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Define your sales process

Winning teams require playbooks

by Frank Hurtte

Frank Hurtte

Product specialists are pivotal players in an expanding number of industrial distributors’ sales processes. The “lone ranger” salesman of the past is no longer the sole connection between distributor and customer. Our research has found that an interwoven team of players executing a disciplined sales process is far more effective and efficient.

Team implies a playbook and defined expectations. Rules of engagement accelerate the sales process and provide a competitive advantage in times of economic

turmoil. Far too often the playbook does not exist. Close examination of many distributors reveals individuals working without a plan and often without consistency. Some team members resist or refuse to involve other team members. One experienced salesman may work well with the Safety Specialist but not with the Tooling Specialist. In the same company, a new salesman struggles to reach an understanding (or equilibrium) with yet another specialist.

Most companies stress the value of teamwork, but it’s often defined in company folk tales and unwritten anecdotal rules. From the outside looking in, the folk tale approach works, but further examination reveals it never works 100% of the time. And, when new salespeople or specialists are added to the equation, the first months are a hodgepodge of trial-and-error experiences with the company losing in the process.

When no process exists, customers see quotes that are inconsistent with historical behavior. Specialists set pricing levels without knowledge of external influences. Work is duplicated. The inside sales group is not kept in the loop and orders are lost, delayed or billed incorrectly. On top of this, customers are disappointed by unmet promises. In one situation a salesperson said, “Our specialist will do the MSDS paper work for you.” The specialist faced the dilemma of meeting customer expectations or losing an entire week of selling. All of this results from a lack of process.

What parts of the process should you define?

Joint calls are a major part of a specialist’s role. When properly applied, joint calls are the best tool for developing sales. But if the call doesn’t follow a plan, it’s a waste of valuable human resources.

Know the purpose of the call

Spell out the ingredients of a good specialist call. There may be room for a good will or “showing the flag” call, but generally speaking, calls should serve a higher purpose. Why exactly does this call warrant doubling company sales expense? A planned team call can point out a specific product benefit. It can answer (or quiet) an ongoing technical issue. A planned call can celebrate the closing of an important order. Specialists are the trump card that can win the hand in all of these examples.

No specialist call should ever be made without these questions defined:

  • Who will be called on? What is their interest? What is their function?
  • What is the purpose of the call?
  • What demo units are required?
  • What literature is required? Who brings it?
  • Who is responsible for archiving contact names?
  • Who is responsible for taking notes during the call?

After defining rudimentary issues, you should begin working on “in call” dialog and planned plays. For example, planned conversation might look something like this:

Joe Salesman: “Ms. Customer Engineer, what kind of failures have you seen with Brand X belting?”

Ms. Engineer: “Well, Joe, we have seen stretching and slippage.”

IC Specialist: “Joe, have you suggested they try the new high-temp belt?”

In this example, we were able to strongly recommend a new product and do so without challenging the customer’s judgment or engineering direction.

Define post-call follow-up
One very important byproduct of the call process is the quotation. I recommend that specialists provide only catalog numbers and list prices to customer service for quotation. This simple move eliminates the specialist’s need to track specific customer multipliers. When the order is placed (usually by a purchasing agent) the specialist is not brought into the logistics side of the order.

Customer value logs are fast emerging as important post-call follow-ups. Distributors with specialists are knowledge value-based sellers. The customer value log is an historical listing of value-add innovations brought to the customer. Dollars are a guaranteed way to get a customer’s attention. Specialist calls often result in reduced downtime, eliminated labor or minimized need for spare parts inventories. Measuring and recording value should be a part of your post-call process.

Establish rules for info sharing
Not all customer interaction comes via joint calls. Independent interactions with customers are equally important to the disciplined selling process. Salespeople by their nature tend to be jealous of customer information. When defining the process for these interactions you should consider the following:

  • How is information shared within the sales team?
  • What is important for the whole team?
  • How soon after the interaction is the information passed along?
  • How will this information be maintained?
  • Under what conditions should the specialist make calls alone?

MRO contracts drive a substantial amount of industrial supply distribution. Gathering critical competitive intelligence grows in importance with each business cycle. Specialists and salespeople need to perfect their teamwork in this endeavor. They need a formal process for driving contracts forward. The ownership of specific tasks is a key component of this process. Lay out a road map for “who does what to whom” in this long-term business.

Since the beginning of time, specialists have been called upon to answer specific product related questions for customers. In an ideal world, these calls would be the most technical, application-specific and profitable of calls. Without a process, there is no metric for salespeople to decide which phone calls are routed to the specialist (versus handled somewhere else). Customer service calls should not be passed to the Belting Specialist simply because they involved belting. Calls involving AC drives need not be routinely passed to a Motion Control Specialist. A specialist’s ability to proactively influence a large number of customers is directly related to his/her ability to break away from lower value reactive calls. Sitting down with other members of the team to refine telephone pass offs pays in two ways. First, it removes conflict with salespeople and customer service people. In addition, it helps bring into focus product training needs.

To begin developing this process, I suggest making a list of your own expectations under each of these categories. Sit down one-on-one with other members of your team. Ask them, “Is this how you see it?” Build consensus. Then refine your points. Discuss and write down expectations. Add expectations to a sales meeting agenda. Tweak your expectations and, when new members join the team, add expectations to their employee training.

Frank Hurtte of River Heights Consulting has developed a unique training system for distributor specialists. Reach him at (563) 514-1104 or

This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2009 edition of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2009, Direct Business Media, LLC.


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