Perhaps the most vital aspect of a successful business is how it chooses to interact with its customers. Until the rapid rise of the digital age, most relationships in the distribution industry were maintained by field/outside sales representatives. An outside sales rep visits a client on-site, gets an idea of what the client needs, negotiates a price, and maybe even engages in a bit of non-work-related banter.
Field sales has always been considered an effective sales method for distributors, though that’s probably aided by the fact that, up until a few decades ago, it was really the only sales method distributors had at their disposal.
Digital transformation is rapidly changing the distribution industry, and sales is evolving as a result. Especially since the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, customers have shown a preference for buying products without having to interact with an actual salesperson, such as through online B2B marketplaces. Distributors should listen to their customers and embrace the shift to online sales, as MDM CEO Tom Gale and Indian River Consulting Group’s Mike Marks discussed in MDM’s latest QuickTake podcast.
“The biggest obstacle is that everybody’s scared to death to change anything with field sales,” Marks said. “I just had a client that ended up having to get rid of their senior sales executive because they want to move forward. That (salesperson) was just too cautious and just couldn’t let go of their history with field sales.”
The idea that inside sales — sales that take place over the phone, via the Internet or through other remote channels — is becoming preferred over face-to-face sales might be difficult for some businesses and their veteran sales staff to accept, as cited in numerous B2B customer experience studies in the past few years.
“In 2019, I would have said you’re crazy if you said that distribution was going to have a more dominant inside sales than outside sales,” Gale said. “But I think in the next two to three years, I think we’ll get to this tipping point where the overall sales model across most distribution sectors are going to look almost upside down.”
Marks said he expects the typical distributor to employ more inside salespeople than outside by 2025. He noted, however, that there are many salespeople and distributors who are still at the “talking” stage of their sales transformation and haven’t yet started working towards achieving that transformation.
“The idea is that the world is no longer field-sales centric, but most distributors still are, and they’re old and cautious,” Marks said.
The distribution industry has historically been reluctant to change, but those distributors who are quick to embrace this new form of sales and meet their customers where they’re at will be those who reap the rewards of sales transformation.
“Speed will continue to be a weapon for the next several years,” Marks said. “Whoever gets there first is all about selling the customers the way they want to buy.”