Episode 32: How Vonco Reinvented their Sales Process to Scale the Business
Adam Honig: I think it’s a challenge that a lot of companies face, especially when you do a really good job in one thing. You get identified as, oh, you’re the best maker of this. People just don’t think of you because they’re in that kind of mental space that’s blocked out.
Keith Smith: It kind of flies in the face of the strategy–
Adam Honig: Hello and welcome to Make It. Move It. Sell It. On this podcast, I talk with company leaders about how they’re modernizing the business of making, moving, and selling products, and of course, having fun along the way. I’m your host, Adam Honig, the CEO of Spiro.ai. We make amazing AI software for companies in the supply chain, but we’re not talking about that today. Instead, today, we’re going to be talking with Keith Smith, the CEO of Vonco Products. Welcome to the podcast, Keith.
Keith Smith: Thanks for having me, Adam. Excited to be here.
Adam Honig: I’m excited. You and I had a chance to talk the other day, and I told you, Keith, I’m like, I need to get this guy on the podcast. He’s got so many great ideas. But before we jump into that, maybe just give the listeners a little bit of background on Vonco and yourself.
Keith Smith: Vonco Products is a medical device contract manufacturer and flexible packaging provider for medical devices and consumer products. We’ve been around since 1955. I haven’t been around that long, but I’ve been part of this amazing journey since 2013 as an owner and operating partner of the business.
It’s a super exciting business that has gone through tremendous changes and evolution to provide some of the really neat disposable products for the medical device industry and some of the major med device names, Becton Dickinson, Johnson & Johnson, Boston Scientific, so major companies that we do business with on a routine basis to help them create life-changing and life-saving products, for their patients.
Adam Honig: Now I know you said contract manufacturing, so is everything that you guys are making basically to the customer’s specification?
Keith Smith: Yeah, the majority of it is. We’re a very innovative company, Adam. We’ll make some of our own products and launch them, but for their benefit. We can be a strong extension to the product development arm of many of our medical device customers. But the majority of what we do—I’d say 80% of what we do—is to our customer specifications.
Adam Honig: I imagine in the medical device space, people are conservative about how they want their products to look and stuff like that. But is there something that comes to mind that was more innovative or creative that you guys worked on?
Keith Smith: Certainly. From our standpoint, we’ll run a project through what we call a white space analysis, find areas that are a bit underserved. One of the recent award-winning product launches is called EnteraLoc, which is an enteral feeding pouch that allows nutrition to be directly connected to tubes.
It also aligns with some safety features that are going on worldwide. It’s called ENFit, so Entraloc, it is a safety feature for all tube feeders that allows no misconnections. There’s only one type of connection that can positively connect to that tube, so we don’t put the wrong things down the wrong tube.
We’ve designed a pouch and a filling process to allow this to happen and get nutrition. It’s very difficult to feed yourself when you’re on tubes. There’s a lot of steps and processes involved, and we’ve aimed to simplify it and bring better nutrition and attack malnutrition because of the complexity of feeding. It’s been an amazing product and amazing reception in the market.
Adam Honig: That’s great. For people who are not as familiar with this type of system, this is like in a hospital setting for providing nutrition to people who can’t eat normally, I imagine.
Keith Smith: Yeah, it’s both, Adam. There’s been an amazing progress that the healthcare system has made to try to get people home. One, it’s very expensive to stay in the hospital, but two, most patients desire to get to the comfort of their own homes.
Health care has come a long way to allow that, so you have to bring this feeding home as well. You’ve got the in-hospital system. You’ve got somewhat of an at-home nursing system, and then you’ve got self-care. You’ve really got three different areas to administer this product and make it work for all three.
Adam Honig: You had mentioned the creative aspect of it, so the creativity here is really getting it to make sure that it connects properly and that it fits well within the environment that people are using it.
Keith Smith: Yeah, for sure. The world has come up with this standard. That was not necessarily the most difficult part. It’s really figuring out how we can take this unique connector now and fill it and get the nutrition in it in a way that it’s going to be affordable to patients and consumers. The supply chain system that we put together along with the product development allowed us to be able to mass produce these and get healthy nutrition directly connected into the ENFit connector.
Adam Honig: One of the things I was hoping we could talk about today on the podcast is a little bit about what I think of as your sales journey, Keith. When you and I were talking earlier, you were telling me how you were reinventing sales at Vonco. Maybe just tell folks a little bit about the background about what made you decide to jump into that.
