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Rethink Role of Sales as You Adopt New Technology

Not long ago, field sales reps were Lone Rangers.

Not long ago, field sales reps were Lone Rangers.

Their jobs were all about relationships – cultivating new customers with personal visits, keeping existing customers happy, shepherding orders and smoothing tangles in the supply chain. Field sales reps of the past were selling themselves as much as a product.

But the wholesale distribution market is changing, because what customers want is changing – along with the platforms they can use to get it. If wholesaler-distributors hope to keep up, they will have to adopt new technology, and with it, new approaches to managing field sales. 

Today’s – and tomorrow’s – successful distributors will implement an omnichannel model in which field sales folks operate as a team along inside sales, support and warehouse staff. And they will be backed up by detailed, integrated e-commerce data that helps everyone work smarter and more efficiently.

Get Sales Reps Out of the Transaction Business

Our surveys show that 90 percent of what customers buy is product they’ve purchased previously. Consequently, a wholesaler-distributor’s most important job is keeping that customer happy so that revenue stream continues to flow.

To accomplish that, an evolved omnichannel model is essential. In this model, you need a support staff, up-to-the-minute supply chain information, product specialists and helpful people to answer the phone. Together, those people will make sure orders are taken and delivered on time—they are protecting your existing revenue stream. When you link your computer system with your customer’s, ordering becomes automatic – something we call LOOP, or Lights Out Order Processing.

At that point, what you don’t need is your highly skilled field sales reps performing those transactions. Your sales reps will still be involved with their customers, not with recurrent calls, but with periodic visits, and as ready backup should an emergency arise. That frees up your field salespeople to focus on what they should be doing: high-impact market-making.

Between salary, travel reimbursement, benefits and the paperwork many field sales reps do, most distributors are probably paying $200 for each sales call. If I’m a business owner, I want my field sales rep spending that expensive time on high-impact activities like displacing competitors and taking advantage of critical sales events.

Customers will continue with their existing supplier as long as everything goes smoothly. But when there is a quality issue, delivery problem or other glitch that disrupts business, that customer may go shopping for a new supplier. I call that a critical selling event, or CSE. Your field sales team should call that an opportunity. And when you’ve implemented an effective omnichannel model, including e-commerce, your field sales team is free to pursue these CSEs.

When field sales reps approach existing customers during a CSE, the conversation will no longer be around pricing and personal pleasantries. Armed with e-commerce data, your sales rep’s approach will go something like this: “Mr. Customer, we already support a number of businesses in this area, and we’ve been able to save them significant money and improve their position. If you think back, we spoke about this before, and you told me that you were happy with your current supplier. I am sorry for your trouble, but give us the ball and we won’t drop it.” This is called intercepting demand.

With prospects identified via marketing, the sales rep goes in with a clear value proposition and references, knowing a great deal about the situation before they set foot in front of the customer.

This shift in mindset may make field sales professionals nervous – at first. There may be some initial turnover, because salespeople who were comfortable being order-takers will resist the idea of going out and calling on somebody who is not a customer. But you’ll also find that some veteran members of the sales team will be energized by the change and will transform into killer sales producers. Those are the field sales reps who will be intercepting those critical sales events and turning them into revenue for your company.

When e-commerce and other technologies combine with a restructuring and rethinking of sales roles, your business will master this changing market.

Read more about the changing role of field sales and how your distribution company can support this shift in the MDM Special Report, The Sales Gorilla in the Room.  

Mike Marks is managing partner of Indian River Consulting Group and specializes in helping distributors and manufacturers accurately diagnose problems and identify risk-bound alternatives. Contact him at or 321-956-8617, or visit

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