Purposeful, consistent sales growth. This is a goal we all strive to achieve. Yet, for many distributors, it’s often elusive and driven by fortunate circumstance than a result of a purposeful, consistent approach that delivers repeatable, replicable, scalable and predictable results.
What’s Holding Many Distributors Back
Over the past four years supporting wholesale distributors, I’ve seen some patterns emerge. Many of these are consistent with the barriers I’ve seen in other vertical industries, and a few seem more prevalent in our world.
There are distributors that don’t have all seven of these challenges, of course, but I have seen all these challenges present in many companies, across the multiple sub-verticals in wholesale distribution.
Without further ado, here they are:
- Allowing self-directed sales teams vs. a management-led approach
- Using poor sales hiring practices
- Making assumptions about buyer/customer acumen
- A lack of discipline with sales process and sales methodology
- Not assessing skill levels and training to close competency gaps
- Not implementing a sales management operating system
- Not creating a coaching culture and the lack of a sales coaching system
Let’s take a closer look at this from a more actionable perspective, by detailing each problem, why it doesn’t work and what to do instead.
What to Do to Consistently Grow Sales
Management-Led Sales Teams
The Problem: Allowing self-directed sales teams
Why It Doesn’t Work: The problem with self-directed sales teams is:
- At worst, they can quickly turn into a chaotic mess
- At best, it’s impossible to purposefully foster organizational performance improvement.
Everyone’s doing their own thing, following their personal sales philosophies. Yes, this does work to a degree. But there is no way to manage it, coach to it or predictably grow sales with it. How can you fine-tune your strategies when you don’t even know which strategies your team is employing?
What to Do Instead: A management-led approach means providing clear direction, setting expectations and creating a unified sales approach (sales models, sales process and sales methodology). It’s about equipping your sales team with the right tools and resources they need to succeed.
Remember, the goal here is not to control every move your reps make, but to channel their efforts effectively and efficiently.
Now, I know what you might be thinking – “But Mike, doesn’t this stifle creativity and flexibility?” Not at all. A management-led approach can still encourage innovation and adaptability. It’s all about finding the right balance between guidance and empowerment.
Proven-Effective Sales Hiring Practices
The Problem: Poor sourcing and hiring practices
Why It Doesn’t Work: First, it’s a recruiting/sourcing problem, and then a selection/hiring problem. The problem with subpar sourcing and hiring practices is that they lead to a mismatch between the sales role and the candidate. You end up with folks who may not have the necessary mindset, skills, or cultural fit for the job – or, at least not to be a true top performer.
It can get you “more of the same,” but there’s an inherent problem with that, which is a bit sensitive. When you compare the selling skills in other verticals to the selling skills in wholesale distribution, there are significant gaps in our vertical. (For more on this and a look at the data, watch this on-demand webinar on The State of Sales in Wholesale Distribution.)
For hiring, we’re often footloose and fancy free. There’s little structure to interviews, little formal process and planned questions, and no scoring system, leaving many hiring managers on their own to hire based on their own process and gut feel. The problem with this approach is the hit-or-miss nature of standard interviewing and intuition. It’s often less than 20% predictive of sales success.
What to Do Instead:
To attract the real sales superstars, you need a strategic approach to recruiting and sourcing. Instead of settling for whomever stumbles upon your job posting, you must design ads that will attract top performers, place them in locations most likely to source them, and/or proactively seek out top performers (employing strategies such as outbound calling, using recruiting agencies, and getting referrals from your top performers).
Once you’ve got a good pool of potential candidates, the next step is to identify the cream of the crop. And that’s where sales hiring assessments, behavioral interviewing and skill validations come into play.
- Assessments help you evaluate candidates objectively, giving you insights into their mindsets, competencies, strengths, weaknesses and the potential fit for the role.
- Behavioral interviewing allows you to dig deep and understand how candidates approach various situations and challenges, based on what they’ve done in the past (past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior). Good assessments will often recommend questions or areas to dig deeper, based on the assessment results.
- And let’s not forget about skill validations. You want to see your candidates in action, right? Well, conducting simulations or role-plays can give you a glimpse of how they handle real-life sales scenarios.
By incorporating these practices, you’re not only improving your chances of finding the right fit, but you’re also setting your sales team up for success.
Deepening Buyer/Customer Acumen
The Problem: Making assumptions based on internal perspectives
Why It Doesn’t Work: One of the biggest problems in sales is making assumptions about your market based on internal perspectives rather than conducting true buyer persona research.
Assuming you know your market well based on past experience, without conducting proper research, is like driving to the airport in a busy city at rush hour trying to make it home. It might seem like you know where you’re going, but without checking routes for traffic delays or accidents, you’re taking a major risk of missing your flight.
