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A long-lost but still remembered mentor of mine was fond of saying, “No coach works on improving the final score, instead they drill their team on the basics; the blocking and tackling. Why do sales managers always focus on monthly results rather than the important stuff that drives results?”

For the past year, our lives have revolved around COVID-induced situations. It has been a series of reactions. Customers not accepting visitors—move to phone sales. Not allowed at your counter—set up curbside pickup. Working from home—offer systems to provide them with data via the web. People are creatures of habit; even the best of workers may have shifted to reactionary habits.

Strangely, we continue to run into new sellers who have lost or lack some of the most rudimentary skills. Unbelievably, a couple of people have forgotten the formula for gross margin; this one cost their company thousands. Now is the time to work through a refresher course to set the stage for post-COVID times. Join me as I talk basics.

Before we launch on this six-minute journey, allow me to explain something. The post-corona “new normal” will not be a return to 2019. For our customers, the world has changed. For example, according to the World Economic Forum, 75% of workers want to maintain a certain level of “flex time” after the dust of the pandemic dies down with 74% of managers in favor of the idea. I believe the economics of finding qualified workers will force many distributors to follow the flex-time practice in at least a few of their departments.

Many skills fall into the category of blocking and tackling. We do not have time to visit every one of them, so we have prioritized based on what we believe are most valuable for the new normal.

Setting Appointments and Calendar/Territory Management

After a year with extraordinarily few or no customer visits, most sellers report an urge to jump into the car and drive like the wind to the nearest customer. Thinking further, most of the in-person calls made during the pandemic were at the request of the customer. Scheduling was easy. The customer called and asked the seller to come look at some situation and off they went. Basically, the customer made the appointment.

Past research with dozens of traveling supplier salespeople uncovered a systemic issue with distributor salespeople. Most are not good with targeted appointments. Some are still “milk route” sellers substituting their ability to show up every Tuesday for actual appointments. Pre-COVID, these guys wasted a lot of time for the customers to meet with them. Post-COVID, it will be worse. Flex workers may or may not be present; those who are in the facility will be consumed with other activities. The only answer is developing (or redeveloping) the habit of setting appointments.

Without a plan for appointments, a seller can find themselves zigzagging around their territory, feeling busy, but achieving little to push the sales agenda forward. While driving feels like work, the real point of a sales professional is time spent with customers. To that end, we recommend a plan involving “anchor appointments,” which position the seller for more appointments every day. Anchor appointments are typically set at the beginning of the day (8 a.m.) and another near the end of the workday (3 p.m.). Once these anchors have been set, the rest of the time can be filled in with other accounts in the general vicinity. If no additional appointments can be made, the time can be filled with drop-in or tentative appointments.

A few progressive distributors used this anchor appointment strategy to great advantage by requiring outside salespeople to publish their calendar and allowing inside salespeople to fill in the unused time. Here is how it works. When an inside salesperson is talking to a customer who needs some on-site assistance, instead of passing the message on to the outside guy who must then phone the customer to set an appointment, they simply schedule a call based on the outside person’s calendar schedule. The appointment is set, and the customer is better served. A good block and tackle move.

Broadening the Base of Customer Contacts

According to recent reports coming from researchers such as McKinsey, Industry Week and others, many business leaders are contemplating some form of operational restructuring. These impact companies in ways you might not expect. It appears industry and profit picture has little to do with the decision to restructure. For instance, 3M (which reported revenue growth of greater than 25% during the pandemic) announced restructuring plans designed to “streamline our operations, positioning us to deliver greater growth and productivity as global markets emerge from the pandemic.”

What does this mean for distributors? Some of our customer contacts may be moved to new positions, transferred or even terminated. If your work revolves around just a few contacts, this could be devastating. Now is the time to broaden your contact list, pushing upward to higher level people and alternative contacts such as safety, production, operations, project managers as well as owners and C-suite management.

Why is this important? There is a good chance the lower-level echelon of your customers will not hear of the restructuring until it is too late to react. Many of these upper-level contacts are not interested in the products you sell, but instead want to talk about the value and services your organization provides.

