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The New Sales Person Project

sales people

by Frank Hurtte

Lately, I’ve been pondering an overlooked but important slice of our industry. We baby boomers can rattle off changes in selling over the course of our careers. Regardless of whether we are boomer, Gen Xer or millennial, very few foresee customer interaction in 2025 as being the same as the “good old days” before the internet. At the same time, all agree our business is built on customer-facing services of some kind. It’s a good bet, distributors will be out there sitting, standing or somehow interacting with customers.

I have always had a keen interest in young people coming into our ranks, but this year I decided to make it a bit more formal by interviewing new sales people. My plan calls for confidential interviews with 200 such new distributor selling professionals over the course of 2018. To qualify, they must have less than two years of selling experience with a distributor. Why go to the trouble?

I am working to better understand five questions impacting distributors.

1) Has the wholesale industry improved its outreach to prospective employees?
2) How is the industry positioning to replace the aging baby boomers in the sales force?
3) How do new sellers feel about our industry?
4) Does their company have an “onboarding” process and what do these newcomers think of it?
5) What is the millennial view of the future of selling in our business?

How we’re gathering information
We have conducted nearly 30 interviews in and around industrial distribution and closely related lines of distributor trade. During the conversations we touch on the following:

  • How did you get into this role?
  • What was your background prior to getting into the industry?
  • What kind of on-boarding process did you go through as a seller?
  • What have you learned since you started working in this role?
  • What do you know now that you wish someone would have told you during the first week?
  • What message would you provide to other newcomers?

Much of what I learned from these conversations will come as no surprise. Other comments will cause you to pause and ponder shifts in our industry and in generational differences.

Distribution still isn’t seen as a glamorous business
Back in our father’s day, distribution was a Main Street kind of business. Most found their way into the industry by word of mouth; they knew somebody who knew somebody who got them a job. We discovered less than half of the new sellers landed their job this way; distributors are moving away from this informal hiring method.

Here’s the demographic thing pushing back against our industry. As a substantial number of baby boomers approach retirement, we face a shortage of skilled workers, and our industry doesn’t ooze with overnight billionaire mythology. Thousands aspire to blast their used car to Mars a la Elon Musk. No one can name a famous leader in distribution.

Finding the next- generation sales guy
Several new sellers came into distribution by way of their company’s summer internship. The company hired college students for the summer, they were exposed to the industry and liked it. The company got the opportunity to examine the potential employee’s work ethic. These rookie sellers unanimously felt the company gave them meaningful work. Interaction with experienced sellers was one of the highlights of the summer.

College career days were quite successful in bringing in recruits. Those first introduced to industrial distribution in this manner indicate they were most impressed by the personalized management style of the business. A couple candidly commented they wanted to work someplace where the president was available and open for conversation. Culture matters.

Increasingly, new salespeople come with degrees
We met three individuals who graduated with degrees in industrial distribution. Only one of these sellers was a product of the well-known Texas A&M program; there are 19 degree programs throughout the country. All three were brought into the business through a larger distributor and identified themselves as being on “a management track” with sales being an important but temporary stop. Message to distributors: New sales people want to understand your vision of their future.

Two-thirds of new sellers we spoke to have some kind of technical background. Only one was an engineer by degree. The rest came with a wide variety of technology and science-based backgrounds ranging from aerospace engineering to industrial technology. We discovered the median starting salary for electrical engineers is highest of all the curriculums (at least so far).

What is the state of on-boarding?
Sadly, 1970s style on-boarding lives. Most distributors still lack a meaningful on-boarding process. This is typical: a few days in the warehouse, a couple of weeks with inside sales, a day or two with a couple of experienced sellers and – wham – you’re a sales kid.

Most reported they were dazed and confused during their first six months of selling. One seller made the gut-wrenching decision to find a different employer based on what he described as, “A need to start my career off right, rather than thrash around for years learning by trial and error.”

At the other extreme, we discovered training plans lasting more than a year with documentation, goals and supervision. Let’s look at two of these plans.

