on my specials tasks. Essentially before the pain got spread around, they were never anyone in engineering's priority, lots of late shipments & last minute panics etc. The fact I had no late shipments, no real fails and only one significant customer 'escalation' last year impressed him no end. Now wheter it impressed the folks above him enough to mean $$$ I have yet to learn.

Posting guidelines FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies http://eng-tips.com/market.cfm? (probably not aimed specifically at you)
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RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

Quote (KwerkZelgar, we have been on visits to customer facilities, myself and the salesman I dislike working with. He dreams up fabrications in his head that do everything all at once and are cheap and last forever, talks about it with the customer, and then proposes that I have everything designed, drawn, and estimated in two weeks. Really fair to me, on the spot in front of the customer as I try to take actual notes on their equipment and model numbers and power capacity and so on.

I've been in this situation and I handle it like good cop/bad cop. I let the salesman talk the customer up and I talk the customer down. Lot's of eye rolls and "you're killing me here" to the sales guy while reassuring the customer he will get what he needs at the end of the day but it isn't going to as easy as the sales guy implies. Sales guy still gets to be the good guy in front of the customer

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

Do you have SharePoint where you work? At my company we are starting to use the list feature as a way to document workflow. People requesting the services of "popular" departments like Cost Estimating fill out a simple form. The form automatically inputs into a spreadsheet that tracks the date of the request and status for all to see. It really makes it easy to show when there is too much coming in at one time so the mucky mucks can determine the priority. Alternatively, it no is willing to set priorities, at least it documents that the company is living in la la land.

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

TQM came out many years ago and a lot of people tried it with good results at first until they realized that it was only good at picking off the low hanging fruit, then it got to be a pain in the neck. (Right now you have a lot of low hanging fruit) Other New and improved programs like 6 sigma came along, but they are only TQM in disguise. Anyway my advice is get a copy of TQM read and note the bullet points, then hide the dammed thing, and don't tell anybody you read it.
Then start quietly seeing where you can implement the items they remark on, do not be obvious about this or you will get shot down.
For TQM to really work management needs to be on board. It does not look like that will happen where you work until you have some concrete achievements under your belt. (Such as documenting your time wasted by sales.). Now I realize that documenting time is another task you do not want to do because it takes time, but it will pay off in the end. And as JeffM said get your other engineers on board.

You are judged not by what you know, but by what you can do.

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

Thanks for the comic. We don't have SharePoint or TQM. We are ISO 9001, so we do have standards and procedures.

Today it became so apparent that the workflow is broken when the new salesman kept continuously pestering the engineering manager about how to locate, fill out, and save sales forms. The sales manager is the salesman's superior and in charge of training the new guy, but somehow he's gotten the message that every question about his sales job goes to the engineering manager while the sales manager sits in his corner office yakking with our vendors about sports and weather.

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

That's not just the sales manager's fault. The engineering manager is also allowing it.

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

I asked him specifically why he wasn't directing the salesman to his superior. In his words, the owner of the company wants Engineering to be where everyone comes with their questions. All it does is limit the intelligence to engineering and let the salespeople sell what they don't know. I got a request today from a salesman who had a 2 PC assembly. A threaded rod and a special internally threaded post with wrench flats. They attached together on the customer's drawing.

They wanted the rod made from stainless and the post made from mild steel. I asked the salesman what kind of environent they were putting these in, and I get a blank stare because of course the material handling and chemical process metal finishing tooling salesmen don't see any issue with mixing materials in corrosive environments.

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

"the owner of the company wants Engineering to be where everyone comes with their questions."

Choose your fights. That idea is not incompatible with selecting somebody, quite likely you, as the goto man in engineering for the sales people, as somebody else suggested above. Once you have control of the interface, then you can decide between yourselves and your manager what happens in the black box.


Greg Locock

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RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

Thanks, all. Now we've got salespeople submitting requests for projects using structural steel our welders don't know how to work with, asking for load ratings we can't guarantee -(see welding), and acting all put upon when it takes longer than items we have experience with.

I'm going to tell my boss that either we start declining these projects or we make them buy-sells until we actually get training on these new fabrications.

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

I agree with others that your boss is a part of the problem: He should make sure the organization is so that you can work well. I do a similiar job (costing plants and writing proposals, with the engineering that goes with it), my boss keeps a list with all projects we need to do work for, asks the salespeople for the priorities they give and allocates accordingly. For a while, there was only one 'prio1' project per sales guy allowed.

Mind you, the sales guys still went around the process, and from time to time that is actually ok. The problem with sales people is that they havethe mindset (and sometimes justified, depending on company culture) that they have to sell projects internally too - that's why every single customer, according o them, is waiting pen-in-hand for an offer to sign. They also sometimes have the mindset that they ompete not only with the competition and each other for customers, but also with each other for in-house support. This is where the sales lead could step in if he wanted to, to create another climate between his guys.

Your description does not sound like management see a problem they want to fix. I don't know if this is actually true, if they would attack the issue if they knew more, or what is needed to move them. I think the short-term solutions/survival treicks mentiones by others should be your first step (document to cover your ass, get your collegues on board) and of course learn what you can, to jump ship later.

RE: How to deal with broken workflow and uninformed salespeople?

If the job priorities really aren't getting set by the managment team you could go back on the sales team telling them that the sales people that provide the most complete and acurate submittals get their jobs done first. I used to process production change requests from four different production lines and the most complete requests went first and they usually came from only one of the production lines. This eventually drove up the quality of the requests from the other 3 production lines

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