Not long ago I was speaking
at a national sales meeting for a large regional distributor. The regional vice
president for the company's primary manufacturer was at the meeting, supporting
the efforts of his big distributor. At the coffee break, we struck up a conversation.
"Three years ago, I was the regional vice-president of sales for my company,"
he told me. "At the time, I had 56 people in my organization - nine sales manager
and the balance outside sales people. Today, I'm still the regional VP. My sales
are up and my gross margins are up. But, I have only 11 outside sales people reporting
"There has to be a story there," I replied.
"Yes," he said. "We worked very closely with this distributor to turn over much
more of the sales function to them. Since the distributor is doing more of the
sales job, I didn't need a duplicate sales force. We've increased our sales for
both organizations, and taken sales costs out of the channel. It's a win/win for
What a great example of one of the benefits of thinking differently and transforming
your sales systems - for both manufacturers as well as distributors. It's clear
that both the manufacturer as well as the distributor involved in this situation
had to change the way they thought about their sales forces, and had to transform
the way their sales people went about their jobs.
It's also clear that an essential component of this win/win situation was both
companies' ability to field a directable sales force.
Let's define the term. The key word here is directable. It means that your
sales force can be counted on to quickly, thoroughly and positively carry out
your directions. Such a sales force is both rare, and incredibly valuable
to the company. In fact, a directable sales force is one of the greatest strategic
advantages your company can have.
Why is it important? Here are three reasons.
1. It's a means of
distinguishing your company in a competitive marketplace.
There once was a time, not so long ago, that you could distinguish yourself
by providing good service, competitive prices, and good quality. Unfortunately,
in recent years the bar has been raised, and those are no longer sufficient.
They are necessary, but no longer enough to distinguish yourself from anyone.
It's likely that your customer thinks of your competitors as just as capable
of providing good service, quality products and competitive prices as you. I
understand that you think you're better, but, frankly, that doesn't count. What
is important is what your customer thinks. And, the tendency to blur the differences
between products and suppliers is a growing trend in the Information Age.
Consider for a moment why you want to distinguish yourself in the first place.
Isn't it to build your business? To acquire new customers and to expand the
business with your current customers? If you can no longer count on attracting
business through the old principles, what can you use to acquire good customers,
expand the business with them, and solidify relationships with key channel partners?
A directable sales force.
2. A directable sales force can be your primary means of implementing
In our competitive environment, an environment which is moving faster than images
on an MTV music video, you need to be able to create effective strategic plans,
and then implement them. As your strategy shifts in response to the changes
in your environment, you need to harness and focus the energy of your entire
organization on constantly changing strategic goals and initiatives. Today it's
"grow market share," tomorrow it's "increase GP percentage," next year it's
"penetrate key accounts." Your ability to survive and prosper in the new environment
will depend on your ability to get your company to do what you want them to
do - to carry out these new directions. And who are the primary group of people
charged with implementing company directives? The sales force.
3. A directable sales force is the primary means of implementing key partners'
Carrying out your own strategic initiatives is only one part of this issue.
If you're a distributor, you need to have the ability to carry out your key
vendors' strategy. For example, if one of your key manufacturers decides to
focus on increasing a certain product line, or penetrating a certain market
segment, you need to be able to respond to that initiative, and be a reliable
means of implementing those initiatives. In the example I discussed above, it
was the distributor's ability to implement the manufacturer's strategy that
gave rise to the opportunity for both companies.
A rare and precious commodity
Unfortunately, a directable sales force is the exception, not the rule. Particularly
among distributors, sales people often give lip service to directions from above,
and then go out and produce only minimum results. You can make all the commitments
to key vendors you want, but if your sales force doesn't do it, you're
not viewed as a reliable partner. Your relationship is in jeopardy. You can engage
in strategic planning meetings and retreats monthly, but if your sales force doesn't
carry out the directions bubbling up through those meetings, you're wasting your
Too often, sales people are stuck in the ruts of outmoded images of their jobs,
reinforced by deeply ingrained habits. Many sales people see themselves as "route
sales people," making the same sales call over and over again for years. Ask them
to view their jobs differently and you're liable to be frustrated with the lack
of results. The habit is just too deeply ingrained to change overnight.
Of course, you are often part of the problem. It's likely that you've relied
on hands-off , laise-faire sales management. "Go forth and sell a lot!" may have
been the extent of your direction to them. Coupled with a compensation program
heavily weighted to sales or gross margin incentives, that sales management approach
is a vestige of days gone by. Ask your sales force to do something differently,
and they'll go out and do what your pay plan rewards them for doing, regardless
of your request. In that case, the problem is your system. You ask them to do
one thing, but pay them to do something else.
If you're going to rise above the pack and survive and prosper in the Information
Age, you need to overcome these issues and field a directable sales force.
Side bar Quiz
Do you have a directable sales force? Take this short five question self-test
to help find out. Select an answer to each question, and then refer to the results
section to interpret your score.
1. To what extent do you
provide measurable goals and expectations for your sales force?
Now, add up your scores by
assigning these numerical values to the answers you selected.
a. we do an annual sales and/or gross margin goal.
b. we provide annual measurable goals for a number of specific performances.
c. we sometimes have temporary contests.
d. we did that once.
2. How often do you measure each salesperson's performance on those goals?
a. since we don't have any goals, we don't measure anything.
3. How often have you heard your channel partners (distributors if you're a
manufacturer, manufacturers if you're a distributor) praising the effectiveness
of your sales force?
a. you must be kidding.
b. it happens all of the time.
c. I remember once…
e. it happens occasionally.
4. To what extent is your sales force's pay dependent on performance on measurable
issues above and beyond just growth in sales or gross profits?
a. say what?
b. since we don't have any goals, and don't measure anything, we can't possibly
pay them for doing anything.
c. less than 20% of their annual W-2 is dependent on their performance on
issues above and beyond sales and gross margin.
d. between 20 - 50% of their annual W-2.
e. more than 50%.
5. If an opportunity was presented to you that required every one of your salespeople
to make a persuasive presentation of a new product in every one of their good
accounts within the next three months, what is the likelihood that they'll all
actually do it? Be honest.
a. we'd get greater than 80% compliance.
c. 50 - 80%.
d. less than 50%.
e. you must be kidding.
If your score is in the 42- 50 range, congratulations! You probably have a directable
sales force. Now you can focus on using that sales force to your strategic advantage.
If your score is in the 34 - 41 range, you've got something to build upon, but
a lot of work needs to be done. You've got a good shot at successfully transforming
your sales force for the 21st Century.
If your score is under 34, you better hope your competition is in the same range,
or your days are numbered. You've got a lot of work to do.