The other risk, is that you may not be adapting to new buyer journeys, buying preferences, or their COIN-OP (Challenges, Opportunities, Impacts, Needs, Outcomes, and Priorities). Especially given the amount of disruption in distribution, evolving B2B buying behavior, and new generations entering into buyer roles (whether executive, procurement, or shop floor). So many things domino out from this foundation, including your sales models, sales processes, buyer engagement content, your content marketing, your methodology, and how the various personas or buyer archetypes want to interact with you.
What to Do Instead:
So, what’s the secret sauce to develop true buyer and customer acumen? I emphasize the importance of third-party, in-depth buyer persona research.
To truly understand your market and your customers, you need to get into their heads, walk in their shoes and see the world from their perspective. It’s all about being truly customer-centric rather than relying solely on your internal viewpoints.
Here are some recommendations to help you develop or deepen your buyer and customer acumen:
- Conduct thorough research: Start by conducting extensive market research to understand your target audience’s needs, pain points and preferences. Dive into data, gather insights and identify patterns that can guide your sales strategies.
I recommend hiring an external third-party expert, since your buyers will speak more openly to them (often with a promise of anonymity.) Have your research firm interview your customers, others like them and, if possible, those you hoped would become customers, but did not.
- Build buyer personas: Creating buyer personas is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle – you’re putting together all the pieces that make up your ideal customers. Demographics, behavior, motivations, the COIN-OP elements mentioned above and how they buy products and services like yours – gather all the relevant information to paint a comprehensive picture.
- Talk to customers: There’s no substitute for direct customer feedback in quarterly business reviews or customer advisory boards. Engage with your existing customers through surveys, interviews or focus groups to gain valuable insights into their experiences and expectations. For new business development (customer acquisition), consider doing Win-Loss Analysis, as well.
- Leverage data analytics: Data is gold in the sales world. Analyze sales data, customer interactions, buying patterns and market trends to uncover patterns and opportunities you might have missed otherwise.
- Embrace the empathy mindset: Developing buyer acumen requires empathy. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes, understand their desires, fears and aspirations, and tailor your sales approach accordingly.
- Continuous learning: The market is ever-changing, and so are your customers’ needs. Stay on top of this by periodically updating your buyer personas and refining your strategies.
By investing time and effort in developing true buyer and customer acumen, you’ll be able to align your sales approach with what your customers actually want. You’ll build stronger relationships, offer tailored solutions, and ultimately, enjoy more sales success.
So, let’s kick old assumptions to the curb and embrace a fully customer-centric approach.
Sales Process and Sales Methodology Discipline
The Problem: Limited sales process management and a free-for-all sales approach
Why It Doesn’t Work: Process and methodology provide a framework for how to go-to-market, based on the above buyer and customer acumen. Absent this, it’s a free-for-all, or “every person for themselves” approach. It’s also impossible to develop a common language, and very difficult to hire effectively, develop effective sales onboarding or coach to improve performance with any regularity.
Multiple sales research studies show that high level of process and methodology adoption (over 75%) lead to significant improvements in revenue plan attainment, sales rep quota attainment, and overall win rates. This is a no-brainer, yet it’s been ignored by far too many distributors for far too long.
What to Do Instead: Adopt a formal sales process and sales methodology and manage both with discipline.
- Consistency: A formal sales process and methodology provide a step-by-step framework that all your sales reps can follow. It ensures a consistent approach, making it easier to reproduce successful outcomes. You’ll have a proven formula for success.
- Efficiency and effectiveness: With a structured approach, your sales team can work more efficiently. They know exactly what actions to take at each stage, reducing wasted time and efforts. A methodology backed by buyer persona research, data-driven insights and top-performer practices will streamline the sales process and better support buying decisions, leading to better outcomes.
- Better sales forecasting: Formal process and methodology also allow you to forecast more reliably. By understanding how well each deal is qualified, the buying process exit criteria for decision makers, and the buyer landscape for each opportunity, you can forecast outcomes more reliably.
- Continuous improvement: A formal process can be refined and optimized over time. By analyzing your persona research, customer feedback, and other data, you can identify areas for improvement and adapt accordingly. This constant refinement leads to continuous growth.
- Improved sales onboarding: When you have a structured sales process and methodology, it becomes easier to onboard and train new reps. This can help new team members become more productive, more quickly.
- Enhanced customer experience: Building on your buyer and customer acumen, a formal sales process and methodology puts your customers at the center of everything you do. It allows your reps to better understand customer challenges, opportunities, impacts, needs, outcomes, priorities and preferences (COIN-OP), leading to a more personalized and engaging buying experience, with reduced friction and higher win rates.
Adopting a formal sales process and methodology brings consistency, efficiency and effectiveness to your sales team’s efforts and improves the ability to both manage and coach, leading to predictable and scalable success.
