Has selling in the electrical wholesaling industry changed in the last few years? Do salespeople need to adapt their sales skills to these changes? Is selling in the 21st century really so different that the concept of pioneering a territory and then servicing the customer as a life annuity has gasped its final breath?

Yes, yes, and yes. If this new world is a reality, what can salespeople do to prepare themselves to become “A” players in the years to come? To be an “A” player, you must build business-to-business relationships through channels that other team members can service. The special buyer/salesperson relationship isn't dead. Golf is still allowed, and entertainment is still acceptable, but these tools are not used as often. The sales-planning process must focus more on the long-term goals of the organization. Sales representatives in the 21st century must ensure that their products, services and companies become the channel of choice. The primary objective of getting the “first call and last look,” is the same, but the methodology has evolved to a higher level.

BECOMING A DISTRIBUTOR OF CHOICE

Your focus must now be on developing new customers and increased penetration of current high-potential customers. Instead of concentrating solely on increasing sales, you must systematically and consistently increase the number of customers that consider you a distributor of choice. If you truly practice solution medicine for your customers, you can find their pain and make it go away. As a result, you will always get the first call and last look.

How do you know if you are or can be an “A” player? Your answers to the following questions should tell you.

  • Do you know the five largest customers of your five largest customers?

  • What are the three largest sources of pain in their lives?

  • What are your customers' key profit and growth drivers?

  • What are you doing with the knowledge?

  • How would the customer describe your efforts to improve their business?

“A” salespeople must develop achievement competencies, influence competencies and thinking competencies. Here is a description of each competency.

Achievement competencies

Achievement competencies focus on results. They help you understand the concept of planning and creating strategies with effective action plans that support corporate objectives. They help you target high-potential customers and lock onto customer's growth objectives with laser-like clarity. They promote creativity, empowerment and initiative.

Influence competencies

Salespeople should no longer hit the road just trying to meet a quota of calls per day. “A” players should now focus on making multiple contacts within an account, matching their company resources to the client's needs. An “A” player targets persuasion techniques, maximizes personal impact and works hard to improve organizational awareness on both sides of the sales equation. “A” players practice and promote “tier-level selling,” (focusing primarily on their very best accounts), not only in their own company, but in the customer's organization as well.

Thinking competencies

Salespeople now must be even quicker thinkers. When they shoot from the hip, it's from a knowledge base that doesn't expose their companies to unnecessary risks. They think outside the box and practice scenario planning within their own territory analyses to prepare themselves for the future. They are short-term planners and long-term strategic thinkers.

“A” salespeople always strive for improvement. They gain the majority of their targeted customers' business and increase market share. Transactions flow through the well-managed relationships they establish because their time is focused on growth rather then transactional service. An “A” sales rep no longer manages these transactions; his or her team back at the office and the company's system do the servicing.

“A” players constantly seek to enhance their selling skills and their knowledge of the industry they serve. They no longer focus on product knowledge. Instead they focus on customers' products and industry knowledge. “A” players have fine-tuned the basic habits of success: prospecting, planning, goal setting, record keeping, time management, self development, industry knowledge, self discipline and professional sales presentations.

YOUR CUSTOMER'S CUSTOMER

To become an “A” player, you must get involved with your customer's customer. That's because the sales game now requires that you strive to bring your customer more customers. It requires not only an understanding of their capital structure but creative suggestions on your part to make them more efficient. Your customers also need you to introduce them to new markets.

Another key difference in sales these days is the importance of understanding the difference between price and cost — and being able to educate your customers about this difference.

The days of “three bids and a buy” are gone, too, because the purchasing mentality of your customers has changed. Innovations in their purchasing practice force innovation in your selling practice. Today, you must seek, document and get signed agreements from your customers on cost savings. You must focus on working-capital reductions, direct-expense reductions, indirect-expense reductions (redevelopment of personnel), system reliability, inventory management and logistics solutions that contribute profits to their bottom line.

Reduction of your gross profit is not an acceptable cost reduction.

“A” players are not super humans, but they know how to focus their efforts on meeting customers' needs. Asking yourself these three questions can help you do this:

  • What are the key skill sets of my customer?

  • What is the company good at?

  • What would my customer's customers say they really value from that company?

Ask these same questions of your own company.

In some cases “loser customers” deal with “loser distributors.” They often form a mutual admiration society. “A” players quickly recognize loser customers and refuse to waste valuable time on them.

VALUE-ADDED SELLING

Take the time to really understand value-added selling. The key is to completely separate selling goals from being genuinely helpful and understanding your customer's business. True value-added selling focuses on helping customers solve their problems, without trying to make a sale. Remember, value-added is defined by the customer, its goals and its business.

You may say to yourself, “What's the use? I know how to sell. I'm good at it, and I have done it for years.” You may be absolutely correct. Things didn't change overnight. The distribution industry has been going through an evolutionary process throughout the 1990s. It was accelerated by improving technology and information distribution.

If you were an “A” player in the 1990s, you probably learned and practiced many of the techniques discussed in this article. You must continue to learn new skills. If you haven't changed your style or learned new practices based on better customer intelligence, and if you still believe in the old sales model, you're probably struggling to maintain market share. Seek additional training and advice, perhaps through a mentor at the company.

I'm betting that the majority of you fall into the first category. You have been involved in the evolutionary process and are eager to anticipate the challenges in the years to come. To paraphrase hockey Hall-of-Famer Wayne Gretsky, “You want to skate to where the puck's going to be.”


Eric “Rick” Johnson (rjohnson@ircg.com) is a principal of Indian River Consulting Group, Melbourne, Fla. Started in 1987 by Michael Marks, Indian River's specialists consult with distributors and suppliers to make the changes necessary to maintain competitive advantage. You can contact the company by calling (321) 956-8617, or by visiting www.ircg.com for more information.

GONE ARE THE DAYS

The sales game has changed, and salespeople must learn new skills to keep up.

Gone are the days of selling features and benefits. You must now understand how your customers make money and match the benefits of your product to their profit-making activities.

Developing a personal relationship with a customer is no longer the key to success. Selling in the 21st century still requires personal relationships, but they must be expanded upon — you must become a business consultant and an advisor to customers.

Salespeople cannot focus solely on product and services. They must now focus on industry knowledge and become experts in the industry to provide real value to their customers.

Customers no longer have the time for long, rambling stories from salespeople with the gift of gab, or unsolicited scripted presentations. “A” players in the 21st century listen more than 80 percent of the time. They try to understand the customer's real concerns, and then look for opportunities to solve these problems.

Salespeople can no longer afford to be high-paid apologists. Quality and service are now a given to enter the game.