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Sharpening the Axe: Ramping Up Your Sales Team’s Technical Expertise, Part I

Sharpening the Axe: Ramping Up Your Sales Team’s Technical Expertise, Part I

It’s not enough to show up at your customer’s doorstep with a box of fresh bagels and a smile anymore; customers expect good advice, expertise, and technical acumen. Here’s how distributors can set themselves apart as product experts in the constantly-evolving electrical arena.


If critical thinking, problem-solving, and technical acumen aren’t on your sales team’s “top 5” list of must-have traits in 2018, then your reps are not only missing out on a lot of sales, but they also may be losing their top customers. That’s because electrical contractors and other clients have come to expect that their reps will have up-to-date technical expertise and hands-on knowledge of the products that they’re selling.

But the demands don’t end there. Customers also want to know that their sales reps have application knowledge and that they can solve their most pressing pain points. These are pretty lofty expectations in the electrical arena, which is being transformed by rapid advancements in technology and a plethora of innovative new products.

Keeping up isn’t easy, but it’s completely necessary. In Why some distributors are thriving in the digital age, Insite Software’s Karie Daudt describes the modern-day role of the business-to-business (B2B) salesperson. “…salespeople need to step up to new responsibilities that are highly consultative. Armed with the right information, the sales rep can now be seen as the ‘manager’ of the customer journey,” Daudt writes, “only stepping in when it makes sense to do so from both a cost and efficiency standpoint.”

For example, an outside sales rep might step in to solve a specific problem for a customer, or to enable a particularly complex purchase (e.g., a complete electrical package for a large facility).

“Distributors [that] don’t spend time training their salesforces to succeed in this new paradigm (and dealing with those that can’t make the transition),” Daudt continues, “will find themselves losing in both the price and the value wars.”

Handholding Along the Customer Journey

In the business world, everyone needs a mix of soft skills and hard skills to succeed in their respective positions. Technical abilities fall into the second category, and are usually learned from schools, through on-the-job training, via seminars, and by working directly with the manufacturers who are making the products in question. Mentorships, coaching, and online resources (i.e., online courses, videos, etc.) can also help reps get up to speed on specific products and applications.

In the electrical field, customers have come to expect that their sales reps have the bases covered on the technical front. “We always see that hunger for us to educate both our customers and our employees,” says Timothy Young, corporate strategy facilitator at Crescent Electric Supply Co., in East Dubuque, Ill. “We strive to do both, whether it’s via a phone conversation or a formal training session. We do whatever it takes to make sure both our customers and our employees get the technical support that they need.”

Over the last two years, that mission has evolved for Crescent Electric Supply, and namely due to the Internet of Things (IoT) and other connected technologies. Whole building systems typically involve multiple vendors, each of which has its own set of technical expertise and application knowledge to impart on the electrical distributors that carry its products.

“With IoT, in particular, we’re putting the whole picture together,” says Young. “In other words, we’ll have one vendor that will handle one aspect of technology, and then we have to figure out how to make all of the pieces and parts work together—and particularly when we start to integrate products that aren’t in our normal channel.” For instance, a sales rep may need to show a contractor how to program Alexa to work with a new lighting control system (that the contractor, in turn, has to show its customers how to use).

“As distributors, we’re definitely all working through how to bring those products into our worlds,” says Young, “and making sure our people know how to use them and that they can show others how to use them as well.”

To work through this challenge, Young says Crescent Electric Supply works with its manufacturers to ensure that its sales reps are up to date and knowledgeable about the products that they’re selling. The distributor also holds an annual national sales conference. Vendors attending the conference hold myriad educational sessions for the distributor’s employees—a strategy that Young says works well for getting reps trained on the latest-and-greatest electrical products and systems.

Calling this annual conference a “game changer” for the distributor’s sales staff, Young says it typically involves 400 of its employees and a rigorous schedule of meeting with and learning from more than 100 supplier representatives. “This gives our reps a unique opportunity for both classroom experiences (where many of those environments are set up as product experience stations),” he explains, “and time to speak with supplier representatives one-on-one at a nightly trade show.”

The event matches the pace of change in the electrical industry today. “It’s fast, it’s intense, it’s specific and it requires our employees to not just see their specialization, but also to see how that piece fits in the larger picture,” says Young. “We do it by rotation, and every year we have different account managers and sales staff that come through the program. “

He adds that while the distributor is pleased with the outcome of its annual event, it could always be doing more to educate its staff and customers on the fine points of selling and supporting the lines that it represents. “There’s always room for improvement, so we’re continually analyzing the situation and looking at what we can be doing better.”

Throughout the year, Crescent Electric’s employees also have opportunities to visit supplier training facilities, participate in new product webinars and host suppliers in branch for both customer events and lunch-n-learns. “We take every opportunity to be continual learners,” says Young, “and stay up to speed with the pace of change.”

The Manufacturer’s Viewpoint

When it comes to technical knowledge, at least some of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the manufacturers who turn out the innovative products that contractors (and end users) need help with. At RAB Lighting in Northvale, N.J., Regional Sales Manager Matthew R. Taets takes that responsibility very seriously, and says it’s up to the manufacturers to find ways to “add value in any way that we can at the sales level for both the contractor and the distributor.”

One way RAB makes good on this promise is by encouraging its own sales associates to earn their National Council on Qualifications for the Lighting Professions (NCQLP) LC credential. According to the NCQLP, the credential demonstrates that the student has acquired the necessary knowledge, understanding, and ability to apply lighting principles and techniques successfully; is committed to career development and professional practice; and possesses a “broad knowledge base in an increasingly specialized practice making someone a valuable asset to not only their company, but also the industry as well.”

Taets says the credential proves that the professionals know what they’re talking about when it comes to lighting retrofits, payback analysis, and matching the right fixture to the right application. “Getting credential involves a very difficult and serious test,” he points out, “and our company has promoted it very heavily within.”

Going forward, Taets sees no end in sight to the amount of technical knowledge and support that contractors and other customers will need on the electrical front. And while some distributors are putting the time and effort into training their front lines to tackle these issues, others are lagging behind the curve. “It’s interesting to see that some companies are jumping in two feet at a time and being proactive about training and technical expertise,” says Taets, “but for others, there’s still a pretty long road ahead.”


The first part of this series is over on lightedmag.com. Click here to read it.


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Bridget McCrea  is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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