If you sell services (and I hope by now you are doing such), this type of reorganization often opens the doors for additional fee-based service work by your organization. However, the play comes with management and high-level contacts. For instance, if inventory management is one of your services, there is a particularly good chance talking to your customer’s crib manager will not alert you to future opportunities.

Broadening your contact list is blocking and tackling, and it is even more important now.

Measuring and Reporting Your Value

Prior to the pandemic, a few leading distributors had laid plans to meet with the management of their top customers to present a recap of their overall business with the customer. The plan follows a six-step outline like this one:

  1. A recap of business done with the customer, which includes types of products and solutions sold throughout the year.
  2. A review of the extras provided by the distributor. This includes service stock maintained, emergency expedites/deliveries, training conducted, technical support provided, warranty issues handled and services provided.
  3. Trilateral discounts developed between the customer, key suppliers and the distributor are reviewed.
  4. An estimation of the value to the customer via cost savings, extra production, schedules maintained and other value drivers.
  5. An overview of new services the distributor plans to launch for key customers.
  6. Thoughts on how the distributor will contribute more value in the coming year.

In the best of cases, the distributor has maintained a log of specific instances of this type of activities and interactions with the customer. Even if specifics are missing, the meeting has an impact on the customer relationship.

Have we provided value to our top customers throughout the pandemic? You bet! Most distributors report they have done more in the past year than ever to keep important customers running. However, with all of the pandemic related distractions, most of us have neglected to schedule this type of meeting.

Blocking and Tackling 101: Document the extra value you provide to your customers. And…do not miss this opportunity to report your value to your customer’s top brass.


Targeting the Right Accounts for Growth

Experts say we are on the cusp of an extended growth period. I mostly agree, but this does not mean every account will grow at the same rate nor does it mean every account on your books is poised for growth with your company. Identifying accounts most likely to match your need for growth is more important today than ever.

Targeting is defined as carefully selecting customers with the best opportunity for sales growth with your organization. This does not mean you ignore other customers, instead extra efforts and resources are focused on a select few accounts; accounts with the maximum probability for success.

Selecting these targets requires thought and planning. Here are questions to consider in the selection process:

  1. Does the customer need the kinds of products you provide?
  2. Do you know enough about the customer to understand their service requirements?
  3. Is your breadth of contacts within the account sufficient to allow you to develop coaches who will help in growing your business?
  4. Have you seen concrete evidence they are receptive to giving you more business in the future?
  5. What is the long-and short-term growth potential of the account?
  6. Will your efforts be hampered by larger and more powerful competitors?
  7. Can your supply partners be counted on to support sales efforts with the proper competitive pricing if the need arises?
  8. Could there be some underlying reason why the account would not do business with you?

Finally, target accounts require extra work. Most sellers lack the bandwidth to handle more than a half dozen such selling efforts while maintaining the rest of their territory. However, the work pays off.

Research done by CSO Insights indicates that companies who target accounts reach their goals 86% of the time vs. 58% for companies without a good targeting process and the numbers remained constant through both good and bad times. That is a blocking and tackling advantage not to be ignored.

Blocking and Tackling for Fun and Profit

Looking back at this short list, I realized two things. First, it is a short list. There are dozens of other things that could make a difference as the economy moves into high gear. Secondly, none of these blocking and tackling efforts are difficult, unproven or earthshakingly revolutionary. Instead, they are the little things that make the difference between good or competitor smashing growth.

Strangely, most distributors fail to reinforce blocking and tackling skills with their team. Distributor sales meetings have evolved into product trainings with a company bulletin board attached. Many distributor managers feel their sales teams are experienced, professional and somehow above any kind of refresher courses on the basics. I disagree. Improving basic skills makes a difference.

A Parting Thought

Switching up our sports analogy, I am not a golfer. I do not play, own a set of golf clubs or follow the sport. I have told many that I hate golf! However, I realize many of the readers of this publication love the game, so I asked one of my friends who is the top golfer today. Without hesitation, he answered: Dustin Johnson. I Googled “Dustin Johnson.” This guy made a cool $24 million in 18 tournaments in 2020. A little more reading and I identified at least six coaches helping him.

The best golfer in 2020 had six coaches. I suspect even our top guys could use a little coaching every now and again.