The Transition to “Commercial Insight” Selling

The Transition to “Commercial Insight” Selling

Know your customer

So much has changed with the pandemic, including in sales. Commercial Insight Selling is on the rise! What do I mean by that? Read on…

As we edge our way back into a post-pandemic world, we find that customers’ buying habits have changed. The arms- length sales transactions enabled by digital platforms have enabled us to do business when an arms-length (and then some) was required. To keep the doors open during lockdown, distributors were forced to find ways to move customers to eCommerce buying platforms on their websites. Fortunately, these have been largely successful and customers have embraced them. However, making a sale using digital tools and techniques is quite different from traditional methods. Sales managers and reps alike need to find ways to adapt. We have seen historical transitions in ways to sell before. The late 20th century saw a move from transactional sales to relationship selling. In the early 21st century we saw a focus on solution selling. I believe the next sales model is commercial insight—knowing what your customers need.

Win customer loyalty

In their seminal 2011 work, The Challenger, Taking Control of the Customer Conversation, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, set the stage for the sales strategies needed for this digital transition. “Customer loyalty is won out in the field, in the trenches during the sales call. Over half of customer loyalty is not what you sell, but how you sell.”  

Education leads to commercial wins

A company’s outside sales force feels the impact of digitalization most acutely. While the inside sales team continues to operate from their computers and phones, many of the ways the outside team sold through personal contact with the customer are no longer in play. However, one of the major drawbacks of eCommerce is its lack of the very thing it has eliminated — personal interaction, and somewhat with that, insight to serve the customer. If you have a question or problem, getting someone to respond when there is an urgent need is near impossible. This puts the distributor’s field sales force at a distinct advantage. With their product know–how, they have an opportunity to teach the customer something new and valuable about their business. Using commercial insight reliably leads to contract wins for the distributor and the supplier.

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Sales Strategies for the Digital Age

Sales Strategies for the Digital Age

Develop commercial insight

In their seminal 2011 work, The Challenger, Taking Control of the Customer Conversation, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson set the stage for the sales strategies needed in the digital age. They focus on developing commercial insight as a way to sell and present four key rules for using it effectively.

Four rules

  1. Lead with your strengths – “The sweet spot of customer loyalty is outperforming your competitors on those things you’ve taught your customers,” according to Dixon and Adamson. The well-trained distributor will lead with their unique strengths. Those strengths are added-value tools such as Vendor Managed Inventory (VMI), AI (artificial intelligence), predictive analytics, Kanban manufacturing strategies, system engineering, ‘customized’ containers and delivery equipment, etc. In the atmospheric gas industry (oxygen, nitrogen, argon, etc.) where I worked, innovative telemetry systems to measure and report gas change in volume, pressure and temperature, were added-value selling tools. Offering resources that help the customer create a better return on investment differentiates the distributor from other channels and direct supplier selling.
  2. Challenge customers’ assumptions – Help your customer reframe the way he thinks about his business. Spend time learning about your customer so you are able to offer a path to a complete solution, even if it involves bringing in another vendor. For example, if your customer might benefit from an AI program, introduce a vendor who can explain how to integrate that technology into his manufacturing process. This will strengthen your sales position.
  3. Catalyze action – For a successful sale, you need to get the customer to act. Build a compelling business case for why action matters. “Unless you can convince your customer they’ll get incremental value for that premium price, your solution strategy is doomed to fail,” write Dixon and Adamson.
  4. Scale across customers – Once you have successfully used commercial insight with your added-value tools to gain a customer, use that sales process with your other customers.  Develop a set of well-scripted insights along with two or three easy-to-remember diagnostic questions, and you are ready to go.

Be an educator

Dixon and Adamson urge sales teams in this new era of digital selling to use commercial insight, “to teach customers what they really need by challenging the way they think about their business altogether, providing them with new means to address their toughest problems in ways they would have never identified on their own. Customers are looking to their distributors to challenge their thinking and teach them something they don’t know.”

