‘We don’t just sell products, we solve customer problems’

By Jack Keough

In his outgoing address as chairman of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors last month, Mark Kramer, president of Laird Plastics, made a comment that is so true in distribution: “We don’t just supply products, we solve customer problems.”

Kramer, whose talk centered on the need for distribution to address the critical problem of finding, recruiting, training and retaining future employees, said business owners must address that problem differently. He named some positive steps he’s seeing in helping distributors find prospective sales candidates.

The good news, Kramer said, is that some 70 colleges and universities have instituted some form of sales and selling process education within their curricula. The bad news is that it’s not enough.

He pointed to a Harvard Business Review study that indicated sales education program graduates reach a “break-even” point 30% faster than those without training. And he said distributors need to market their sector better than they have been doing.

“As we gain experience with hiring these sales-trained graduates, we’ll come to realize that being able to describe what we do in a way that conveys its true meaning and significance is important,” Kramer said. “We need to describe our products in ways that highlight the contributions they make to environmental health — such as ‘recyclable,’ performance enhancements… and supporting breakthrough technologies — such as ‘medical applications.’ We need to describe our services as enhancing the performance and efficiency of the entire supply chain.”

Kramer pointed out that population demographics are turning against distributors as the baby boomer generation retires, creating a large number of vacancies in management and sales. “Worse, these people will inevitably take with them a high percentage of corporate knowledge and know how,” he said.

He also noted that markets are maturing across some lines of trade, leading to ever-increasing competition. “The future of success is written in the capabilities, energy, and problem solving skills of the sales force,” he said.

Kramer also touched on an area that is critical for distribution-namely getting the message out that that the industry is a vibrant, challenging one with great career opportunities for new college graduates.

“It is well worth considering what individual wholesale distribution companies can do to increase their success rate in attracting, hiring, developing, and retaining these people. Here again, it starts with fully appreciating the attractiveness of our industry’s value proposition in general,” Kramer said.

“In a sales position we offer action, variety, flexibility, training, and direct rewards for contributions made. Add in the varied and interesting products, applications, and markets we serve and we all have a reason to approach the hiring of these folks with confidence. How would you characterize your own company’s hiring proposition against these criteria that sales-trained college students have clearly indicated are most important to them?” Kramer asked.

NAW has now partnered with Chally Group Worldwide to develop resources and tools to profile and understand sales talent within wholesaler-distribution companies.

Scott Hudson, vice president of sales/marketing for Chally and a speaker at the meeting, pointed out that distribution executives looking for sales talent should focus on finding “above average talent” and not necessarily super stars. He said that sales success depends on carrying out the important sales and service tasks and not making critical mistakes.

“We succeed if we eliminate the candidates who can’t carry out the important tasks and those who will make critical mistakes,” he maintained.

Jack Keough was the editor of Industrial Distribution magazine for more than 26 years. He often speaks at many industry events and seminars. He can be reached at john.keough@comcast.net or keoughbiz@gmail.com

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