Replacing the retiring salesperson – The rookie worked with a retiring salesperson for a year. At the beginning, the newbie simply traveled and served as an assistant. During the first couple of months the new guy set up demos, ordered samples, took care of routine “ERP system” quotes and provided some of the follow-ups which came out of the calls. Later, the duties were expanded with the new seller making calls on his own and pulling in his experienced colleague as needed for more difficult applications. Toward the end of the year, the exiting seller’s main focus was visiting key customers to check on service levels and gather coaching points. The retiring member of the team continues to participate and a bonus structure was created to drive coaching after the retirement date.

Creating an expansion territory – The new seller was assigned a new territory created from accounts designated as “C” accounts by the current sales team. Using a series of exercises tied to data mining, they researched accounts based on industry sector, number of employees and previous purchases, with an eye for creating a list of the best 100 prospects on the list. Suppliers, other sales people and LinkedIn were used to create a contact list. In the early months, the freshman seller made weekly progress reports to the sales manager and an assigned mentor. Further, the newbie made visits to experienced salespeople’s “A” accounts for better understanding processes and buying habits. This allowed the new seller a plan for focusing and fine-tuning product expertise. Phone calls are made to create introductory calls and gather a prescribed list of information about the account.

Unexpected observations from new sellers
At the end of each of our conversations, we ask the question, “What have you discovered in the past year that should be shared with others entering our field?” Many answers run against the views of their more experienced brethren in distributor sales. Here is a short list of answers:

“I wish someone would have told me how important organizational skills are to this job.”

This salesperson went on to discuss his quest for tools to help improve their organization. He kept referring to the need for a tool. When I asked what was meant, he asked me if I was familiar with CRM. About a third of our interviewees were ready doing some kind of CRM implementation. Here’s another direct quote, “There is no way a person can keep track of customer names, opportunities, products used and everything else without some kind of software.”

“I always try out free software before I buy anything.”

Taking this further, a couple of these new people, whose companies were not actively engaged with CRM, sought out free or low-cost versions to implement for their own use. Two of them referenced the free version of which is a Google Gmail overlay.

Another new seller decided to streamline their territory management by using free tools on Google Maps to create a “hot map” showing customer clusters by gross margin. They report this has saved much time in evaluating how to spend their time.

“I discovered about nine months in, I am the reason customers should buy from our company.”

In an era where Amazon, e-commerce and all the rest send quivers of worry down the spines of sellers with 20 plus years of experience, this seller has learned they are the differentiator. This rookie sales person has invested a great deal of personal time toward learning how to help customers technically, logistically and with other processes. Without coaching, he has come to the conclusion that some customers are only interested in driving down prices and don’t deserve their brand of service. BTW: this new seller wants to charge for some of their work. I love that.

“Purchasing agents and buyers try to beat me down on price. I’m not a price pushover anymore.”

This young person got thrown into the salesperson version of “Daniel’s Lion Den” with very little sales training and virtually no negotiation training. After two years’ experience, he recognizes distributors are in a constant state of price negotiation. This seller sees strong payback in attending some kind of negotiations training. Only SPASigma has developed negotiation training designed for our industry. I recommended he attend but haven’t heard back yet.

“I have to be nice to the reps because they are a source of free business.”

One of the new guys lamented the poor way other salespeople in the company treated reps. They learned early on to mine manufacturers for leads and they see the reps as the gatekeeper for not only leads but other easy business. This particular new seller has breakfast with a different rep every Friday morning and attributes this plan to a major portion of his account list’s growth.

Parting thoughts on new sellers
As a new seller, I was hard-headed and sure of myself. I learned my lessons by trial, error, fire and ice. This new generation has tons of resources available via the internet and a few of them have discovered how to use them. Distributor management has not kept up with the need for building an on-boarding process. Experts tell us it costs $150,000 to bring a new distributor salesperson up to speed. We should be investing in ways to stack the deck in our favor and maximize our investment. We’re not. I want to hear from new sellers

I have established a survey for new distributor salespeople. This allows me to gather information and an easy way for sellers to connect. All of the information will remain confidential to River Heights Consulting and no names or company-specific data will be shared. Take our survey here:

Frank HurtteStraight talk, common sense and powerful interactions all describe Frank Hurtte. Frank speaks and consults on the new reality facing distribution. He has a new book out – “Plan on Breaking Through – Strategic Planning for Accounts.” Contact Frank at, (563) 514-1104 or at

This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2018 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2018, Direct Business Media.


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