Selling is the lifeblood of any business. It is also a high cost and high-risk activity. This briefing paper will help the reader improve the planning and management of sales, both direct business to business, and through distributors. It examines key processes from identifying an appropriate channel or buyer through to the point of contracting. It is based on the writer’s successful experience of personally managing sales for low and high value products and services in a wide range of markets.
Marketing And Sales
The activities of both marketing and selling guide the prospect through a similar decision-making route: ATTENTION – INTEREST – DESIRE – ACTION. However whilst marketing helps develop and match the product or service to the broad market, the sales process is more focused on showing exactly how the offering will satisfy the need of a particular client.
There are three fundamental differences between selling and marketing: in timescales (marketing tends to be longer term); in measures (market share versus sales volume); and in management (market brands rather than sales relationships). Selling therefore tends to be focussed more on people than process, but both activities must complement each other. Imbalance towards marketing creates high awareness but few decisions, and imbalance towards selling creates low awareness and consequently fewer decisions. Selling will play a more important role when the buyer decision-making process is more complex, and requires person to person advice or support, whereas marketing becomes prominent when coverage is key.
The starting point in sales is to look at ourselves from the perspective of our potential client. Their view of suppliers who canvass them is often significantly different to the supplier’s perspective. They may be suspicious as previous victims of sharp practice or, more commonly, exaggerated claims. They are likely to have been canvassed many times by suppliers who have not researched possible needs before making contact and subsequently waste the prospects time. They could be busy people who are reluctant to change. These factors demand an approach which is carefully researched and sensitively implemented. Sales strategy should therefore be driven by client needs and executed in a way which demonstrates an explicit understanding of those needs.
Customer expectations focus on a few supplier qualities which tend to remain unchanged. These are: perceived value (ie costs balanced by benefits); The supplier’s ability to deliver what is offered; the supplier’s willingness to extend themselves to meet special needs; and a relationship of trust. People like to buy, and not be sold, and they will buy for different reasons. Some are goal-oriented, some wish to fulfil dreams, others want to minimise fears. Observing how people buy will help us identify their motivations, and this in turn can help us choose the most appropriate way of selling to them. The process of buying usually involves three steps:
Why do I need this? How will I decide? Where and when shall I buy? The process of selling should therefore help answer these questions, and in doing so build trust, show competence and make it a positive purchasing experience. The process at its simplest level is
* understand needs and wants
* present options and solution
* identify concerns and ask for a decision
A strategy of client orientation requires skills in planning, probing, listening, empathising, and persuading. It requires detailed knowledge of business aims and resources, offerings and marketplace. Above all it demands an attitude reflecting honesty, hard work, enthusiasm and resilience. Anyone involved in managing salespersons must ensure that these competencies are developed, maintained and regularly checked. The fast pace of product development results in an increasing perception of “sameness” between competitors. A key differentiator is the quality of the salesperson’s skills, and where offerings are similar the buyer invariably chooses the salesperson who is the most skilled.
“To fail to plan is to plan to fail”. There should be a written sales plan focusing on business goals. Constituent parts can include:
* Background profiles on customers, prospects and competitors.
* Contact schedules of who will be contacted, how and when: these should be prioritised to address the highest value opportunities.
* Forecasts of monthly results and key activities.
* Reporting processes to keep management informed of activities, results and resource needs.
* Contingencies to overcome possible obstacles.
The plan should be drafted by whoever is responsible for its implementation, and submitted to management for approval. This will ensure ownership and agreement by relevant stakeholders, and facilitate a clear link to the suppliers overall business plan.
Objectives described in the sales plan should include not only financial targets but also activity-related goals eg
* Achieve quarterly forecast accuracy of at least 75%
* Respond to all written sales enquiries within two days.
* Average X miles per visit
* Report on unsuccessful tenders within one week.
* Achieve a ratio of one in five appointments from cold calls.
