Getting outside sales teams to sell through e-commerce isn’t always easy, but it’s also not impossible. Here are six ways to kick-start your own initiative today.
In the first article in this 2-part series, we looked at why electrical distributors should make their outside sales teams a key aspect of their online selling strategies. Skip this critical step and your company will surely miss out on its part of the $1.2 trillion online business-to-business (B2B) sales that Forrester Research expects by 2021.
“The distributor imperative to get into, or increase, their e-commerce game is urgent. End-users are researching, finding, and buying products and solutions online,” Distribution Strategy Group points out in its 2018 State of E-Commerce in Distribution report. “If they are not using your website, they are using another distributor or manufacturer to get information and make purchases. Keeping end-users on your site for their needs is essential for a distributor’s short-term and long-term growth.”
The question is, how can a distributor mobilize one of its most valuable weapons—its seasoned, well-connected outside sales force—in the e-commerce arena? And, how can it turn that sales force into a lean, mean online selling machine? These are important questions in a world where small to midsized distributors don’t necessarily have the resources to maintain an e-commerce-only sales staff, but where they’re finding themselves going head-to-head with the likes of e-tailing giants like Amazon Business.
6 Ways to Get Sales Reps into the E-commerce Game
Here are some top strategies distributors can start using right now to maximize their sales forces while maintaining market share in today’s ultra-competitive selling environment:
- Reward them for driving customers to shop online. E-commerce is a cheaper sales channel, so it just makes sense to give a bonus for every dollar of revenue via e-commerce (versus the “normal” channels). “Just imagine the behavioral changes that will come if you took this simple step,” says sales training expert Chris Stock, “and got more sales reps thinking about what they can be doing to push more customers to buy online.”
- Develop a win-win way to get your outside sales reps to support your firm’s e-commerce channel. Rex Kimball, owner of Mirex Marketing in Mesa, Ariz., concurs, and says it’s important that sales reps know that they’re going to get commissions for signing up new accounts and/or driving orders online. One way to do this is by setting up specific, password-protected portals where customers can go to place their orders online. Those portals should be associated with a specific sales rep who, in turn, gets credit for the sale. “Maybe you want to set it up so that the rep only gets commission for the first sale from a new customer, or maybe the salesperson gets an ongoing commission as a motivational tool,” Kimball says. “Regardless of which model you choose, the key is to come up with a win-win way to compensate your sales team for supporting and using your company’s e-commerce platform.
- Stick to the simpler deals and save the rest for the offline world. Electrical projects range from the very simple to the extremely complex, the latter of which need a more personalized, hands-on touch from a sales rep. Knowing this, Stock says distributors must recognize the types of deals that they want their sales reps involved in, and those that don’t require as much hand-holding. The second deal category should be a perfect fit for e-commerce. “There are always going to be projects where customers need a human face and a human intellect,” says Stock. “These are your complex and strategic deals. Transactional deals and repeat orders, on the other hand, can always be fulfilled via e-commerce.”
- Train your sales force on social selling and other tech-based communication approaches. One often-overlooked aspect of e-commerce is the ability to have salespeople engage with their customers through technology. “Millennials are great at this; it comes naturally to them,” says Stock. “A millennial selling to a millennial is easy because they speak the same language.” That same comfort level may not apply to the veteran salesperson who has spent his or her life perfecting the “old school” sales approach. “To be successful, the older people (myself included) need to adopt some new approaches,” says Stock, who has one client who will only respond to WhatsApp messages and another who prefers Facebook Messenger as a primary mode of communication. “We live in an omni-channel sales world and we need to engage with customers on their terms,” says Stock. “By encouraging your organization and sales team to pursue ‘social selling,’ and other tech-based means, you’ll help them engage with e-commerce.”
- Strike the right balance between human interaction and technology. It’s no secret that online sellers like Amazon Business are offering discounts and free same-day/next-day service to their B2B buyers, but what these e-tailers are lacking is a human support structure that knows and understands specific industry verticals. This gives electrical distributors and their sales reps a big advantage in a segment where finding the right product or part requires more than just a quick online search. “If you offer that human interaction and expertise, it positions you ahead of your competitors,” says Kimball. “You obviously need to keep up with technology and make it convenient for your customers to place orders, but don’t overlook the need to strike the right balance between human interaction and technology.”
- Capitalize on the trust they’ve established with customers. The online sales channel can be a cold, unemotional place where people who don’t even know one another conduct business on a daily basis. Highly reliant on its strong customer and supplier relationships, the typical electrical distributor can stand out online by effectively leveraging the bonds its built offline. “Your sales reps have been out there for years or even decades, shaking hands and fulfilling promises,” Ted Mekianov, director of business development at LABOV Marketing in Fort Wayne, Ind., points out. “Now it’s time to capitalize on and harness these strengths so that you don’t get replaced by a company that’s just out there to discount a product.” And remember that you’re not selling utilitarian products like books and t-shirts, says Mekianov. You’re dealing with complex items that require high levels of support and expertise—yet another strength that your outside sales team should be capitalizing on. “If your reps can elevate their customer service and work to build these relationships based on trust and credibility,” says Mekianov, “they won’t have to worry about being replaced by an app.”