Keith Smith: I’ve been obviously watching the journey for over 10 years at Vonco, and I just have had this feeling that we’re the best kept secret. We’ve been making amazing products for amazing companies that do amazing things every day, but yet in many of the cases, we only had one or two product lines within these amazing companies.
When we ask our customers, how are we doing? It’s typically a resounding, you guys are doing a great job. So then the question is, why aren’t we getting other opportunities in these companies? That had me being very curious and trying to dig in and answer that question.
Adam Honig: But you don’t have a sales background, right? Your background is more–
Keith Smith: No. I’ve done some sales and marketing in some other areas of my career, but mostly it’s been an operations and technical background, for sure, and a bit of strategy and general management. This is something that as I got curious about it, I said, how can I personally help this? One of the things I needed to do is bit of a visualization effort since I haven’t spent a ton of time in sales. I actually hired some folks to help me in the sales journey, but I really felt the pull myself to say this is something I need to dig into myself.
Starting that visualization and creating a vision for myself, basically an avatar for myself, what do the best sales leaders look like in my industry and start talking about what they do, how they say, how they show up, how they manage, how they lead, and how they interact with customers.
That’s how it all started. From there, it just became really, a tenacious obsession around how we can help our sales team become even better, but also create value for our customers. It was clear to me through the interviews that we are creating value, but our opportunities and our abilities to tell that story seem to be unlimited.
That’s really the obsession I’ve been on for a little over a year. It’s been a great journey and tremendous progress in the sales team, in the sales process, in our results, and so having a ton of fun with it.
Adam Honig: I’m super curious, Keith. When you asked customers why they weren’t doing more business with you, were they not aware of the other things you could do, or timing wasn’t right, or what were you hearing?
Keith Smith: Yeah, we weren’t aware of what you guys are doing. We didn’t even really think about you guys for these other products. You guys just did a nice job there. You weren’t asking really. That was the majority of what we were hearing.
We’ve just been on, a journey to let our customers know and find new ways to let them know all the good things that we’re doing from a quality standpoint, from a service standpoint, from a product development standpoint, how we’re taking risk off the table for our customers. Those are certainly areas that came loud and clear of what they’re looking for in their suppliers. We’re like, yes, we have that. Yes, we have that. Yes, we have that. We need to do a better job of presenting that story.
Adam Honig: I think it’s a challenge that a lot of companies face, especially when you do a really good job in one thing. You get identified as, you’re the best maker of this. Then people just don’t think of you because they’re that kind of mental space is blocked out somehow.
Keith Smith: That’s exactly what’s happened. It flies in the face of the strategy that we have. We’ve made three acquisitions over the last three years to have a broader portfolio to service the target customers, very customer centric. It’s really a small group of customers we want to do really well with. As we look at what they purchase what they’re doing, we want to be able to provide top-level service they haven’t seen before. When we acquired these companies, it’s opened it up. We do have a little bit of storytelling, which is recent to do to make sure that everyone is aware of the breadth of product and service and integration that we have at Vonco Products.
Adam Honig: Did you come up with some sort of process, like a quarterly business review or something to bake that in?
Keith Smith: Yeah, for sure. You bring up partnership reviews, it’s certainly a very important part of a customer-centric company is to really spend the time with our customers talking about what’s gone well, what’s not going well, how do we fix it? What can we rectify? If it is going well, how do we create that value across the rest of your organization?
That’s a big part of it. This is something that is big in every fascinating area of my life is the discipline of following a rigorous process through the sales journey. For me as a sales leader, it comes down to the big four that I manage, which is end-of-day reports, like really having a pulse every day on how many calls did we conduct? How many calls did we schedule? What was the qualitative process there? Did it advance? If it didn’t advance, what’s the obstacle? Are there things that I can help with there? That’s an end-of-day report.
There’s also data. I find that sales teams, they need to be inspired. They need to have clarity. They need to have the vision, but they’re also very competitive. Having public scoreboards of how many calls did I book? How many calls did I conduct? How many trials did I book? How many things did I commercialize? The scoreboards are certainly the second leg of it.
The third is meetings, really having inspiring meetings that help provide clarity and also some accountability amongst the team. That’s individual meetings and team meetings, and then finally, what I’ve really come to love is video reviews, actually watching and doing a quality check on sales calls. I think that’s a big part of our learning process of how we can bring more value to our customers and make sure we’re not missing opportunities to talk about how we can create value for the customer.