* Obtain Y orders per quotations
* Minimum Z % discount per order
The monitoring of activity ratios can provide an effective diagnosis of potential problems long before a shortfall in results becomes visible. Activity based performance standards can highlight skills deficiencies in specific areas such as letter -writing, appointment making by telephone, qualifying client needs, face to face presenting, and proposal-writing. Such standards can help the salesperson manage themselves to make the best use of their time and direct training into the area most needed.
A sales team provides the opportunity of team members to compare activity ratios with each other and identifying best practice from those with the best performance ratios. These measures can be charted graphically on a weekly or monthly basis so that the underperformance can be quickly addressed. For sales cycle times which are long (three months or more from initial contact to final contract) activity ratios are essential management tool.
A sales strategy based on identifying and matching client needs requires time to be invested in fully researching those needs. Whilst the marketing functions can analyse the broad needs of a targeted industry or group of prospects, there is no substitute for direct contact by salespersons to identify specific needs of individual prospects. This is particularly important in higher value product sales and in selling less tangible services.
Common sources of information to help identify the prospect’s need will fall into two categories – those outside the client company and those inside it. Outsiders who can be approached include trade associations, customers, suppliers, and anyone who has knowledge of their business. Inside the prospect we can elicit the support of a number of people who can help us qualify if an approach is worth making, and to whom. Such requests for help and information should always be accompanied by an open statement of purpose, explaining the desire to find out if the prospect could benefit from our offering. People will react positively to candour and object strongly to subterfuge.
Direct approaches to the prospect can often be made to their Marketing department who can mail back product literature, newsletters, press packs and annual Reports. The latter can highlight company challenges, policy makers and future aims. Telephoning the personal assistants of executives can also identify the decision-making chain for your offer, and sometimes identify competitor activity.
Another useful source of information is an existing client referral, and a request should be structured along the following lines: Ask first what they liked about your offer and how it helped their business. Then enquire who else could be interested and why. Finally check if their name can be mentioned, or if they wish to alert the prospect in advance of a sales call. If the sales call is subsequently successful this provides a reason to thank the referrer, explain how their referral point has benefited and ask for yet another referral. Referral can be requested not only from satisfied customers but also on rejection of a bid for business, provided that the rejection was not for qualitative reasons and a cordial relationship still exists.
The research will enable the qualifying and prioritizing of “suspects” into “prospects” who are potential buyers; the next step is to plan the initial approach. This will be largely determined by the type and size of unit sale. High quantity and low cost products may demand direct mail and telephone selling. Low quantity, high cost products will usually involve a longer cycle of personal meetings to educate, inform and persuade. The most complex sales usually involve high value intangible services such as technical consultancy advice. Services introduce many more variables than tangible products, and can carry high perceived risk for the buyer. Advice is less easy to visibly specify, cannot be readily returned if faulty, and is less easily costed and evaluated.
Such differences magnify risk and uncertainty to buyers whose decision criteria will then become weighted towards personal relations rather than product specification. The greater the perception of risk to the buyer requires greater the need for direct contact, longer decision-making time and increased skills in relationship-building. At this end of the spectrum the main differentiator is the person and not the product, and consequently a key focus for a services supplier will be generating quality face to face time to build trust and overcome the “FUD FACTOR: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt,” in the mind of the buyer. The challenge for a lower cost product provider is still significant, in so far as the buying activity involves the same processes but the journey must be navigated in a fraction of the time. A telesales process may therefore generated attention, interest, desire and action within only five minutes, including an analysis of client needs and decision processes.
Both fast and slow sales cycles usually require analysis of decision-maker types. These range from purchasing agent and budget-holder to influencer and end-user, and qualifying this early is critical to next steps. Buyer types can also be stereo-typed, particularly useful when selling time is short and we have to move quickly onto their “wavelength”. The “systematic” buyer will want product details whereas the “decisive” buyer prefers bullet points. The “amiable” buyer will enjoy sharing personal pleasantries, whereas the “impulse” buyer prefers information on applications.
The ability of the salesperson to identify the buyer’s personal style, and adapt their approach accordingly, will result in the buyer absorbing the messages effectively and be more inclined to accept the proposition.
