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The specialist as coach

the specialist as coach

By Frank Hurtte

During research for my book, The Distributor Specialist: Customer Champion, Profit Generator, one major point surfaced time and time again: upper quartile distributors used their specialists differently. Instead of acting as a purely technical resource, specialists at these high-profit companies reinforced company culture, drove sales process and served as leaders in a small subset of the business.

In many ways, specialists serve as surrogate sales managers for a subset of the distributor’s business. They provide product and application-based training, provide feedback following sales calls, review specific opportunities posted into the CRM and sometimes step in when the customer needs a detailed explanation. Specialists also facilitate vendor trips and suggest timely joint calls with supply-partner teams. They arrange customer meetings and occasionally fill in for their sales people during emergencies. In some progressive distributors, specialists are responsible for establishing an annual plan for the products or technologies under their charge. All of these mirror the duties of the sales manager at some level.

However, one of the most powerful sales functions of the distributor specialist comes by way of a robust targeting program.

Want to know why targeting has such a major impact on business? Think about these points of reality found at industrially focused distributors everywhere:

  • New products are being introduced faster than salespeople can introduce them to their customers
  • Vendors and supply-partners expect their best distributors to effectively launch new products
  • Customers place no value whatsoever on “general information” sales calls
  • Customers value product suggestions, but they must make sense for the individual situation
  • Salespeople struggle to be proactive. Sometimes they just don’t know how to move from responding to customer crisis to creating a vision for the future
  • Major economic swings put pressure on distributor inventory levels. Initial stock orders are hard to justify when it takes two years to get the product rolling, but the selling advantage typically goes to the distributor with products on the shelf.

Targeting during the launch phase
Proper targeting is the key to successfully launching new products. Human nature drives a desire to produce fast results. Dr. Robert Atkins, inventor of the Atkins Diet, stressed the need for an initial quick success in weight loss to drive future behavior over a long period of time.

Dr. Shinichi Suzuki discovered that children who experienced quick success in music were more likely to continue their studies, even once practice became routine. Specialists can drive a result by “stacking the deck” for early success. This creates the initial one or two wins that build long-term success. Since you are responsible for getting the new products into your company’s sales pipeline, time invested early thinking about targets pays important dividends.

In targeting, specific rules and generalities fall along the wayside. A good specialist makes it his or her job to drive the salesperson’s thinking forward. Sometimes it’s by asking questions, other times by testing the salesperson’s answers and often by providing some deep-rooted coaching. Let’s walk through the process.

Where to sell the product
The specialist might ask the following question: Thinking about the product and all of the features we’ve discussed, what kind of customer would benefit most from this product? Insist on an answer with as many specifics as possible.

A bad example would be General Motors/General Electric/General Dynamics or anything else “general” in nature. However, a good answer would be the painting department of a large metal assembly company (General Motors) where explosive paint fumes create the need for tools with special arc-proof coating.

This opens the door to thoughts about a number of different companies where the environment is similar. While our supply-partners and nationally based organizations love to use SIC or NAICS codes to automate these decisions, experience dictates salespeople rarely think in codes. They work best when doing a free-flowing thought association around customers. And, most have discovered, the SIC registry is not an exact science.

Stepping back to the good answer, “painting department where explosive fumes are present” might trigger a recollection of the paint department at an appliance maker, mobile equipment OEM and perhaps trigger a question about explosive fumes produced at a process facility.

Further, I suggest the specialist put personal and team knowledge to work in developing a short list if the salesperson struggles. In the case of newbie sellers, the specialist might resort to some educated guesses based on the descriptions of accounts in the local manufacturer’s directory or some other resource.

A point to consider: the coaching best practice involves pushing the salesperson to summon up their own customer knowledge. Not only does the information tend to be more accurate, the effort serves as an exercise in understanding what a seller must know about their customer.

Targeting is where and who
Again, referring to our specialist as a coach model, the specialist must determine who at these companies is most likely to understand the impact of the benefit? First, we’ll make the assumption your salesperson has multiple contacts within the target account. And, we’ll step out on a limb by stating purchasing folks rarely count.

But selecting the right contact is as important as selecting the target customer. While it may seem strange to restate the obvious, many sellers bring products and ideas to the wrong people. Here’s a couple of blaring blunders: One seller brought a product offering designed to eliminate field wiring to the head of the in-house group building wiring assemblies. Another salesperson brought a new safety-related technology to a maintenance person with a track record of resisting changes he saw as unnecessary, even if required by code.

Sometimes targeting success comes from other parts of the country
It’s the specialist’s job to “mine” data from your supply-partners. We live in a world full of multinational manufacturing organizations. Some have developed elaborate corporate specifications, others have built behaviors into their company culture. For example, Procter and Gamble as well as Alcoa have incorporated workplace safety into their very DNA. And, once they successfully adopt a safety-based technology, they are almost compelled to put it everywhere.

Do you (or the vendor salespeople) know of companies experiencing success in some other part of the country or territory? What drove their success? As with our two company examples, nothing can jump start the success of a new product like an introduction to the local plant of a company that has already experienced success.
Before adding these people to your list, it is important to know a few details. What were the situations leading to the use? What went well? What was learned? How well has this been publicized to the company in general?

Make contact with the key decision maker at the remote location. Call for these details to make the success story more valid for local users.

Preparing the sales team
As with most coaching activities, the best results occur when the student goes through the motions and works for results. A specialist handing a group of sellers a list of “targets” does nothing to develop further skills. However, asking questions, explaining why the answer may be wrong and making suggestions through the process creates a better team.

Targeting prowess and employment seniority don’t always go hand in glove. But you will find salespeople who understand the concept and quickly move forward. Conversely, others will lag behind and might even require management attention to change their behavior. Regardless of behavior, buy-in from the salesperson makes your job easier and quicker.

Tips on Targeting
Targets are special; the whole world might be your oyster, but the whole world can’t be your target. Once sellers have a modicum of success, they want to expand the program to everything, and thus dilute their efforts.

Here are some rules for a product launch:

  • Literature, demo units and samples are in place before starting the target process
  • Salespeople are trained and provided with talking points for approaching their customers
  • Each product should have between four to eight target customers (when more than eight exist, priority should be given to active customers because it’s five times easier to make a sale)
  • A target customer has a contact (or a couple contacts) where the efforts will be focused
  • Targets are successful when a sale is made or specification set
  • Target activities are close ended; A sale is made in six months or less because it does no good to have the same customer on the target list forever

Targets need to be revisited. After the sales person’s first customer meeting, the specialist can help fine-tune the targeting process by discussing the high and low points of the call. If new collateral is needed, it can quickly be brokered to the salesperson. If the demo didn’t go smoothly, a personal tutorial will rebuild confidence and drive better demos at the next target. If this meeting produces major discoveries, such as the competition has the same thing at 10% lower price, adjustments can be made for the entire sales organization.
Targeting accelerates business growth, but is it worth the effort? Here is a parting thought: research indicates that organizations that are great at targeting are 47% more effective than those with average targeting skills. Specialists are uniquely qualified to make an impact! Let the targeting begin.

Frank HurtteStraight talk, common sense and powerful interactions all describe Frank Hurtte. Frank speaks and consults on the new reality facing distribution. He blogs on “The Distributor Channel” at Contact River Heights Consulting at or via phone at (563) 514-1104.

This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2016 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2016, Direct Business Media.


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