For me individually, it’s been great to be able to provide that feedback, but the team has literally been able to do this publicly with each other. These meetings are so rich and so awesome to watch each other give positive and some constructive feedback to each other. It’s just they feed off each other. We call it steel sharpens steel. We’ve got a great team, highly knowledgeable, and they help each other just get better and better.
Adam Honig: Sales people are not known for being disciplined and following processes. It sounds to me like you’re helping them by putting a structure in place for them to operate within. Am I hearing that properly?
Keith Smith: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I sat down and thought about this. At the end of the day, just like running an operation or running an innovation project, there’s a process. There’s a process to it. Just like any manufacturing process, it can be tweaked. If we can stay disciplined to that, we start to see much better results.
I hope they don’t get too frustrated with me sharing this, but it was tough. I think that so many sales folks believe it’s just their personality that makes or breaks it. There was a lot of pushback almost every step of the way from folks. Should we adopt this or not? It just takes change management, that discipline of follow up and accountability towards getting those results recorded, getting the meetings recorded, showing up prepared for the meetings with the information that we need, doing your end-of-day reports, providing the obstacles that are getting in our way.
Sometimes, too, we have to let things go. A big term we use is closed loops. Do you have a closed loop on this or not? If it’s just sitting open, let’s move on, let’s get it out of our pipeline, and let’s stop talking about it. I don’t think that my team necessarily likes to lose these things off the pipeline. They want to show that they’re busy and adding value. Again, they’re very competitive. They want that stuff in the pipeline. But if you don’t have these activities complete, the discipline done, it’s not going to stay there.
It’s been rewarding and fun. In medical device, it’s a long sales cycle, so it’s a little bit difficult to judge it based on just top line. But the leading indicators have been tremendous over the last six months.
Adam Honig: Well, that’s great. I would love to hear more about making meetings fun because I feel like there’s a lot of people who just really resist having meetings. I think if I could make them more fun, if everybody could make them more fun, that’d be great. How do you do that? Or inspiring maybe, you said.
Keith Smith: First of all, I think selling, but anything in life, is about confidence. The first thing we start with in each one of the meetings is wins, and we stack the wins. It’s tough sometimes; the momentum’s not there. The team seems a little sluggish; the energy’s down. It takes a little bit, and I might need to stir it, but I know we’ve got that inspiration going and that confidence going. It’s like everyone’s right up in front of the camera, waiting to talk about the next one. I just call it stacking the wins. That positive energy that comes from stacking wins is how we start.
Then we go into what we call our cultural operating principles, a lot of the behaviors that exemplify our core values. These are very good opportunities to give a lot of shout outs for people that are doing a great job there. So we start almost every meeting with that sales or the rest of the organization just giving shout outs to people that are exemplifying the behaviors that really represent our core values. Those are really rich.
Adam Honig: That just gets the team in the right mindset to participate then.
You said there was a little bit of resistance to getting going. Did you experience a lot of turnover as a part of putting more discipline in sales? Because I think that’s a big fear that people have.
Keith Smith: The answer is yes, but it wasn’t voluntary turnover. It was people that didn’t want to get on board. We had to show that we’re serious about that there is a process here. I think when you make change like this, you’ve got to be open minded to what turnover might have to occur. In some cases, we move people into different positions, and sometimes there isn’t a spot for them to move to.
Adam Honig: I know from looking at your blog, which I believe is at KeithSmith.io for those of you tracking at home here, that you’re big into visualization, it seemed to me, like putting yourself and the company and the team in the right spot. Can you tell us a little bit about how you do that for yourself?
Keith Smith: It’s creating an avatar. Just like I did with the sales leadership, I’ve created some avatars in the past to help me frame the person I want to be. How do I want to show up? Here’s my intention. This is what I want. Now I need to be that. I need to show up to lead the organization, the sales team, my family, whatever that case might be. This visualization process is usually done through a little bit of meditation and journaling of how this person shows up.
Like I said with the sales leadership is, I think, back to some of the best people that have sold me in the past, how have they come in, how have they carried themselves? What do they do? What do they look like? What do they wear? You get down to that detail of starting to understand what it takes to be that person that you want to be. It’s not trying to be somebody else. I intentionally want to be that, so how do I look at other examples and make that my avatar?
Adam Honig: It’s really a process of taking a step outside of yourself, in a way, and saying how do I close that gap of where I want to be?