The same principles can be applied to planning sales entry into a new organisation. If the client culture is “systematic” ie/ belt and braces, then we can anticipate protracted hiercharchical decision making. If “decisive”, then we should be brief and fast-moving. If “impulsive” we should be wary of changes of mind; if “amicable” we should emphasize a consultative approach. Understanding buyer chemistry is critical and our sales process must be significantly adapted between those who want a “commodity” and those who look for an “experience”.
An effective sales manager will be close enough to the salesperson’s prospects to ensure that the right mix of personal chemistry is occurring. The role of a sales manager is to create results through others, and an effective manager can only do this by being close enough to observe not only what is being done but also HOW. The manager must balance time between the office and the field and balance time analysing past events and planning the future. Let us examine the main activities of a sales manager.
Communications should create focus within the sales team. There should be clear objectives so people know what success looks like, and how it contributes to the organisation. Standards and values should reflect how the team is expected to work (ie reporting procedures or demonstrating sensitivity to client concerns). Paperwork should be minimised with the application of technology, and reports should focus on usable qualitative information such as call plan, activity summary, market intelligence, business forecasts. Above all, there should be regular news going to the team regarding company updates, sales successes, competitors and team results. Salespeople often feel isolated in the field and need a two-way flow of information to keep them in touch with colleagues and the company.
The manager should be able to recruit, develop and appraise salespersons. The starting points for this are the job descripton and person specification. Job descriptions can specify what outputs are required and person specifications describe the attributes of the ideal job-holder ie. inputs. It is vital to specify these accurately. If the person specification is too vague then we can recruit low calibre salesperson; if it is too demanding the role may not be filled. The manager should encourage existing staff to recommend candidates with a finder’s fee from contacts with friends and associates, and make the vacancy known through the local colleges. Although these places may not supply ready trained salespersons they can provide people suitable for sales support roles who can eventually be promoted. Without succession planning of this kind, a sudden loss of a salesperson can result in a gap of several months before a replacement is found and trained to the same standard.
When recruiting salespersons it is vital to process applications quickly as good candidates are rarely available for more than a few weeks. Advertisements should always include a telephone number. If the job requires telephone skills, the quality of initial telephoned responses can be appraised as part of the sifting process. A particular difficulty in recruiting salespersons is their ability to mask their own potential weaknesses. It is therefore vital to check claims regarding core competences. This can be done by creating short simulations of activities eg. a roleplay to make an appointment by phone or a presentation of a sales plan for the territory. Candidates should be asked to bring evidence of claimed successes eg. copy of a sales award or client testimonial, and can be introduced informally to others in the team to get feedback on personal chemistry. Reference checking should always occur by telephone direct to previous managers verifying factual claims and ascertaining their view of potential weaknesses.
Finally the recruiting manager should always remember to sell the job and the company to each candidate. A tailored information pack should be given to shortlisted candidates, they should feel welcomed by all staff, and a press pack of company achievements should be available in reception for their review (not removal). Such support can make the difference between a candidate choosing you or your competitor.
Once recruited, there should be a structured induction covering the business, the marketplace, all internal contacts and the job requirements. A person should be appointed to coordinate induction, ideally a member of the team, and verify that information is both absorbed and understood. The process should include job accompaniment with performance being formally appraised at the end of a probationary period. This will create a clear sense of purpose, and ensure that untrained people do not damage customer or prospect relations. It also prevents the salesforce inheriting a lame duck who interviews well but could not apply their knowledge. Underperformers in a sales team often affect the rest of the team.
Ongoing training and development is the responsibility of the sales manager. The most effective development method is on the job coaching, allowing the trainer to observe what happens and how, and to give feedback on performance immediately afterwards. Feedback should be packaged in a “praise sandwich” ie. Positive accomplishments, what could improve, and again what went well. Constructive criticism is more likely to be absorbed in this way and acted upon. Coaching should employ open questions rather than statements so the learner considers possible course of action for himself or herself. Records should be kept of individual salesperson strengths and weaknesses so that trends are identified and people can team up with the most appropriate partners to exchange good practice. Whilst the best diagnosis
of training needs occurs through observation at work, activity statistics will also identify issues. Activity ratios (referred to earlier) should be regularly analysed, published and compared between team members to enable them to benchmark themselves with the best performers.
