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Can You Handle the Truth?

Can You Handle the Truth?

November 12, 2018

One of the biggest challenges for B2B distributors today is deciding where to allocate the available resources to grow their businesses. For most of my over 20 years in B2B distribution, the answer was simple, and always the same: just hire more outside salespeople and good things will happen.

But today, how customers want to find products, interact with you and buy is changing. The good old days of making four calls a week to your customers from the golf course are just that: the good old days. Your customers don’t have the time or even the desire to do business that way anymore.

You only have to walk into a grocery store, or a McDonalds, or buy something online to see the change. It’s a self-serve world. So why aren’t your sales models and the way you communicate with customers adjusting to the new realities? In many cases it’s because, for most B2B distributors, even talking about slightly adjusting your unchanged legacy sales model is regarded as career suicide.

Case in point. Recently, I had a distributor ask for my help in adjusting their go-to-market strategy in the digital age. They wanted some outside input to develop a long-term strategy to help combat digital disruption and build an omnichannel sales plan. Their base business, driven by hiring the right salespeople, making direct calls and shipping the products efficiently, was still strong. However, their business from smaller customers was declining and their long-tail, higher-profit sales were not what they used to be.

The leader’s vision was to become a more omnichannel sales company that would be positioned to react to the threat of digital disruption from Amazon Business and other players. He wanted to look at their inside and outside mix and develop their digital sales capabilities. It sounded like a great situation. This was a strong organization, having a good year, that the leader wanted to improve with some constructive, forward-looking changes. I told the leader that I might be able to help, but that before accepting I needed to talk with all of the senior leaders on his team. 

I wanted to ask them one question before accepting the assignment.

The question was, “If you can only hire five new people next year, would you hire five new outside salespeople or five new marketing associates?”

The response was unanimous. There was only one choice: hire more outside salespeople.

I had been hoping that someone would suggest splitting up the hires with a mix of outside, inside and marketing, but no one did. I couldn’t accept the assignment. This is a B2B distribution leadership team that, in the words of the great Jack Nicholson, “Can’t handle the truth.”

Don’t get me wrong. The economy is rolling, and I expect they will have a solid 2019. They have a strong leadership and sales team with an established market position. But they aren’t willing to consider any potential sales coverage changes to better position the company for the self-serve future. If sales coverage change is forced upon them by the leader it will probably be a journey to nowhere. 

The days of the superhero outside account manager cashing checks based on relationships alone, without inside or digital help, are fast disappearing. The speed of change differs by distributor, but it’s changing for everyone. So, are you preparing your business for success in three to five years? If you aren’t looking to at least tweak your sales coverage model, then I hope your leaders who are resisting the necessary changes are retiring soon.

As always, I’m very interested in your feedback. You can post a comment below or reach me at

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