Around the Water Cooler With Harley-Davidson's CEO

Keith Wandell’s advice for salespeople: Sell an experience, not a product.

Keith Wandell’s advice for salespeople: Sell an experience, not a product.

Keith Wandell

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Editor's Note: Around the Water Cooler is an ongoing series, in which U.S. News talks with company executives to get their career advice for employees and managers.

Keith Wandell showed up to work dressed in a suit and tie every day of his career. That is, until four years ago, when he traded business attire for a pair of jeans and button-down shirt with the signature Harley-Davidson black and orange logo.

Wandell took over the now $12 billion company with 1,400 dealerships worldwide after serving as the president and chief operating officer of Johnson Controls Inc. from 2006 to 2009 and working 21 years for the manufacturer. Prior to joining Harley-Davidson, Inc, the Ohio University and University of Dayton graduate had never bought a motorcycle. Today, he's the proud owner of a Road King Classic, custom Street Glide and two custom Road Glides – one a 110th anniversary model – and has fully embraced the Harley-Davidson culture.

"What we always sell is an experience. We're not selling a product," he says. "And our whole mission is to help people express their own personal freedom, so that's what we're trying to do."

[Read: Around the Water Cooler With Royal Caribbean CEO Adam Goldstein.]

A resident of a Milwaukee suburb, the 63 year old is also quick to point out that water coolers are called "bubblers" where he's from. Despite the disagreement in word choice for the title of this series, he happily shared with U.S. News what executives can do to protect a household brand name and how to seal a sales deal. His responses have been edited.

For employees who interact with customers on a daily basis, can you name three qualities or characteristics the employee should have?

Number one, they need to be customer-centric. In other words, I think they need to have an uncompromising focus on the customer's needs. Number two, they need to be honest and transparent in their interactions. Number three, they need to have good follow-up skills so that even after the interaction takes place, that the customer feels like they connected.

Do you have any advice for salespeople on how to best clinch a sale?

We have a sales process certainly that we follow. I think my advice would be to follow the process. Be open, honest and transparent with the customer. Be in a position to demonstrate why you have a superior product and service. And sell your attributes.

What's the most important thing managers can do to protect their company's brand – either when they work for a household name like Harley-Davidson or a local business that's well-known in a community?

I think there's certain values that we have in our company that we broadly communicate to all of our employees, and I think [we] instill those values every day to ensure that everything we do is representative of what the brand stands for.

[Read: Around the Water Cooler With Banana Republic's Jack Calhoun.]

What are examples of important values for a company?

Certainly integrity is one. Every interaction we have every day – whether it's employee-to-employee, employee-to-dealer, dealer-to-customer, whatever – needs to be done with the utmost of integrity. Another value is teamwork. We believe in teamwork. We don't believe in celebrating heroes necessarily, but we believe in the fact that one and two always has to equal three through a team effort.

You've steered Harley-Davidson through the recession, when profits were down. If a company is going through a rough economic spell, what can managers say or do to ease concerns around the workplace?

I think you have to have a clear, strategic vision for the business, and I think you have to relentlessly communicate what that vision is so that employees have some comfort level about the future.

[See: 12 Scary Signs Your Company Is In Trouble.]

Many businesses have seasonal peaks. What should employees and managers focus their efforts on during the off-season, when not as many customers come through the door?

I think you need to be focusing on how do you make the experience better? How do you continuously improve everything you're doing in the company? And also focus on how to put systems and processes in place that sort of buffer the impact of those peaks and valleys in the business.