In some instances the use of an external specialist trainer or coach can improve team performance in the field as the feedback is likely to be more objective, and new ideas from outside the team can be introduced and applied quickly.
There are many different training methods, appropriate for salespersons and a training plan should not rely on just traditional classroom-based study. Roleplays and simulations at sales meetings, summarising key points on “cue cards”, supplying audio tapes for travel time, and appointing internal experts on key topics (eg competitors) will all help the sales manager spread the training tasks into manageable proportions. When training has been provided it should be followed up afterwards to establish what was learnt, how it was applied, and the benefits accrued so that the investment in time and money can be evaluated to improve subsequent delivery. With no assessment of training outputs it is not possible to establish its value.
Forecasting Sales Accurately
A key output of effective selling is the ability to forecast accurately. Forecasting is important for cashflow and inventory management. Inaccurate forecasts result in too much or too little inventory, and insufficient cashflow to pay for fixed costs. The consequent effects can impact many areas and ultimately can critically damage the business. There are a number of factors affecting forecasts which are outside the control of the salesperson eg Market economy, exchange rates, competitive activity. However the main factor affecting forecasts lies within the control of the salesperson – prospect qualification.
Qualification begins as soon as information about the prospect is collected. At its basic level this includes names and job titles of decision-makers, their buying history, and expressed wants, budgets and timeframes. At this level of qualification it may not be possible to predict anything more than a 50% possibility of winning their business. As the sales cycle progresses it becomes more possible to predict the timing and likelihood of contract. The number of successful meetings, qualifying additional needs request for proposal, a presentation and a feasibility survey will all contribute to escalating probabilities from 50% to 90%.
Additional factors may reduce chances, for example a change in decision-maker or policy involvement by competitors. Such issues should be factored into the overall equation so that a realistic weighting is given to forecast business. Thus for four prospects of orders valued each at £10k, if the probability forecasts are 50% 60% 70% and 80% the overall forecast value should be £26k rather than £40k.
Additional factors can be calculated by comparing forecasts with past actual business closed. An optimistic salesperson who has been forecasting 25% more than actual in the previous periods may require a reduced weighting to compensate until the skill issue is addressed. Prospect lists of sales in progress are therefore an essential control system. They should detail client name, potential value, % current probability based on agreed criteria, order date expected, and next action by the salesperson. If there is no follow up appointment date to progress a decision to the next stage, the salesperson may lack the control to develop the sale.
Prospect Data Gathering
These lists should be updated at least monthly, even weekly, to ensure forecasts are based on accurate information, and as this is company critical information then forecast accuracy should be included as part of the regular appraisal process. Competitor involvement will have a significant effect on forecasting, often reducing margins and deferring decision timing. Although marketers will collect broad information about competition, the salesforce is in a better position to gather up to date tactical information due to their exposure in the field. There should therefore be a system in place to collect and aggregate such data so that appropriate counter-tactics can be applied. This could include special offers, price incentives, product improvements, and new services.
Loyal customers are a useful source of information, and the “poaching” of competitor staff can also help. An increasing phenomenon is the “secret shopper” where a competitor will masquerade as a prospect. Sales and support staff should be alerted to such activity and be shown how to qualify new prospects before releasing sensitive information. Blanket tenders through third parties (eg consultants) are sometimes used to obtain a detailed picture of an organisations financial, operating, product and support infrastructure. Market research questionnaires should also be treated carefully.
Structuring The Team
Turning to salesforce organisation, there are four ways to organise a business to business structure: by major account, product type, vertical market or regionally. The pros and cons of each option are as follows. “Regionally” promotes local relationships and is simple to administer, although service quality may vary between regions, and major national accounts may experience coordination difficulties. Regional structures tend to suit high levels of simple repeat business for small to medium sized clients.
