It’s commonplace to say that the role of the sales rep in the distribution industry is going through a period of transformation. But what is often forgotten in all the discussion, says Steve Newland, president of Allied Electronics of Fort Worth, TX, is that ever since people began selling things to each other, sales has always been evolving.
“Back when I started in sales over 30 years ago, a key role of the sales rep was education,” says Newland, who will be a panelist at MDM’s Sales GPS Conference in Las Vegas in February. “Back then, customers had limited access to what products were available and what they did and so had to rely on sales reps for that knowledge.” Over time, he says, as access to information became easier, sales transitioned into more value-based communication, from talking about the product to talking about the value that customers could derive from using it.
“Then, as you moved into the late ’90s, 2000s,” Steve continues, “it really began to shift more toward value creation, where the sales rep has a keen enough understanding of the customer’s business and environment where they can actually recommend or prescribe solutions that will have a net-positive impact.”
Throughout all this, he says, the essential qualities of a great sales person have not changed: empathy, persistence, problem-solving, listening, creativity and a definite bent toward achievement and motivation. Most of all, a consistent ability to view the business and the world through the eyes of the customer. “That’s the reason that we rely on sales people to be the voice of the customer,” he says, “because they can assimilate, interpret and represent the views, feelings and needs of the customer back into the organization.”
There is no doubt that today the pace is accelerating, driven principally by technology that, in the next five to 10 years, Newland believes is going to go way beyond the ability to order a specified part number online. “When I look at technology and where it’s going, with machine learning, artificial intelligence, miniaturization, the Internet of Things and rapid software development and deployment, I don’t think there’s anything that you’re not going to be able to do online sooner rather than later. And I really mean anything.”
Perception vs. Reality
There is, however, an important caveat. All the technology in the world doesn’t mean much if customers don’t end up using it. Newland cites the fact that even today, with so many other options available, many in the industry still routinely receive a significant number of customer orders via fax. Why? Because it’s easy for the customer and they don’t see a need to change.
“The gating factor has always been and will always be not what is possible online, but what the customers and the market want to do,” he says. “As distributors and as technologists, we get caught up talking about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and about what’s possible, but at the end of the day the gating factor is always adoption by the people who write the checks.”
Allied is just starting out on its own sales model transformation. For reasons of competitive advantage he is reluctant to get too specific, but the new model will be the result of a comprehensive review of every aspect of the business. “I’m more interested in substantial change than subtle change,” Newland says. “I want to make sure we are positioned well for where things will be rather than where they are at present.” He cites distribution consultant Mike Marks (a speaker and moderator at Sales GPS), who likes to say that the key thing is not what to do next, but to look down the road to figure out where things are going and pointing toward that.
At the same time, the goal is to work fast, with most of the fundamental changes in place by the end of the year. “We’re working in an environment of change now where if you can’t specify, implement and adopt change in your own organization in a short period of time, you’re going to miss the change in the market,” he says. “I can’t have a sales force that’s going through a five-year transitional process because the market’s changing faster than that.”
Learn more about the upcoming Sales GPS Conference at salesgpsconference.com.