Your value proposition – not the age of the buyer – determines the value your sales reps can add. Also: Bring doughnuts.
Distributor CEOs as Cognitive Dissidents
Before I put together a presentation for a distributor association, I set up calls with several of the members. I want to be sure my remarks are useful, so I need some real insight on the challenges the audience is facing. It turns out that being eye candy on stage just isn’t enough in my case.
In these discussions, some distribution CEOs tell me that when a long-time customer leaves and the successor is someone much younger, it’s a lot easier to find ways to be helpful – to add more value. Not only does the younger customer still want to see the distributor account manager; he actually needs the rep more than his predecessor did.
This goes against a lot of conventional wisdom – which in my experience is more likely to be conventional than wisdom. The assumption is that Gen Z and younger Millennials want to research and buy online. They don’t want to see sales reps, they don’t like meeting in person, they don’t play golf and they all wear manbuns. Okay, I made up that last one. Sort of.
But the people actually running distribution companies are telling me that these stereotypes – especially the one about sales reps – are wrong. What gives?
It’s About How You Add Value, Not the Age of the Buyer
Nobody’s arguing that young buyers need help placing simple, online orders. In fact, let me expand on that:
No one, regardless of age, needs help placing simple, online orders!
Lots of people of every age are mastering the internet. My mother-in-law, Shorty, is 83 years old and she wields Facebook like a club for her dry wit. My wife’s sister posted beautiful photos of her garden flowers recently. After 20 people oohed and aahed over them, Shorty (who is actually a very nice person) weighed in with this:
“Nothing lives forever.”
However, when Shorty needed a new range, she didn’t buy it online. She drove to an appliance store to get help picking out the right one for her kitchen. (I bet the sales rep remembers that interaction.)
The same sort of thing is true in distribution. When your customer needs 100 Akro-Mils bins to organize some parts, they aren’t going to wait for the sales rep to show up. But if that customer is trying to figure out the right way to get those bins replenished on a regular basis – how often and with how much stock – your rep is going to get a call to help her work out a solution.
Now imagine that your customer wants to figure out vending choices, ensuring reliable deliveries to a Kanban line, getting products pre-assembled, kitted, labeled or a thousand other more complex solutions. That’s hard to get done online – especially if you’ve never done it before. The guy who retired might have been able to do it without you, but the new person needs your help.
The more complex the problems your customer faces and the more complex your solutions, the more important sales reps become.
Somebody Forgot to Tell Customers They Don’t Need Salespeople
I like to make sales calls with distributor reps. In fact, it’s my favorite thing about consulting.
Due to COVID (which I’m blaming for everything, including gaining weight and my motorcycle needing suspension work), I have only made a few days’ worth of calls in the last year.
However, the accounts I visited would not be buying from the distributors I was consulting for if not for the sales reps. From the minute we arrived at the customer’s location until we left, the reps were busy answering questions, promising to get answers to questions, solving problems, introducing new products and building relationships. In several cases, the customers wanted to know how their purchases were tracking vs. prior year; if they were nearing tiers that would win them various discounts or premiums; asking for technical training and so on. This activity was not correlated to customer age at all.
I’ve noticed that good sales reps aren’t overly humble in front of customers. They know they’re adding value and they hold customers accountable if they buy elsewhere. For example, one customer we visited had a new Lennox furnace in the receiving area; this outraged the distributor rep because he sold a different brand. The younger buyer saw us coming and was apologizing before we got to his office, explaining that it was for a special project; it was a one-time thing and he’d never cheat again.
The sales rep graciously but coolly accepted his apology and then sold him on a service truck stock-up program. We walked out of the place with a $20,000 order. That was the most expensive Lennox furnace ever sold.
“No Professional Visitors or Doughnut Deliverers”
When someone tells me this, I cringe and wonder how much experience they have with distribution sales. I have been making sales calls with distribution reps for 37 years and here are two truths:
- “Professional visitors” – sales reps who just shake hands and say hello and don’t add value – have never been successful in distribution. Good sales managers have been helping professional visitors “spend more time with their families” for decades.
- Doughnuts are never a negative and are often a good idea. Everyone loves doughnuts. I’m not saying you should bring doughnuts to your customers. I’m just saying doing so doesn’t make you a bad sales rep, and it will never count against you.
So, let’s lay off the doughnuts. I know I should – thanks to COVID, I’ve gained weight.
Don’t miss our three-part series, “The Reinvention of Distributor Sales and Service.” It kicks off on Wednesday, Oct. 20, with Part 1: A New Sales Channel – Telephone Based Sales Reps. Register now to attend live and submit questions or to gain access to the recording.