It was the age of leisure suits and wingtips. Sales offices were richly appointed in thickly shagged carpet and orange metallic furniture. The computer, fax machine, Internet, smartphone, tablet and text message were years away. Actually, the latest bit of sales technology centered on the auto-flip Rolodex. Times were different; very different. And to further amuse our younger readers, a couple of decades ago, distributor owners and sales managers spent significant time visiting customers and traveling with their salespeople. It was our management style.
The reasons for this change in management style are many. Distributors cover more products and larger geographical territories, and the business has become more complex. Back in simpler times, value propositions centered on accurate billing, local inventory and easy credit terms. Value-adds had yet to enter the lexicon of most distributors. This kind of solution selling approach requiring qualified support staff, product specialists and expensive laboratories was totally unheard of. Distractions created by emails and supplier-driven reports were years away.
Distributor owners and their management staff were far more tuned into customer personalities and reinforcing relationships in those days. While I have seen very convincing arguments for a return to the “good old days” of customer connection, distributors today face a whole different set of challenges. Further, I sincerely doubt if returning to the old ways is even possible. Most distributor managers lack the bandwidth to even begin approaching the issue. But I do believe successful sellers still make good use of their boss as a strategically important sales tool. The time has come to outline a set of best practices for utilizing management to accelerate sales growth.
It’s the seller’s job to manage leadership resources
We started the discussion off with the tongue-in-cheek notion of a “bring your boss to work day.” Seriously, salespeople must think of their management team as an additional set of resources they need to channel for creating positive growth. With this thought, I believe it is the responsibility of the seller to determine the right place to activate their leadership team. Management should not be responsible for setting the date and asking for an old-fashioned ride along. For all but the newest salesperson, the onus of scheduling and determining the right customer interaction falls not on management but on the strategic-thinking seller.
Like all good joint call activities, its purpose, the personalities involved and scripting the pitch are details you establish well ahead of the actual customer interaction. Follow-ups need be discussed and planned out immediately following the visit, with dates and milestones established. Typically, the salesperson retains the responsibility for making sure everything is finished within the customer’s time frame and meets with their expectations. With this in mind, let’s look into some of the best uses of the distributor leadership.
Don’t wait until there is a fiasco to show commitment
Industry observations point out that the most common management-customer interaction occurs during some major customer flare-up. Here’s an often-seen scenario: A supplier misses a delivery date, the customer’s project is massively delayed, tempers flare, legal beagles growl and suddenly the management team gets to meet the customer. With hat in hand and a pocket full of sales concessions, distributor leadership rushes in for damage control. Wouldn’t it have been nice if this wasn’t their first meeting?
Imagine a different scenario. Here the distributor’s salesperson makes the effort to arrange an annual meeting between someone on the leadership team and key customer personnel at all of their top 10 accounts. Call it a customer strategy review, value meeting or something of your own choosing, but make it happen. And while going to the trouble, ensure the meeting is meaningful; not just a firm handshake and a couple of flowery words.
Make the meeting strategically important by providing insight to your mutual work together and establish a dialog for mutual growth. Consider these topics:
• Statistics on orders placed, deliveries made, product types purchased and seasonal sales trends.
On the surface, this topic seems duller than paint drying, but it offers a vehicle for you and the boss to expound on local support inventory, emergency deliveries, order fill rates and your company’s unique ability to support the customer during the off-season.
• The meeting can restate and reaffirm customer value created throughout the year.
Call it value-add, specific customer value metrics or whatever, but taking time to outline specific examples of the work you have done to benefit the customer is a best practice. Whenever possible, the boss should use numbers provided to you by various customer contacts throughout the year. One example might be, “Your operations manager Bruce tells us our shift to 7 a.m. deliveries saves more than three trips back to the shop every day. With time and mileage thrown in, we believe your $20,000 savings a year justifies the overtime spent in our warehouse.”
• New programs soon to be released from your organization make for good discussion.
Why not allow the boss to present new programs on the horizon with your organization? This gives the customer an opportunity to provide feedback and serves to strengthen your ability to negotiate minor changes to the program to benefit your customer (and further lock in sales).
• Why not gather the customer’s opinion on new product offerings?
With distributors migrating into new technologies, new supply partners and adjoining lines of trade, I can’t imagine a distributor where this is not a good topic of discussion. Having someone from the leadership of your company solicit opinions enhances the customer relationship by allowing them a mechanism to “buy into” your future offering.
• The big kahuna, the R&D of distribution.
Manufacturers have R&D departments scanning the horizon for new product opportunities and exciting customer trends. For most distributors, the best R&D comes directly from customers. Imagine the response if your boss said this: “As a distributor, we don’t have an R&D department, our only research involves our customers. It isn’t enough for us to provide you with products and services now. We have to be ready for your future needs, and it takes time to prepare. Can you give us just a view of how you believe your business will change in the coming years and how you see your needs changing?”
Use your boss to move up in the organization
As strange as it may seem, many distributor salespeople don’t enjoy good relationships with the real power people at their accounts. They justify their lack of connection with a number of excuses. Many believe their project or service manager buddy carries the real buying clout. But, over the years, a host of great distributors have found themselves on the outs because a competitor nurtured a relationship at the top. Some worry a quality call on the customer’s top management might damage the relationship with current contacts. Here is where the boss can help.
Why not leverage a call with the boss to meet and further your company’s relationship with the financial leaders at your customer? If you use some of the strategies outlined above, invite your customer’s top brass. If you have yet to set up a review meeting, launch the call with something to the effect of, “Mr. Big, your company is one of our major clients. I would like to introduce you to my boss so that he might learn a little more about your organization. This will not be a sales call. Instead, we want to learn how we might be able to serve you more effectively.”
Offering up advanced business solutions
One of the results of the various meetings we’ve outlined could be ideas for nonproduct business solutions. Engaging the clout of your leadership team speeds the process and allows for more meaningful give and take during the discussions.
Examples of advanced business solutions might include any of the following: Inventory management, service truck stock programs, job trailers, consigned inventory, summary billing and more progressive payment terms. In every case, management level participation makes your job as a salesperson easier and speeds up the process.
Working with the boss
As you lay plans to “bring your boss to work,” there are a few points to remember. The relationship with the account belongs to you. Even if the boss is responsible for screwing something up, it’s your mess to clean up. In every single case outlined above, the seller must accept responsibility for not only planning the activity but also the content. Research, homework as well as legwork are required.
In nearly every case, the salesperson will need to spend time well ahead of the appointment to gather data, develop presentations, lay out scripts and set expectations. Consider this part of the bargain. Your leadership team is a powerful tool to drive business forward. They have a vested interest in seeing your business grow. Driving their involvement will ultimately accelerate your success.
A final thought
I have been thinking about applying the principles of strategic planning to customers. Two critical components of thinking strategically are analyzing potential payoff and focusing efforts on areas with the greatest bang for the buck. Applying these principles to the accounts of a distributor salesperson drives another important point; we can’t do this for every account.
With the typical salesperson’s limited time and the narrow bandwidth of most distributor managers, it is especially important to gauge which account deserves the extra attention. For most, the object of your attention falls at the top of your account list. I suggest no more than 10 carefully selected accounts. Establishing this behavior here provides for both a strong defense of existing business and a powerful offense in taking business from the competition.