Vanessa Palmer has been working in various sales roles for over eight years handling national accounts with companies such as Boots, Tesco and Sainsbury’s. She talks to us about life in a multinational cosmetics company.
How did you get started at L’Oréal?
After I graduated I travelled and so it was not until a year later that I was looking for jobs. Initially I was interested in going into a marketing position but during one of the rounds of interviews at L’Oreal, it was suggested to me to go into account handling, which, at the time I didn’t really know much about.
Once I learned a bit more, the role really started to appeal to me and as I knew this was the area I wanted to be involved in, I entered into a permanent role in sales rather than on the Management Training Scheme like most graduates. I therefore started as a National Account Trainee for Garnier/Maybelline in March 2000.
What is your current role?
My current role is Commercial Director of Garnier/Maybelline, which involves predominately managing the head office team. I spend a lot of time in meetings because the role of my team is to be the interface of the company’s marketing objectives with the trade. I’m involved in anything that touches the commercial side of the business.
Nearly all of our sales go through national accounts and so amongst other things we have regular management committee meetings that look at decisions on things such as pricing, supply and margins. I have to then feed the decisions that were made on to those working in the sales team.
What areas do you especially enjoy?
I love the team side. It’s absolutely fantastic. I have headed up a number of different size teams, which has been a great learning experience. I enjoy working closely with the team, giving them direction as well as motivating them and instilling the right commercial principles. It is particularly rewarding to see these skills in practice, and to see people developing and progressing.
One of the most exciting things about L’Oréal is the speed at which we turn around new product developments (NPDs). There’s a real buzz as we’re so quick to market a new product and get them on the shelves. It can mean things are busy and quite stressful especially when decisions change and your hard work is undone.
But it’s so exciting being presented with a new product, exciting the trade about it and then almost immediately going ahead with the launch. The process touches everybody in the business and it’s the thing everybody loves.
What, for you, are the advantages of working at L’Oréal?
It’s very cliché but it’s got to be the people. Everyone who is here is very committed and passionate about driving the business forward. This means that things are actioned quickly and with motivation.
The other great advantage of L’Oréal is the potential to progress quickly throughout the organisation. It means that you are always striving for something new, and you never get bored.
Do you get much opportunity to travel?
I’m almost always in the UK, although I go over to Paris for the occasional meeting. We also go abroad for a conference once a year which is where all the new products get presented. This year it was in Ibiza and it also acts as a reward for the teams to say thank you for all their hard work in the year. It takes place over two and a half days with only one day being taken up by the conference. So very much in the ‘work hard, play hard’ philosophy!
Is working at a company like L’Oréal as glamorous as it sounds?
Everybody here is really interested in beauty and the idea of making people look and feel better and so in that respect people are well turned out. However it’s not like Ugly Betty where all the women are 6ft plus and models.
At the end of the day we are a business, and the people that you find here are like people you would find in any other fast moving and dynamic organisations.
What were you doing when you started?
In my first role I managed two accounts turning over £3 million, which at the time I thought was a huge amount of money.
It was great to be given the direct responsibility for something at such an early stage of my career. Even though there was a lot of support from my manager, it was still something that was ‘my baby’ and I was able to take the credit for.
Are there any achievements that you are particularly proud of?
Although it sounds a little nerdy, it was when I got moved to the Tesco account and I helped set up a business plan and tracking process so that we could monitor the various sales through Tesco as well as compare it to previous years. It’s the unsexy side of sales, but made significant improvements to the investment management of the account.
Another big project that I was involved in was when I was the controller on the Boots account. This was only for a year, but in this time the cosmetics account manager and I were solely focused on landing a new cosmetics hero unit to be used in Boots.
We spent the whole year negotiating with their buying team and then going into the individual stores and speaking to them. When we agreed the deal it was immensely satisfying, especially when they started to be installed across a number of stores. I had to use all the sales techniques I had learnt over the years and it ended up with retail sales increasing by 25% but more importantly it helped improve the brand’s image.
Have you undertaken much training during your career?
I’ve done loads of training at L’Oréal. There’s a lot of management training that you do in your first year that gives you the grounding. Then you move on to function-specific training such as the ‘selling masterclass’, which is a four-day course tailored specifically towards how to be successful as a sales person in a fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) business such as ours.
Other sales-specific training is around how to negotiate and build relationships with buyers.
The tools that you learn are really noticeable and you are given a lot of support to make sure that the skills work in practice. I can never speak highly enough about the training I’ve had here. It’s not so much that you are always on courses, but you do the right ones when you need them.
Have you any idea of what the future may hold for you?
The honest answer is I don’t know. The good thing about sales in L’Oréal is that there’s no set path. People in my position have moved on to a number of various positions.
If you are more flexible and open minded there is a wider the scope of opportunities. There are other functions, other divisions and other countries I could move to – the world’s your oyster in a way and it’s up to you to be as flexible as you can to take any opportunities that come your way. My predecessor went on to be General Manager of the Consumer Products business in Thailand.
To get this international experience would be a great move and something I would be very tempted to do.
What is the biggest myth about sales?
People think that you can’t be creative in sales. They think that this is down to marketing and sales just flog the stuff. But it’s not true. For example, years ago we had a meeting with Boots about a Maybelline product. We took them to a bar and did cocktail lessons, and then went on and had a dancing lesson and it wasn’t until three hours later that we starting talking about the product.
Having this creativity when you’re selling really helps push yourself ahead of the competition and above all it makes it fun for you and your clients. Another instance was when we were launching a colourant called 100% Colour and we dressed everyone up in coloured boiler suits, took them go-karting then came back to the meeting room and everyone painted each other. All this before we even started the presentation and it’s still something that is talked about by the client years later.
What qualities do you need to succeed in sales?
Firstly the ability to take a knock, stand up, learn from it, and carry on. This is hugely important and shows you have the right attitude. You also need to be driven and determined because often the buyer isn’t going to ring you back – you have to be the one that makes things happen. You need to also be really willing to learn, take all the help you can get and not think you know it all from the start.
Most importantly you need to be open minded and flexible, especially in such a fast moving industry, as decisions are made very quickly and you don’t want to be left behind.