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Adapting to Change in a Distribution Model

Adapting to Change in a Distribution Model

Declining revenues force change

The world is rapidly changing and we must adapt to change in order to compete. One example of this is how the Distributor Strategy Group reported on February 23, 2021, that due to channel shift, distributor revenues in the US will decline from 66% to 52% over the next five years. Taking the bite out of the distributor pie are direct manufacturers whose revenues will increase from 12% to 19% and online shopping platforms, where revenues will rise from 22% to 29%. These statistics signal the need for distributors to adapt to change, and shift their business model in a new marketplace marketplace.

Staying relevant

The COVID-19 pandemic supercharged the technology disrupters that were already in play along the supply chain. It brought us rapid change in technology deployment, workforce considerations, customer service, and selling methodology. All of these factors impact the future of distribution.

Four important areas

The traditional distribution model needs to adapt to these changes. To be relevant in five years, you must pay attention to these four areas.

  • Customer purchasing – While the distributor still needs a “show and tell,” store location to differentiate itself from other channels, it must up its game in other categories. For example, today’s distributor needs to provide “just in time” products and services in order to compete with online next-day delivery offerings. As customer purchases are increasingly managed through computerized inventory systems, distributors need to reframe the way those accounts are managed on their end.
  • Manufacturer’s expectation – Today’s producer has three routes to the customer ­— through direct-to-customer sales, via online suppliers, or with a distributor. To remain relevant to the manufacturer, the distributor must provide good customer product/service training in-house. LEAN cost reduction methods must also be deployed, and same-day repair assistance offered.
  • Distributor sales effort – The pandemic has changed the way we approach sales. Distributor reps have face-to-face calls with customers that can be “virtual” (on screen) or “in-person” (on site). The former puts distance between reps and their clients. To offset that disconnect and adapt to change, it is important for reps to gain customer trust and to be seen as well-informed partners to decision makers. Rapid response to inquiries with the right information is crucial to success. This requires good organizational and communication skills.
  • Distributor collaboration – As end-user markets continue to expand with the internet, distributors need larger platforms from which they can offer products and services. Collaboration and the formation of distributor network cooperatives is a good way to pool resources. In this way, independent distributors can offer comprehensive fast and local assistance to customers that may be outside their geographic reach or offerings base.

Poised to offset loss

With the continued threat of erosion in Distributor revenues, the application of the above principles will ensure that your business model is poised to offset losses. Make sure you are adapting your distribution model to today’s changing marketplace.

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A Balanced Sales Approach

A Balanced Sales Approach

Feeling Appreciated

It is easy to slip into the Best Supporting Rep role. Filling an urgent client request or fixing a problem begets customer gratitude, and, we all want to feel appreciated.  When the positive feedback from the “need to please” becomes your driver, overall business can suffer however. Being dependent on customer kudos can compromise your ability to prioritize what is in your funnel. You need a balanced sales approach.

Balanced Sales – Adjusting Your Approach

Customer/rep codependency is easy to spot. You are paying lots of attention to select customers but losing ground on new prospects and accounts. Certain key accounts are being neglected. Despite working long hours to please your customers, you feel you can’t keep up. If you find yourself struggling to put more balance in your sales approach, try these ideas.

  • DelegateLet someone else in your organization promptly return calls. Your support staff is generally equipped to handle most issues and to arrange shipping or hotshot delivery. Once a situation is resolved, you can follow up with a text to your customer. Avoid a phone call so you don’t create a situation where you become overly involved.
  • Realign resourcesIf you have allowed the customer to become dependent on you as the authority figure you need to realign resources. Offer your overly dependent customer the name of someone else inside your organization that can help him. Also suggest that he take advantage of what your store or warehouse have to offer if he goes there directly.
  • Create the right expectation – For customers that call often, arrange a meeting to review call frequency and visits. Many times customers don’t realize that they are contacting you too often. When they do, they will normally participate in corrective actions that get their problems solved just as effectively.