A vertical market approach (ie specialists for local government, professional services, manufacturers) enable clients to have suppliers with a higher understanding of their business sector, and lets the supplier to focus resources on profitable sectors. Clear distinctions between sectors are necessary and sales staff requires a good knowledge of business needs and applications. This is suitable for more complex transactions requiring longer-term advice and guidance on specialist applications.
Product specialisation allows high levels of technical support through a knowledgeable salesforce, but this can result in an over-emphasis on product knowledge at the expense of market requirements or customer needs. A major account structure allows the supplier to focus on clients with the biggest payback and can generate high quality key term relationships. However this can result in longer sales cycles to win new business, and result in differential service levels at the expense of smaller clients. Overall for business to business, sales and major account structure is commonly integrated into the other structures because of the greater long term benefits. Those include a deeper understanding of client needs, improved product development and service delivery and more opportunities for cross-selling additional offers over a period of time.
An example of how to integrate a change programme is shown in the following Case Study:
The aim of this case study is to show how a successful business has taken advantage of an integrated change programme to improve sales and customer service.
Mark Wilkinson Furniture Limited – designs, manufactures and sells handcrafted kitchens and bedroom furniture. Its products, originating in the leafy village of Bromham in Wiltshire, are widely regarded as the embodiment of quality English Craftsmanship.
Owner-managed by Mark Wilkinson and his wife Cynthia, they employ over 100 people in Bromham, and sell direct to the public in showrooms across the UK, and through retailers and agents worldwide.
Mark Wilkinson says “from the very beginnings of our business in the early 1980’s we have taken the view that a forward-thinking, responsible attitude to the environment is central to our business. This means being responsible to everyone who works for us in terms of ensuing their health and well-being at work”.
The business is labour-intensive in a retail industry, which is notoriously affected by economic peaks and troughs. These are difficult to predict or control, and the Directors are acutely concerned to protect their employee’s livelihoods under all economic conditions. “The gradual building of a loyal, skilled and happy workforce is the cornerstone of our business” says the Chairman, and he approved a skills audit of all showroom personnel and key managers up to Director level.
The purpose of the skills audit was to identify skills needs for those involved in business development activities to ensure that the company could maintain its market leadership. Due to the need for absolute impartiality for the skills audit, they recruited an external consultant, on the basis of his experience as a hands-on business manager and a Course Director for the Chartered Institute of Marketing.
The first steps were one-to-one reviews with the consultant identifying the strengths and areas for improvement of each jobholder. This simulated assessment centre processes under informal circumstances, at the end of which jobholders priorities were aligned with company goals, and a skills development plan was produced.
The main focus for the organisation was identified as relationship management internally between managers and staff, and externally between salespersons and clients.
As the additional development needs had not been budgeted for, the consultant submitted a proposal to the local Business Link, seeking financial subsidy for a number of complementary projects to address the requirements. These included: Developing Plans for Sales, Marketing and Customer Service; Tailored workshops for showroom staff; Improvement to the appraisal system; Coaching and Mentoring programmes for managers; Work-flow analysis for factory personnel; Reviewing and improving the dealer training programme. The Business Link agreed to sponsor part of the costs with a subsidy of several thousand pounds supporting the use of the same consultant so that continuity was maintained. Managing Director, Cynthia Wilkinson committed the company to an investment of 24 consulting days spread over a 12 month period to enable change to take place without disruption to busy schedules, and with sufficient time to reinforce progress.
A new Sales and Marketing plan was produced, providing a common focus for the many differently located teams and a more effective tool for the Directors to assess progress. Function heads were appointed for Customer Service and Distributor Sales, and the consultant also facilitated the production of their own business plans.
All showroom staff participated in workshops building their relationship management skills. These engendered teamworking and motivation, being highly inter-active and involved the sharing of Success Stories. The dealer training programmes were improved in both design and delivery, to the extent that participants stated them to be the best in the industry.
Factory managers launched a Work-flow Analysis programme, which resolved bottlenecks in the manufacturing, storage and order processing areas.
