Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Sales Training for Distributors – Don’t forget Inside Sales

Last week I threw out some thoughts on sales training for distributors.  The response was great, but I received more than a half dozen challenges from inside sales groups.  The overall feedback could be summarized as: Don’t forget about Inside Sales. 

The comments reminded me of a couple of points:
  • Outside Sale people may make the phone ring, but it is the service the customer receives when they call that keeps customers coming back (aka customer retention).
  • Most customers gauge Distributor customer service by the quality of the Inside Sales team.

Historically, distributors have focused on outside sales improvement…
Experience shows when distributors invest in skills training (which is meager at best,) they tend to focus on the outside sales position.  A quick “Google Search” on the topic of “distributor sales training” brings up something like 28,600 results.  While I didn’t read all 28 thousand of them, I did look at the first twenty listings.  All were outside sales related.  Assuming that training organizations follow the money, we can assume there is darn little effort devoted to the team who keeps the customer calling and by which our customer service is often judged.  Houston, we have a problem...
Inside Sales was once a baby step in
the trail to Outside Sales

There are three potential reasons for this lack of investment in inside sales: 
  1. Back in the good old days, inside sales was viewed as a stepping stone job for outside sales.  The career trajectory for most people looked something like this: start in the warehouse, move to the counter, go to inside sales and finally grab a company car and hit the road.  Compensation for inside sales people was meager and anyone who stayed in the department was viewed at lacking in personality, drive, motivation or intellect.  You might say the good old days were not so good for the inside team.
  2. Most of the sales managers serving the distribution world grew up in the outside sales world and don’t understand the inside sales role well enough to realize what training should be focused toward.  They realize the need for training but tend to see it as a subset of the training they provide for outside sales people.
  3. Again going to distributor sales managers, most grew up in a pre-internet environment.  Only the most progressive managers realize selling roles have shifted.  Customers no longer count on their outside sales person as the harbinger of information.  Research indicates customers review products, find information and make preliminary decisions without waiting for data sheets to be delivered by their friendly outside sales resource.

The job of inside sales is changing…
Just a decade ago the job of inside sales centered on transferring phone and fax orders to computer system (ERP) orders, answering questions on delivery and selecting the proper part number from a customer’s detailed description.  All good stuff for the time, but nothing like today.

The end of these activities is on the horizon.  New computer technology allows orders entered onto customer PO forms to be automatically entered into the system without human interface.  Further, some of the product selection criteria has been automated or moved to mobile apps allowing customers to better determine the proper catalog number (even in instances where complex part number strings are involved.)

Today customers look to inside sales for more.  For instance, for most distributors, the first line of price negotiations has been switched to the inside sales team.  Front line technical support falls on to inside sales to do some logistical matters like expedites, freight issues and invoice clarification. 

Provide world class technical support and you will attract customers.

How do we train for customer support?
If your companies sells highly technical products (Programmable Controllers, computerized operator interfaces, complex sensors, drives or irrigation controllers, programmable heating systems, etc.), we recommend establishing an inside specialist(s).  This person would be the phone resource for customers with urgent issues. 

The inside specialist need not be a new hire.  We have seen companies delegate slices of their technology to individuals with keen interest in the products.  This will work well assuming the person is not overloaded with other tasks. 

But product support can be taught.  First, let’s assume customers commonly ask the same set of questions.  Identifying these questions and training on the answers grows the overall support.  Rather than being tasked to learn everything, inside sales is taught to understand the 20 most commonly asked questions on the product. 

Further, inside sales is taught a plan for escalating the call to someone more knowledgeable.  Years ago, my own organization created a “who to call list” which allowed the inside team to access factory and internal experts on various topics – but not until the problem was qualified.

Train for add-on product sales…
The most powerful marketing tool in history is McDonald’s

own, “Would you like fries with that?”  Sure, everybody knows Mickey D’s has fries, but just prompting the customer with the question turns a five dollar order into a seven dollar ticket (a 40 percent sales boost not considering fries have a high gross margin for the company.) 

Many of our computer systems (ERPs) allow the addition of suggested sale or “goes with” products.  We need to reinforce the importance of both populating the system and training our people to remind customers of products they may have forgotten.

Proper pricing can improve the inside sales role.  First, without a well-developed pricing system, inside sales teams devote lots of time looking up last prices paid and checking on price levels with their outside sales counterparts.  Inside sales should be trained to spot poorly maintained price files and provide the feedback required to get these fixed.  Second, inside sales people should learn a few basic negotiating tricks to avoid being “duped” by procurement professionals who have been trained in the science of negotiation.  If you have not yet see the information provided by Strategic Pricing Associates or their sister company SPASigma, we recommend you check out this really funny video.  

Again a special offer…
Last time we offered a postcard from Iowa to everyone who shared their suggestions for sales training with a grand prize of a professionally developed training class set up to be shared with your team.  We are repeating the offer.  No obligation, no telesales calls, no nothing.  Everyone will be a winner. 
Postcards from Iowa for every entry.
Free Sales Program to the coolest suggested subject.

BTW –Sue from California was our winner last time.  Sue claims she had never received a genuine postcard from the Tall Corn State.  Sue, we expect more entries.  The USPS wants to bring you another card.  


Sanya Saxena said...

Nicely written post on sales and Sales Techniques, very well explain about the inside sell process, Sales Solutions India

Sue Moss said...

GREAT article.
And as I said, I am thoroughly enjoying my post card from the great state of Iowa.

Thanks you!

Tom Falter said...

Frank - following on the Inside Sales role, why not feature training on identifying what the customer really needs and wants? How can sales staff identify if a customer truly is "price focused" or if they are just pre-programmed to haggle? How to redirect a customer to quality and service focus and away from the price. And what sales should do, and consider when they encounter a customer who actually is only focused on price.

And being that I am already in Iowa, could you send a postcard from another exotic locale?

The Distributor Specialist said...

Good suggestion. As for a postcard from some other exotic location... I can't imagine anywhere more exotic than IOWA.. But I will ask the postcard fairy to see what she can do. After all, we do value readers in strange and exotic lands...

Tom said...

Frank, I think you need to pair an indie sales person with an outside sales person. I want the customer to have a go to inside person when i can't take care of them myself.

Victor said...

Amen but you're missing maybe the most important people on the distributor sales team and its the application engineers. I am repeatedly told by my best distributors that it's the AE's that sell the most. The AE's give confidence to sales to talk about your product to the customer. It's the AE that uses your product to solve a customer's problem. So it's a three person team IMHO.

Roshan Joseph said...

Its very appreciable of you to provide such a precise and informative blog about sales, in particular inside sales. I believe that sales trainers need to educate amateur sales candidates on factors concerning inside sales too. Well done!!

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