A respectful understanding

The best salespeople built strong relationships. These can make you feel obligated to be available at all times. Using the guidelines above, you can achieve a respectful understanding of your professional responsibilities to your customers. With a balanced approach to sales, you will still feel appreciated but not overwhelmed.

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3 Tips for Business Growth

3 Tips for Business Growth

I enjoyed 47 wonderful years in a career as a sales executive and leader, seeing tremendous business growth during that time. When I reached “retirement” age, I decided to leave my job of 34 years. Rather than retire, I decided to transition to a new business, one that involved pursuing my passions. Today I head up a successful consulting and speaking business based on my writing, speaking, and consulting expertise. In this position, I am constantly asked what it takes to get a start-up off the ground. I always say that passion is the number one tool necessary to grow your business.

Critical Tools and Tips for Business Growth

Along with passion, here are three other critical tools required for business growth.

  1. Build a network – To sell yourself, your product, or your service, requires an ever-expanding grid of relationships.  A sure way to build a strong network is to be cooperative. When you help someone find a new client, they are very likely to recommend your services. For example, a person from my professional past “liked” a posting of mine on LinkedIn. As part of that interchange, I gave him the contact information for one of my clients. Within minutes, he responded by connecting me with one of his clients that could benefit from my consulting experience. This type of exchange is not an anomaly; it happens all the time.
  2. Learn from mentors – I am privileged to have counsellors who believe in my abilities. They often have more faith in me than I have in myself! Meet with your coaches weekly. Schedule one-hour virtual conference calls. During these conversations, challenging ideas will be presented that introduce you to new ways of thinking and doing. This leads to growth.
  3. Work with peers – I have a group of 5 business acquaintances I conference with on a monthly basis. Our exchange of strategies, relationships, and industry changes is invaluable to me and my business objectives. Their insights enable me to change direction if needed and adjust my thinking at critical times. Discussions with my peers have allowed me to take advantage of opportunities that I would otherwise miss.

Grow your business

Work continuously on building your network and schedule time to meet with mentors and peers. These business tools are essential to growing a business. Be sure to apply them to your endeavors.

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Handling Success Wisely

Handling Success Wisely

Being in a leadership position is an honor we work toward, but once there, you may find yourself unsure of how you go about handling success. Have you ever found yourself proud to be put in charge, but not quite sure how to proceed? As a seasoned leader, I find that the most important place to start is to consider and understand the needs of those you lead.

An effective leader

Here are some of my insights into what makes an effective leader.

Authority and responsibility – Accepting a position in sales, or any other form of leadership, is a choice you make. Such positions mark you as a representative of your company and enable you to expand your realm of influence. This is a large responsibility and one you must treat with respect.

Develop power wisely – Find and master the tools you need to succeed. As you progress in your sales and leadership roles, you will develop additional gifts and talents through “hardwired capacities.” Learn from others in your company and from your manufacturers’ reps. Let “iron sharpen iron.” 

Permission – When I proved to my parents I was a safe driver, I was given the keys to the family car. Likewise, as I climbed the sales management ladder, I was given the keys to the businesses I was managing. If you believe in yourself and work hard, there will come a time when you are trusted with permission to lead. That permission comes with an understanding that you no longer have to ask what to do but are expected to know what to do and to report on it.

Life-satisfying privilege – In his book, See You at The Top, Zig Ziglar wrote: “The real opportunity for success lies within the person and not in the job. Success is not a destination, it is the journey, it’s the direction in which you are traveling. The privilege of leading people is that you can get what you want, instead of having to want what you get.

Designed for accomplishment

Handle your success by carefully considering your position of authority, responsibility and power. The permission you have been given to lead is a life-satisfying privilege. As Ziglar would say, “You were designed for accomplishment, engineered for success, and endowed with the seeds of greatness.”

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