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The Distributor Salesperson of the Future

The Distributor Salesperson of the Future

By Bridget McCrea

The value of knowing everything and becoming a customer’s “right hand man” will come in pretty handy for the electrical distribution sales force of the future.

Anyone who remembers the 80s cult classic Weird Science can probably instantly envision Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith crouched over a computer   keyboard, staring into a monitor and developing their “perfect” woman. Tooling around with various physical and behavioral attributes, they brought her to life and proceeded to integrate her into their lives.

Fast-forward to 2017 and many electrical distributors—thrown unceremoniously into a digital world where electronic communications, e-commerce, and mobile have all but overtaken the traditional selling process—feel a lot like those two enterprising youngsters did in that 1980s classic. Whether they’re retooling their veteran sales reps, training recent college grads, or retraining entire sales forces, electrical distributors are collectively helping to shape the distributor salesperson of the future.

And none of it is easy.

At the core of the issue is a salesperson who feels like his job could be pulled out from under him at any time, thanks to the growing popularity of B2B-focused entities like Amazon Business. Some of that fear was instilled two years ago, when Forrester Research analyst Andy Hoar made a bold prediction: by 2020, 1 million B2B salespeople in the U.S. would lose their jobs to self-service e-commerce. That meant roughly 20 percent of the nation’s sales reps would be looking for new lines of work.  (For more on this prediction, read our article “Getting Your Sales Team E-Commerce-Ready.”)

“For the last several years, the sales rep has felt threatened by something that he can’t see and that he doesn’t really understand,” says John Sonnhalter, founder of Sonnhalter, a business-to-business marketing firm in Cleveland. “Because of this, he’s now pretty resistant to change in an era where the days of being an ‘order taker’ who slaps the customer on the back and chats about baseball are long gone.”

The good news, says Sonnhalter, is that sales reps working for independent distributors have something that the Amazons of the world don’t—a tremendous amount of expertise right between their own two ears. “Unfortunately, they don’t always sell that advantage,” says Sonnhalter. To overcome this problem, he says distributors should be training their reps to think like problem solvers, solutions providers, and new product demonstrators—and not order takers.

That means the conversation on a sales call would go something like this:  “Hey Mr. Electrical Contractor, did you happen to see this new electrical box? If you install it in those buildings that you’re working on, this new product could save you 30% in installation time.” To which the contractor will probably respond, “Really? Well I never knew that.” And with that, the sales rep has a foot in the door and a way to start selling multiple electrical boxes to this interested customer.

Remember, says Sonnhalter, that regardless of the current selling environment or a customer’s ordering preferences (in person, via phone, online, from a mobile phone, etc.), he or she is always searching for a way to do things better, quicker, and cheaper. This hasn’t changed in the digital world. “Look, when it comes to ordering, if customers have to jump through archaic hoops to get it done, they’re going to go somewhere else that’s easier and faster,” says Sonnhalter. “They have alternatives for getting orders placed and questions answered, whether it’s 8 a.m. or 8 p.m. It’s easy for them.”

Their Own Worst Enemies
As he looks around at the B2B distribution environment, Sonnhalter says he sees a lot of sales reps that are their own worst enemies. “They think their jobs are threatened, when in reality all of the big boxes have salespeople who are right out of school and who know nothing about the industry,” he explains. “They get out there and sell stuff for 10 or 12 months and then leave for something else.”

Independent distributors, on the other hand, have reps who have been onboard for decades, and who have accumulated a lot of expertise along the way. This is a strong point that many people tend to overlook, says Sonnhalter, and that distributors need to be playing up more as they train and hone their sales forces of the future.

“If you want your company to survive, you’ve got to start selling that expertise,” he advises. “Doing that will help you grow your company by at least 15-18%, whereas ignoring this point could cause you to lose 15-25% of your current business. That’s a pretty big swing from the distributor standpoint.”

“Here’s a Better Way of Doing This”
The question is, how can electrical distributors help their reps adjust to the current selling environment while also prepping them for success in the future? Sonnhalter says it all starts by adopting a mindset that says:  We have something to sell. The next step is to understand that the “something” may be expertise and technical knowledge, and not just straight products.

“Smart distributors are training their reps on better ways to do their jobs and making sure they’re up to speed on the most innovative solutions,” says Sonnhalter. “That way, those reps can go into an electrical contractor and say, ‘Here’s a better way of doing this.'”

And if distributors don’t help fill in those gaps, the contractors may just find the answers to their questions on their own. Using Mass. Electric Construction Co., of Cleveland, as an example, Sonnhalter says the company has developed a number of new products internally over the last 2-3 years. “Those products were all invented by electrical contractors who needed a better way to do their jobs,” says Sonnhalter. “They couldn’t find the answers anywhere else, so they came up with the solutions themselves.”

Sonnhalter says reps also need to embrace tools like mobile ordering, namely because most of their customers are probably already using it. “Help them set up their mobile app accounts and show them how to input orders that can be at their doorsteps the next day at 7AM,” he says. “When you can introduce that kind of convenience and speed, your customers won’t go anywhere else.”

Show Them Their Value
Recognizing the fact that veteran sales reps may not be so quick to embrace and utilize mobile ordering apps (some will, but others won’t) and other tech-centric buying tools—let alone introduce them to their customers—Sonnhalter says distributors as a whole just need to do a better job of adapting to their own customers’ buying preferences.

“It’s no longer an issue of if they have to adapt to technology; it’s a matter of when. It just has to happen,” says Sonnhalter, noting that the roadblock will likely be the 50-something veteran sales rep that has decades of knowledge in his head and hundreds of relationships in his Rolodex, but who also doesn’t want to be out of job.

“The key is to remove the ‘threat’ of technology and show the rep that he truly delivers value to the distributorship in the way of knowledge, experience, and relationships,” Sonnhalter says. “This is a good first step in the right direction.”


It Takes a Jab, Jab, Jab, and a Right Hook

In his book Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World,   Gary Vaynerchuk shows readers how to plan for their next “right hook” – or, the next sale or campaign that will literally knock out the competition. “Even companies committed to jabbing—patiently engaging with customers to build the relationships crucial to successful social media campaigns,” he writes, “want to land the punch that will take down their opponent or their customer’s resistance in one blow.

Justin King says the distributor sales rep could borrow a page or two from Vaynerchuk’s book. He says the “jabs” should be focused on providing value while the “hook” centers on asking for the sale. “By giving value along the way, you’re essentially setting yourself up to ask for the sale,” says King, senior partner with B2X Partners in Ashburn, Va., and founder of ecommerceandB2B.com.

“Become the trusted advisor for that customers and the go-to person who not only provides products and services, but who also solves those difficult and potentially expensive problems.”

To make that happen, King says the distributor of both the here-and-now and the future needs a strong understanding of his or her customers and their associated pain points. Throw a deep knowledge of your distributorship’s products, services, and solutions into the mix, he notes, and reps can easily surpass the “order taker” role and become trusted advisors who know when to throw those right hooks.

This isn’t always an easy shift for distributorships that have spent decades training their reps on the fine points of product sales, says King, but it’s a critical shift in today’s business world. “Distributors have to become more ‘solution’ sellers; it’s not just about product anymore,” says King. “It’s also about services and—at the heart of that—it’s about solving problems for the customer.”

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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