With all the technology available to sales personnel, the nature of the sales position is changing drastically. This article examines some of the ways in which the role of the salesperson is changing, as well as ways to prepare a sales force for today’s ever-changing environment.
The role of the distribution salesperson is undergoing a change. Customers can use technology, such as the Internet or mobile apps, to access more information more easily than ever before – and they’re already showing significant willingness to use it.
"Customers can find out basic information on the Internet, and I am rarely asked anymore for answers specifically tooling related," says Ron Eddinger, territory manager for Haggard & Stocking, Indianapolis, IN. "It is an asset having technical ability to understand machining and how our lines relate to the machining process, but I don’t use that information on a daily basis like I used to."
As a result, salespeople have to change how they approach customers and how they view their own role in that sales relationship.
Since the customer can now often find information such as product price and availability online, providing this basic information now plays a smaller role for today's salesperson.
A study by the CEB of more than 1,400 business-to-business customers found that 57 percent of a typical purchase decision is already made before a customer even talks to a supplier. They have already collected a lot of the information they need through other channels, such as online. Access to information is helping drive the shift in the role of the sales person from that of an order collector to one of a consultant, a solutions-provider for that customer's business, says Barry Lawrence, program director of the industrial distribution program at Texas A&M University.
"[Sales has] to be about solving supply chain problems for customers; it has to be about seeing beyond the customer," Lawrence says.
Jeff Haggard, vice president of sales for Haggard & Stocking, sees the same shift. "I have to be more knowledgeable in the overall customer's process. I have to be more readily available – both in-person and electronically – and I have to be able to utilize the technology that's out there to interact between our customers and suppliers," he says.
Haggard says he tells his salespeople to "put on the hat" of their customers, to truly understand their business and provide them with the best solutions possible.
"While the salesperson still maintains the roles of the past, the successful salesman must step into a consulting role that demonstrates engagement with the customers' business and produces maximum value to the customers' business," says Ryan Torivo, territory manager for Haggard & Stocking.
"Customers are trying to do more with less resources, so that means they are relying on us," Haggard says, from requests for custom engineering work to help placing bids and sourcing products.
One of the biggest challenges of a more informed customer base is that the customer thinks they already know everything they need to make a purchasing decision. If a distributor isn’t able to move its customers out of this mindset, the salespeople could be missing out on opportunities to drive additional value to those customers, says Gail Ludewig, president of TotalWorks, a catalog production firm.
"In order to move [customers] away from the solution they have found themselves, you have to be able to effectively but politely move your clients away from thinking that they have the answer because they've done all the research," Ludewig says.
She recommends using store visits and face-to-face interactions to facilitate this, as it reinforces the idea that the salesperson is there to help the customer, rather than just process orders, and really drives home the idea that the sales rep is providing some unique value to the company.
"According to research, you have to be a little more aggressive, you have to challenge your clients or prospects in terms of their thinking, because you need to move them into what is your unique differentiator in terms of your product," Ludewig says.
Haggard says he sends his sales teams to their customers’ locations to get a better feel for the solutions his company may be able to provide them. "My guys do need to work the shop floor, so they can understand [the customer's] processes and come up with those cost savings. It rounds-out the entire sales process," he says.
While it is still important to maintain face-time with the customer, the nature of that relationship has changed, Haggard says.
"It's not the personal relationship anymore – the game tickets, the restaurants – but it's more the business relationship, because now my company can make the customer more efficient through the use of our technology," he says. "The cigar-toting, back-slapping sales guy is not there anymore."
"Wining and dining has pretty much fallen by the way side," Bryan Prilliman, territory manager for Haggard & Stocking, says. "A salesman today is graded on how they bring value to the customer, not on whether or not they are a fun person to be around. Relationships are still very important; it is how a salesman goes about building those relationships that has changed. Learning what makes each customer profitable is critical."
Customers also have new expectations about how they do business. When they reach out to a sales rep, they expect an immediate, complete answer, Haggard says. "When the customer paged you, if you called back within three hours, they would be happy. Now, if they can't get you on the phone within thirty seconds, they're upset with you," he says.
Fast turnarounds don’t apply to just answering questions; customers want business solutions provided to them faster, as well.
"In order to be competitive, distributors are going to find that they're going to have to be more real-time oriented with their customers," Lawrence says.
Greater access to information benefits everyone in the supply chain, as customers and suppliers alike have more complete information on which to base their decisions.
"There's going to be increased pressure to help manufacturers deal with their rapid need to differentiate their products, and the only way you can do that is if they can get richer market information faster," says Lawrence. "They have to know what the customer is going to want."
Sales Enablement-Driven Change
The shift in the role of the salesperson also has to do with sales-personnel enablement, as companies are looking to get more out of their sales teams, according to Lawrence.
"We're going to see greater and greater enablement of salespeople through better and better information technology support," says Lawrence. "The tools are going to become much better."
Many sales personnel now have immediate, online access to company product catalogs and also have access to more information on their customers. By leveraging tools such as LinkedIn and company websites, salespeople can get a more complete picture of a prospective client than ever before.
"You can find out everything about a prospect and their business," Ludewig says.
Salespeople can save a lot of time filling in information by doing some research beforehand, Ludewig says.
Available and accessible customer data helps with existing customers, as well. It can provide focus and direction in respect to expanding business with a core customer, Lawrence says. "Through customer stratification, we can start profiling the future core customers, and if a salesperson is dealing with an established core customer, we can give that sales team direction on how to increase the effectiveness of working with that customer, increase account penetration, introduce new products, expand into new market developments," he says.
It also provides opportunities for cross-selling and wallet-share expansion, Haggard says.
"With the advent of this technology, we are getting opportunities to sell different types of products within our customers. We're getting a lot of horizontal growth with our existing customers," he says.
According to Lawrence, 90 percent of sales personnel training is focused on product knowledge, while the remaining 10 percent is "relationship building" skills. In order to adapt to their changing roles, Lawrence recommends that sales personnel be trained on understanding financials, for both the company they work for, as well their customers’ companies. This will help them provide more efficient, targeted solutions to help grow their customer's business, he says.
Implementing new sales personnel training can be difficult, because it requires the sales team to "buy in" to the new process.
"It's a generational challenge; teaching the Gen-X'ers how to think like the millennial is a challenge," he says. "It used to be 'Hey, Joe's going to be here every Thursday at 3, and I have this great relationship with Joe so I'm going to try to get what I can from him.'" Now it’s “Who has the best technology that can get me what I want the quickest?”
Lawrence says he also sees the generational gap as being a big driver of this shift in the nature of the sales relationship. "At the same time, we're going to see the nature of sales relationships change, as the millennials become the majority in the workforce," he says.
While this shift in the role of the sales personnel has been occurring for some time, Lawrence warns that it is accelerating at a rapid pace.
"The confluence of better capabilities, combined with an even more competitive marketplace and even more pressure to differentiate oneself is going to cause these things to accelerate," he says.
Moving forward, it's all about demonstrating the value you provide to your customer, according to Steve Deist, partner at Indian River Consulting Group.
"If you’re doing a lot of selling to buyers where you have to show them a concrete value proposition, and basically, your ability to help them show their boss how much money they’re saving the company, that’s the key thing that you need to do to be a successful salesperson," Deist says.