Keith Smith: Well, it’s a perfect saying for what leaders should be doing a lot: getting up at 30 to 50 thousand feet and looking at that company. What does the company need, and how do I help fill that gap? I can’t fill every role, but I also, for what I am planning on doing, this is how I need to show up to help the rest of the organization put their visions together of how they need to show up or what type of person I need to be hiring so that they’ll show up that way.
Adam Honig: Talking to a lot of leaders, people struggle to find the time to step back and get that kind of perspective. How do you find that? How does that work for you?
Keith Smith: I think I struggled with it for most of my career, maybe up until about five years ago. I had to just really start to find something to create some intentionality in my own energy. That’s really what I latched onto, Adam, is this concept of managing energy.
Like my website, it’s really my mantra of cultivating infectious energy. The only way I feel I can do that effectively is to manage my own energy first so that it’s just overflowing and passing on to others. I’ll speak to other entrepreneurs. That’s a passion of mine as well, helping other earlier, younger entrepreneurs understand how draining it can be from a mental standpoint in trying to get a business up off the ground or managing or buying businesses, just entrepreneurial spirit, and how to balance that with the rest of your physical energy, your emotional energy, and your spiritual energy.
How do you balance all that? The more I balance that, the better leader I am, but I think we get really stuck in what’s called the business aspect, and you burn your mental energy and you might not be working out. You might be gaining weight. You might not feel the most fit. Your health is in trouble. You may be struggling with your family and your home; you may feel exhausted when you get home.These are all things I felt for many years. I can’t even imagine, after a long day of work, walking into the house now and dealing with whatever’s there. Those are the challenges.
Now, all these things feed me and fuel me to be a more well-rounded leader of my business, my community, and my family. Managing that energy is really important, and I just kick off the day with that. It’s easy for that to disappear. I have a rise and shine routine; I get up, and there’s two hours I spend really working on myself before I get into the organization, where there’s going to be a lot of pouring into other people.
Adam Honig: One technique that you share, which I think is very powerful, is creating an avatar, stepping into that role, and stepping outside of yourself to get to it. The other thing that you just mentioned, which I think is super important too, is getting set with the intentionality of what you want to be accomplishing and not just letting it be reactive to everything that’s coming at you. In your role and in my role, all the time, customers and employees are coming at us. I’m hearing that’s a key technique for you. Is there other advice that you would give entrepreneurs or leaders of organizations?
Keith Smith: Well, I think it’s great timing here, Adam. I’m not sure when you’ll air this, but we’re coming into the new year, and I think we all understand the resolution setting. We’ll see a bunch of podcasts around resolutions rolling out here shortly. It seems to happen all the time.
But I found the most effective way to achieve those resolutions is to actually write yourself a letter as if the year’s over. So you write your vision for 2024 as if it’s over, and describe how you felt as you accomplished the things that you set out to do, what it took, and the discipline that it took to accomplish what you set out for, and congratulate yourself at the end of the year with those wins.
Instead of saying, hey, I want to do this because I don’t want that, here’s really what I did achieve at the end of the year as if it’s already been done is an amazing difference in resolution setting that seems to really solidify it for me.
Adam Honig: Yeah, I can see how that can work, and I see how it ties into your theme because you’re creating an avatar of the way you would be in a year from now and saying, I want to get to that point.
Keith Smith: That is a hundred percent correct.
Adam Honig: Yeah, right on. This is great stuff, Keith. I really appreciate your coming on the podcast and sharing it. I think we will be running this around the new year, so hopefully it’ll inspire people. I think, based on what I’m hearing from you, it seems like people should not just make a resolution and walk away from it. They should be coming back to that letter and that persona that they are trying to get to during the year.
Keith Smith: For sure. If you take it another step, it’s great to have that vision board with that feeling—that finish, let’s call it, for instance.
Adam Honig: Right, cool. Well, listen. As a reminder to our listeners, you can find every episode of Make It. Move It. Sell It. podcast at spiro.ai/podcast, or be sure to subscribe. If you thought this conversation was interesting and enlightening, feel free to give us a good review and a like. What do you think, Keith? Should people do something like that?
Keith Smith: Yeah, for sure. And if you don’t mind, pop out to KeithSmith.io, send a note there, and follow my blogs. But, Adam, thank you for sure. I certainly appreciate your support.
Adam Honig: Yeah, it’s been great to have you on here, and we look forward to speaking to everybody at the next podcast.