Sales Competency Assessments with Training
The Problem: Lack of defined competencies, no assessment of strengths/gaps, little to no ongoing training
Why It Doesn’t Work: What’s the big deal with this lack of defined competencies, you ask? Here’s the scoop:
- Inconsistent performance: There’s a close tie between your sales methodology and sales competencies (which are the mindsets and skills needed to execute the methodology). If the competencies are weak or missing, performance will vary across your sales force.
- Expectations without empowerment: When expectations are set without defining foundational skills as a path to achieve them, frustration can set in. This lack of clarity and support can lead to motivation issues and low employee engagement, especially in younger workers.
- Missed opportunities for growth: Without assessing strengths and gaps, your team won’t know where they excel or where they need improvement. Identifying areas for growth allows individuals to focus on developing the right skills and their managers to support them.
- Stagnant sales force performance: If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. I’ve often joked that some people have five years of experience, and others have one year of experience, five times. Selling is dynamic, and ongoing training is essential to keep up with the ever-evolving market. Without it, your team’s performance can easily plateau.
What to Do Instead: So, what’s the solution? Focus on your sales process, methodologies and competencies.
- Define your sales competencies: Identify the core competencies and skills required for success in your various sales roles. Create a framework that outlines what they need to excel in their positions and what good looks like. The competencies should support your sales methodology, and both should support your sales process.
- Conduct regular assessments: Assess your sales team’s strengths and gaps regularly, against the competencies. Use data-driven insights, competency assessments, psychometric assessments, performance metrics, and customer feedback to identify areas for improvement. This allows you to tailor training and development programs to meet their specific needs, close gaps and continuously raise performance levels.
- Implement ongoing training programs: Invest in continuous training and development for your sales team, guiding by the gaps to close. Offer workshops, webinars, coaching sessions (peer and manager-led), mentoring and access to online resources to support improvement. Rather than guessing at what training to provide, which leads to low ROI, the assessments guide you to close gaps that matter.
- Encourage a culture of learning and coaching: Foster a culture that values learning and growth. Encourage your team to seek opportunities for self-improvement and provide recognition and rewards for their dedication to enhancing their skills.
- Measure performance: Keep track of your team’s progress and the impact of training and coaching initiatives. Use performance metrics to gauge the effectiveness of your programs and adjust as needed.
By investing in defined competencies, ongoing assessment, and continuous training and coaching, you empower your sales team to reach new heights of success. You’ll see a boost in performance, engagement and overall sales effectiveness.
Sales Management Operating System
The Problem: As with process/methodology, many organizations do not take a structured, disciplined approach to sales management. This makes it difficult to lead, manage, guide, coach the front-line sales managers and get consistent performance from your sales force.
Why It Doesn’t Work: Again, as with the sellers, a free-for-all, “every person for themselves” system does not produce repeatable, replicable, scalable and predictable results.
What to Do Instead:
Sales Coaching System
The Problem: It’s surprising to me how many organizations do not formalize a sales coaching system.
Why It Doesn’t Work: Even the best performers in every other skill-based discipline receive coaching – professional sports players, dancers, musicians, actors and others. The lack of formalized coaching framework, processes and models in sales forces is puzzling.
What to Do Instead:
This is one of the keys to continuous performance improvement, and coupled with process, methodology, competency assessments, training and the sales management operating system. It is a force multiplier for performance improvement.
Institute a formal framework, foster a coaching culture and get into a cadence of continuous improvement. Contrary to popular belief, great coaching is a real skill in itself, that requires training and coaching to master.
Note that a coaching framework is part of the above sales management operating system – I just think it’s important enough to call it out specifically.
I hope this article has been helpful for you. For CEOs and senior sales leaders, there are very few things more important than being able to grow sales. The recommendations here have been proven effective over many years, and I’m confident they can help you. If you found this post valuable, have questions, or want to share your perspective, I hope you’ll reach out to let me know.
Mike Kunkle is a recognized expert on sales enablement, sales effectiveness, and sales transformation. He’s spent over 27 years helping companies drive dramatic revenue growth through best-in-class enablement strategies and proven-effective sales transformation systems. In doing that, he’s delivered impressive results for both employers and clients. Mike is the founder of Transforming Sales Results, LLC and works as the Vice President of Sales Effectiveness Services for SPARXiQ, where he designs sales training, delivers workshops and helps clients improve sales results through a variety of sales effectiveness services. Mike collaborated with Doug Wyatt to develop SPARXiQ’s Modern Sales Foundations™ curriculum and has authored SPARXiQ’s Sales Coaching Excellence™ course, a book on The Building Blocks of Sales Enablement, and collaborated with Felix Krueger to develop The Building Blocks of Sales Enablement Learning Experience. You can connect with Mike and find his content at https://linktr.ee/mikekunkle.