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Blog: Getting More Time With Customers

By Jack Keough

If you were to ask salespeople what they like most about their jobs, the answer would arguably be: going on sales calls. Salespeople, not surprisingly, want to meet with prospects and existing customers but many say they are hampered from doing so because of excessive paperwork and other “non direct sales” duties. 

In fact, one study points out that salespeople are spending less time with customers than they did years ago. Tom Reilly, founder of Tom Reilly Training, a sales training company based in Chesterfield, Mo., says one study showed that three decades ago salespeople spent 39 percent of their time in face-to-face meetings with customers. Today that figure is down to less than 30 percent.

How to free up time in order to spend more time with customers is an age-old problem for salespeople and sales managers and it’s not just confined to distribution.

That’s why it was especially intriguing to see the step Fastenal, one of the largest MRO distributors in the country, is taking to get salespeople additional time with customers. Fastenal, as you may know, has nearly 2700 locations and 16,000 employees.

Will Oberton, CEO of the Minnesota-based company, said Fastenal would hire up to 900 employees before the end of the year. He estimated that would mean hiring about 150 to 300 employees per month.

“The majority of the people we’ll be adding will actually be part-time support people, which will allow the managers and the salespeople to get out of the store and contact customers, “ Oberton said in a conference call with financial analysts, according to a transcript provided by www.seekingalpha.com.

This decision comes on top of a solid quarter for the huge distributor, which recorded a 5.3 percent increase in sales. For most companies that would be an exceptional quarter, especially in light of the economy. But Fastenal, which has been one of the fastest-growing distributorships in the country, is not satisfied.  

Oberton, one of the most widely respected executives in the distribution industry, said in the conference call that he and other top executives spent time talking to managers as well as salespeople who told them: “give us some help and we’ll get more sales.”

That brings up a question many distributor sales managers should be asking themselves: Are your salespeople spending too much time doing non-essential sales work and not enough time in front of customers?

In talking with some distributor salespeople recently, it seems apparent that cutting back in administrative help has hurt their sales efforts. “I’d give anything to just get some part-time help,” one salesperson told me.

Reilly, whose company has trained thousands of salespeople over the years, says “Fastenal is on to something, 

“Companies that are as large and successful as Fastenal must have done their research in order to make this decision,” he says. They know that something like this will help them in the long run. Basically they’re saying we are going to stand out with the people we have in our company.”

Reilly is quick to point out that having an online presence is a good                  strategy as well but relationships still count for a lot in the selling process. While new technologies allow salespeople to keep in contact with customers more easily, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting.

Salespeople, Reilly says, are the differentiators between companies. “You may be able to commoditize things like products but you can’t commoditize people,” he says.

Reilly, who often speaks at trade association meetings, says that large mega-distributors like Fastenal and MSC Industrial Direct (which is also adding two to three percent more salespeople this year) understand that relationships are still the keys to selling.

He points to one study showing that 79 percent of a salesperson’s career success is based on relationship selling.

“If you think about those numbers, I’m really not surprised that a company like Fastenal is adopting this sales strategy,” Reilly says.





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