The 7 Most Critical Selling Skills in Wholesale Distribution - Modern Distribution Management

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The 7 Most Critical Selling Skills in Wholesale Distribution

Sales managers must take a more proactive role in talent development.
Steve Gettle

Wholesale distributors are feeling urgency to change their sales models, a joint MDM/RLI research study shows. Amazon Business is eroding wallet share and putting greater emphasis on price. Many distributors have a field sales culture in markets where inside sales models may make more sense. And companies are starting to recognize that modern sales teams need to replace legacy classroom-style training with solutions that include digital, on-demand training. 

MDM and the Rapid Learning Institute (RLI) collaborated on a survey that offers keen insights into how wholesale distributors structure their sales teams, what they want to change, and which skills are mission critical to succeeding in the marketplace. 

Most Critical Skill Gaps

Let’s start with how distributors ranked urgency to improve seven critical selling skills. For all seven skills, the majority of respondents felt it was “urgent” or “extremely urgent” to close gaps. The most critical skill gap – 62 percent call it “extremely urgent” – is “selling value, not price.” No surprise, according to Mike Marks, managing partner at Indian River Consulting Group. He says it results from “price transparency and the internet” that have commoditized much of what wholesale distributors sell. 


“Customers say, ‘If you're just gonna sell me products, sell them to me cheaper,’” says Marks.

So yes, salespeople need to move beyond mere order-taking and effectively communicate an enhanced value proposition. But there’s more to it. To combat commoditization, they need to create value. For example, improving discovery skills is critical — note that “Discovery” was the second-most urgent skill in our survey. Only when reps understand their customers’ businesses and their pain points can they propose value-creating solutions that go beyond price, delivery and service. 

Field Sales vs. Inside Sales
AT MDM’s 2018 Sales GPS conference in June, several speakers noted that wholesale distributors are migrating from a field sales model to inside sales. That said, 62 percent of companies surveyed say field sales is still dominant. Only 1 percent are entirely inside sales.  


Our survey confirms that things are changing, though. Some 34 percent of respondents intend to expand inside sales, while another 31 percent are thinking about it but not sure. What’s driving this trend? “There’s a greater awareness of the sales cost economics,” says Mark Peck, CEO of Apexx Group. “Inside sales customer contacts are an order of magnitude less expensive than outside sales. Also, the buying audience is more likely to prefer digital and phone contact over face-to-face.”

Classroom Style vs. Digital Training


In most verticals, including wholesale distribution, classroom style training is declining. In 2001 77 percent of all training was classroom style. Today, it’s dipped below 50 percent, according to the Association for Talent Development (ATD). In some verticals where millennials dominate, such as information and software, it’s down to 37 percent. Employees increasingly demand what the leading analyst in the training field, Josh Bersin of Bersin by Deloitte, calls “learning in the flow of work.” That is, digital and on-demand.

Wholesale distributors are acutely aware of the need to change. Asked about the need to increase access to digital training solutions, 86 percent indicated they felt urgency to do so, with 50 percent saying they felt it was “urgent” or “extremely urgent” to make the change. Only 14 percent said it was “not urgent.” 


“Pulling salespeople out of the field for headquarters classroom training and always been difficult and expensive,” says Peck. “I suspect distributors will get digital training tools they have confidence in and that can show evidence they’re effective.”\"RLI

What This Means for Sales Managers

In a nutshell, it means sales managers must take a more proactive role in talent development. 

Traditionally, distributors hired knowledgeable, skilled sales reps and said, “Go sell.” The sales manager could get away with being essentially a babysitter. No more. 

To combat commoditization, to “sell value not price,” sales teams — both inside and field — must craft a powerful value proposition and get coached and trained to deliver it effectively. That requires superior presentation skills. Reps must find pain points and create valueby providing solutions that meet unique customer needs. That requires superior discovery skills. Add to that prospecting, negotiation, handling objections, building trusting relationships and a host of other tactical selling skills reps must master to excel in today’s challenging selling environment. 

Sales managers don’t grow sales. They grow salespeople. That requires ongoing coaching and a deep commitment to driving the behaviors that enhance sales. This changes the job. Makes it more challenging. But it’s worth it because, ultimately, the differentiator that Amazon Business can’t compete against is a highly trained salesperson. 

Stephen Meyer is CEO of Rapid Learning Institute (RLI).

RLI is a market leader in micro-training; bite-size content for today’s short-attention-span workforce. Their 5- to 7-minute videos are based on the psychology of influence, persuasion and communication – the skills every manager, supervisor and sales professional needs to succeed. If you'd like to see how one wholesale distributor has adopted a modern approach to sales training that yielded an 8.5% increase in new opportunities, click here to read the case study.

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