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After the Pandemic

working from home

The remote workforce may be here to stay

by Frank Hurtte

We have been thinking a lot about life after the pandemic and the reality of the new normal. One thing that keeps surfacing is working remotely. For instance, a recent post by famed CRM provider Salesforce stated, “The 9-5 workday is dead.” Office buildings will no longer house the thousands of workers once important to maintaining operations. Salesforce categorized the future of their workers this way:

  • Flex: When it is safe to return to the office, employees around the globe will work flex. This means they will be in the office one to three days per week for team collaboration, customer meetings and presentations.
  • Fully Remote: For employees who do not live near an office or have roles that don’t require an office, they will work remotely full-time.
  • Office-based: The smallest population of the workforce will work from an office location four to five days per week if they are in roles that require it.

Projecting this topic into our industry is not easy. However, the smart money is betting on at least some shifting in the look and feel of the new normal.

First, Break All the RulesThe Distributor Situation
Most distributors have devised a plan for their customer service people and sales departments to work from home. Reports are in; the work currently done from home-based/remote settings is working well. Some say it is more successful than the traditional office setting. We have figured out the nuances of computer, phone and interpersonal communications. Further, there are good reasons to believe the practice will continue in some form or another. These people might fit into what Salesforce calls the Flex category.

Salespeople have long worked remotely. Prior to the perils of COVID-19, many sellers decided working from home was more productive and facilitated easier travel to customer locations. Even in smaller towns, the commute to the office was something done on an as-needed basis. Due to pandemic-related needs, many have amped up their home offices to the point of possessing more resources there than in the hustle and bustle of their brick-and-mortar location.

The big shift will come in the inside sales and customer service departments. Once seen entirely as an on-site position, the coronavirus and social distancing issues pushed distributors to drive their technology and move the groups out of the facility. I believe this will continue. Why? First, many existing employees, especially those with school-age children, struggle with commuting to an office. Some have grown accustomed to working from home and like it. Competition for skilled workers will heat up and a company offering a “work from home” package could have an advantage. Facing the strain of this economic factor, even distributor managers who do not particularly like the concept will relent.

Issues Distributors Must Unravel
Building and maintaining a strong company culture will be a challenge.

Looking back at the Twelve Points put forward by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman in their groundbreaking book, First, Break all the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, we see points that can no longer be handled by daily interaction.

Front-line managers and company leaders must make a concerted and planned effort to reinforce these important points. Either via scheduled meetings designed with this intent, planned interaction when the employee does come to the office, or through some other method, these points cannot be ignored. Hopefully, habits like these have already developed through the COVID-19 strain.

Skills training presents an issue
Today, most skills training, which could probably be better stated as product and application-based training, occurs at the office in the form of after-work and lunch meetings. It becomes abundantly clear that without some type of plan this type of training will suffer and perhaps cease to exist. Since the foundation of their customer value proposition is technical resources, this could be devastating for knowledge-based distributors.

Relying entirely on Zoom-type training could be a mistake. Many of the mainstream products offered by our kind of distributor require tactile feedback and touch. Extending on this thought, experts tell us that while many people learn by seeing and hearing, kinesthetic learners need to be actively involved in their activities. This tactile learning, using the sense of touch to fully experience a training session, is nearly impossible during a video call.

A flex worker’s time in the office must include time for training. While this can create some complications, with detailed planning, it is doable. When training is conducted via video conference, it would make great sense to provide the trainee with demos, samples, product brochures and other learning aids ahead of the call. Additionally, it would be helpful to take an interactive break from formal presentations while the attendee conducts training-related tasks.

Like other key areas of the business, building a process-driven plan for product skills training is important. First, adults learn better when there is a process they can follow. Second, a plan allows a manager to track progress. The following is a simple outline of how this process might look:

  • Determine the product-related skills required for each position. The skills will be different depending on the position. For instance, an outside salesperson may need deeper application skills than a customer service person.
  • Share skills expectations with each employee. This involves a candid conversation about future expectations, an objective evaluation of the employee and a plan for matching deficiencies to future training opportunities.
  • Use proficiency tests to determine skill levels. This answers the question of whether or not an employee has the needed skills. These need not be formal. In many cases, a well thought out conversation might give the manager an idea of the true skill levels.
  • Create a database of classes (whether online, via Zoom, or otherwise). This allows you to track classes attended and gather information on which are worthy of further use.
  • Assign classes on an individual basis. Assign which classes should be taken along with a timeline for completion.
  • Check on what was learned and retention via simple post-training evaluation. This provides a tool to measure the payback of the class. One with strong retention after the training will pay dividends.

There is a need for more than just product skills
Throughout this article, we have explored product and related skills exclusively. It is important to remember the need to work on other skills as well. Below is a list of suggested skills:

  • Phone-based prospecting
  • Setting appointments
  • First-time visits
  • Use of product specialists
  • Handling price objections
  • When to offer a discount
  • Dealing with customer issues
  • Expediting for customers
  • Setting target accounts
  • Use of the webstore
  • Introducing customers to webstore
  • Properly following up on quotes
  • Handling open order backlogs
  • Building customer satisfaction
  • Use of the CRM system
  • Customer segmenting
  • Gathering customer information
  • Opportunity tracking

While this may seem strange coming from a person providing sales training for a living, this instruction need not involve an outside trainer. It can be derived from selecting articles from trade publications or by creating an internal “book club” where employees are assigned chapters from books covering important topics. And now, a quick commercial. My book, Plan on Breaking Through: Customer-based strategic planning for sellers, contains exercises for such discussion at the end of each chapter.

One more point on non-product skills: If your sales team is going up against professional purchasing people, those with Certified

Purchasing Professional (CPP) or Certified Professional Purchasing Manager (CPPM) in their titles, there is a strong chance they are dealing with someone who has recently attended negotiation training. Everyone says, “My customers are straightforward and they don’t negotiate with/against us.” However, evidence indicates customers do negotiate. And, contrary to popular belief, most distributor people are neophytes and consequently give away more than they should. Do your team a favor and get them some negotiation training!

Wrapping all this up
Experts predict that by the end of June nearly everyone who wants a vaccination will have one. Again, according to health experts, if the number of vaccines hits the 70 percent number, we will achieve herd immunity.

The end is in sight, but the new normal will not be a repeat of 2019. While the economy may be robust and sales growth will lurch forward, life will be different. Flex and fully remote work will become as commonplace as the quick stop for coffee to go. Understanding this and planning now will provide distributors with a strategic advantage in the future.

Frank HurtteFrank Hurtte is the founding partner of River Heights Consulting. He combines the battle scars of 28 years of front line “in the trenches” experience with over 13 years of service to knowledge-based distributors and their manufacturer partners. Email for more information.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2021, Direct Business Media.


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