The line managers were involved in developing a more effective Appraisal System so that staff could appraise themselves and manage their own performance more effectively. The consultant took on the role of coach and mentor for a few key senior individuals, resulting in behavioral change perceived positively by Managing Director and Staff alike.
Managing Director Cynthia Wilkinson, commented “The Stakeholders in our business include, not only Director, but also our staff, suppliers, customers and our community.
For every new customer order we plan a tree. Actions like this and our people development programmes represent out philosophies and motivations for managing our business”. Last year the business grew by 20% – supported by new trees planted
Benefits Of Integrated Change
In the above case study the customer took advantage of a single source to deliver a number of different tailored services for a wide range of employees. The customer obtained a reduced cost through a “bulk” purchase of consultancy. The quality of services was consistent as it came from the same source. There was no time wasted on repeated briefings of requirements to different deliverers. The knock-on effects of servicing different but related areas was measured more widely and consequently led to more effectiveness.
Where major account servicing is provided on a larger scale by a sales and support team, it can build team spirit and reduce costs with more synergy within the supply team. This can lead to sales staff influencing purchasing patterns, clients contributing to product development and creating a cycle of improved service. The long-standing nature of the relationship can help the supplier build customer need satisfaction into the business plan and strategy. Over a period of time it may be possible to integrate supplier – client systems and procedures (eg on-line order processing) and harmonise quality controls. Eventually this can lead to strategic supplier alliances or partnerships allowing substantial information sharing, mutual problem-solving and cost reduction.
A typical example of this is in the increasing number of alliances between product manufacturers and service suppliers. A small computer manufacturer or reseller may find themselves competing with larger organisations who offer a full “turnkey” solution wrapping their own brand of consulting services around the hardware sales. In this instance the smaller business sometimes fails to win because the client perceives them as merely selling boxes, and not understanding the strategic issues linked to the introduction of new technology.
The smaller hardware supplier can establish an alliance with a non-competing IT Consultancy whose specialisations in IT Strategy, project management or training can be jointly packaged as a single offer to the client.
This can reposition the hardware supplier as a “one stop shop” and enable their involvement in decision-making within both strategy and across other areas of implementation. Eventually such a partnership can help the hardware provider to learn how to set up and deliver their own consultancy services. Customers are increasingly demanding more choice in their purchases and more flexibility from suppliers. Partnership arrangements can be a fast and cost-effective process to meet such demands or offer differentiation without the costs and risks of building inhouse resources.
The stages in developing a partnership can include:
* Identifying a product or service which will enhance the value of your own core offer.
* Researching the perceptions of its value amongst customers and prospects.
* Defining and costing the new offer with a non-competing organisation who are willing to transfer knowledge and who are not intent on building their own brand to compete.
* Agreeing terms of reference, mutual responsibilities and contact management details to manage relationships.
* Piloting and responding to feedback.
* Sharing information and teamworking at all levels are pre-requisites for success and both parties need the skills and systems to support this.
Whilst the focus of this document has been on direct business to business selling, distribution networking and selling through third parties should not be overlooked. A local distribution network can replace or work alongside direct salespersons. This can involve distributors, agents, wholesales, and retailers. The benefits of low-cost coverage and faster local response can attract customers and standards or service must be consistent throughout the network. The distributors themselves should be treated as a customer by the original supplier who should be aware of the distributor needs and motivations. A distributor may look for a number of benefits from the supplier: offers which attract, product information, technical support, marketing support, training, loyalty or incentive schemes, ease of contact. This requires a comprehensive support plan.
The support plan can specify the quality standards expected of the distributor eg. inventory maintenance, staff training, customer satisfaction measures, and delivery timeframes.
For displayed products there should be consistent visual standards, covering sometimes not only merchandising material but also literature, building layout and dress codes. These will reinforce a brand image and give customers the security of consistency. To minimise “performance scatter”, benchmarks should be specified and successful performers should be encouraged to share how they achieved the standards. The star performers may need an incentive to share their experience with others.
