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Last Rep Standing

An Article by Cliff Burgin

I doubt that there is a CEO that at one time or another hasn't thought that the sales team was an extravagance that they might be able to do without - Just hire some nice cheap folks to ring the customers and send them the odd email…they're bound to keep buying the product. I am currently working with a firm that for whatever reason still has a reasonable sized field sales team. Watching them at work has caused me to rethink the whole sales force justification calculation.

As part of my research programme, I have spent time out visiting end-user and distribution customers with the guys. When I asked customers if they saw lots of reps the answer was always "no…just him. Nobody else ever comes to see us".

They operate in a market among competitors that range from giant multinational chemical companies to me-too cut price product importers. The former have scaled back their field sales force and the latter never had one.

So here is a mid-sized company, with manufacturing in the UK, a field sales team driving around in company cars (owned not leased), actually taking orders and making the firm plenty of money it seems.

Why does it work?

These seem to be the conditions that make this a successful approach in this instance:

  • The distributors in this market, even some of the really big ones have yet to master the art of using their computer systems to replenish stock.
  • As a consequence, if this company doesn't load the distributors shelves with their stock, someone else will.
  • The company concocts a constant stream of jolly little trade promotions that seem to brighten the day of bored distributors and end-users.
  • The product really benefits from being physically demonstrated to end-users. Show them how it works and they love it.
  • Once end-users are converted they tend to stay loyal to the product.
  • Order sizes and gross margins are fat enough to cover the cost of a salesman visiting.
  • Most customers are happy for the salesperson to arrive unannounced.
  • All their competitors do not bother visiting more than once a year.

Oh… and the sales folk themselves are irrepressibly cheery.

I am sure that your market is different, but there may be a different set of reasons why maintaining the expense of field salespeople will pay off. If you have a sales team, go out and see them in action. Ask the customers if they like to see a sales person. Then ask yourself this question. What difference do they make?

The moral of the story is that not all markets are as modern thinking as one might think and the traditional role of the 'rep' of taking orders and demonstrating products is sometimes a competitive advantage. Every sales person will tell you that people buy from people… ...In this case they are clearly right.

All the best

Cliff Burgin of Burgin Associates. www.burginassociates.com

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