Distributor Case Study
The distributors of an electronics supplier were performing with significantly different results and it would have been too costly and taken too long for the supplier to have visited all outlets to identify the problems and implement solutions. Instead the supplier used an independent consultant to facilitate a series of business development workshops at head office at which the distributors shared and developed ideas between themselves to improve performance.
The process included new product launches, competitor briefings, meetings with supplier support staff and teamwork exercises between distributors. As a result all attendees felt they benefited in different ways, and underperformers were able to learn not only what to do differently but how to put in into practice from those who had succeeded.
The amount of control a supplier can exercise over distributors depends upon their status as either independent or franchised. Franchises must not supply competitor products, whereas independents can, and use this to play off suppliers against each other. The supplier must decide the degree of control they want or are able to exercise, and can offer varying degrees of support in tune with the degree of commitment by the distributor. Suppliers can take financial stakes in networks and simply increase representation levels to exercise control. These varied options should be regularly analysed so that events do not dictate distributor development strategy.
Distributers themselves can influence the resources available to them by drawing up a business plan for the supplier approval. The format of a plan could include sales and marketing objectives, customer care and loyalty incentives, training, direct marketing activities and performance review processes. Distributors should be encouraged to develop their own ideas rather than be directed centrally as they will feel greater ownership and commitment. Their ideas may well be transportable to others in the network too. Sales conferences are useful vehicles to help this, creating teamwork and the opportunity for good performance to be recognised in front of the peer group.
Praise and recognitions through public presentations will motivate distributors, and can be linked to the performance standards important to the supplier. These can go beyond achieving revenue or unit sales, targeting areas like staff training or customer satisfaction.
Supply Chain Communications
An impartial party eliciting customer views can judge these. Such exercises will focus distributors on customer needs more so than conventional turnover targets. More general communications should be coordinated through a distributor specialist who can develop other communication channels to keep the network information of relevant news. Management bulletins, newsletters and briefings can ensure the network receives regular and clear information. Staff within the suppliers company also need to be kept informed so they can see the results of their support and focus efforts where they are most needed. It is essential that customers perceive visible teamworking in the supply chain, and a crucial element is the building of a customer database centrally. Local outlets may need guidelines on what information to collect such as sales records, advertisement responses and customer complaints. This data can help the supplier identify buying patterns, marketing needs and product development issues. This collection of valuable facts will protect the supplier business should there be any changes of distributor, as well as helping the two parties support each other.
This briefing paper has outlined a number of ways of winning and managing sales. We will end with two final tips: responding to lost business, and how to get more sales with no extra cost.
Reviewing Lost Sales
Business losses will occur when prospecting and when maintaining customers. Whilst it is tempting for suppliers to shrug shoulders “c’est la vie” and move on quickly without dwelling on negatives, if this happens the opportunity disappears for learning from the event and putting into place loss prevention measures to stop a trickle becoming a stream. All significant losses should be analysed as the majority is preventable. The supplier should start by examining the processes involved in the sale, whether poor qualification, insufficient cost-benefits or simply not keeping in touch. For an important loss, bringing in an independent reviewer will overcome the problems of customers being unwilling to tell the supplier directly what they feel, and salespersons being unwilling to accept responsibility for their own shortcomings. A brief call or visit by a third party can be a very valuable investment.
Finally the simplest and most cost-effective method of winning new business with no cost implications is to ask for referrals. A request can be made not only of satisfied customers, but even during the initial sales cycle, provided a relationship of trust has been established. The process is straightforward: check the client’s feelings about your relationship; if they are happy, ask who else they know who could also take advantage of your offering and ask why they may be interested; check if you can mention the referrer’s name or if they would wish to contact the prospect themselves; then thank them and keep them informed of progress.
In doing this latter you will create yet more opportunities to request further referrals leading to more business. If clients decline to give a referral this may well be a symptom of an unhappy client, giving you the opportunity of checking and improving their satisfaction levels: a win-win situation. Employ these ideas and the lifeblood of your business will be a stream of clients who keep coming back for more.