Delivering for Best-in-Class Wholesaler-Distributors
March 29, 2017  |  ByMark Dancer, NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence Fellow
NAW-Digital Sales Builds on Inside Sales Expertise -Distributors in the Digital Era #10

As a channel, Digital Sales is a new concept, best practice, or essential capability, depending your level of progress toward building a digital vision and enabling your sales team. When fully deployed, a digital sales channel is built around the creative use of what is traditionally known as inside sales, powered by a full suite of digital tools.

A digital sales channel can be designed to sell any product to any customer and includes

  • sales models that are transactional, one-time purchases
  • value selling models with long selling cycles and multiparty decision-making
  • robust account management for key, strategic, or global accounts
  • and more.

Digital sales channels leverage digital tools to foster collaboration and create value by offering insights and solving problems. Mastery of social media is essential, and digital sales experts analyze social data to better understand customer behaviors so they can determine how decisions are made, why they were made, and what could happen in the future. Advanced analytics and artificial intelligence capabilities power predictive models that help customers anticipate problems and find solutions, thereby cementing relationships with suppliers as true, value-driven partners.

Digital marketing skills are essential for powering digital sales channels. Success is also built on creative and productive use of insides sales teams. As primary sales activities happen more and more through digital means (phone calls, e-mails, texts, web platforms, etc.), sales behavior data can be captured in ways that are very difficult in traditional field organizations. Sales activity data can be combined with sales outcome data (win rates, monthly sales volumes, product mix results, etc.) to drive sophisticated algorithms around sales force sizing and deployment, targeted resource allocation, productivity metrics, territory balancing, and more. The result is a world-class performance for both sales effectiveness and efficiency.

While building a fully loaded digital sales capability is an appropriate goal for most distributors, all distributors will need to walk before they run, starting with building (or upgrading) their inside sales organization as a primary sales team capable of matching or exceeding the results generated by field sales.

To help distributors down their path, we offer insights from an expert in building inside sales teams from scratch, Sudipta Mukherjee. He is part of the leadership team at the American Association of Inside Sales Professionals (AA-ISP) and currently is a sales director of a company offering advanced analytics for businesses in global markets. Here are his insights to three questions I posed to him.

Question #1: Inside sales is becoming a very important channel for wholesaler-distributors as they adopt and use digital tools, and as they seek new ways to improve competitiveness. What advice would you offer to senior executives about building a digital sales team for their company?

SM: The world around us is becoming much smaller, and it is much easier for suppliers to reach across distances to a customer’s work station (laptop, tablet, and smart phone). Business customers are open to voice and digital communications because they lead to faster resolution of issues. Waiting for even one day to discuss a problem and suggest solutions is far too slow. Value must be delivered “in the NOW,” meaning as fast as possible through every conversation.

The top three requirements for building a successful inside sales organization with an eye to developing digital sales capabilities are:

  1. Focus on your people. Success always starts and ends with people. I find that many companies compromise on the “people factor.” They fail to hire the right people and skimp on training and coaching. Few step up to best practices and address an individual’s intrinsic motivations by offering clear and actionable job descriptions and investing in competency development against best practices that are already known and ready to be applied
  1. Be smart about tools. Using tools that are right for your business is equally essential. Before making decisions around tools, consider key factors including
  • the needs of your targeted customers
  • your available budget now and down the road
  • options among credible solutions for information systems and service / outsourcing providers
  • the technical features of high-potential products
  • your managers’ ability to implement the tools that take into consideration the established business process, and what your team is capable of today and what it needs to do in the future.
  1. Consider established options before designing your operating model. Different inside and digital sales teams operate differently, and two primary options pursued by inside sales professionals include:
  • In house: Your team may consist of your employees operating at a single inside location or in combination with remote/direct salespeople in the field. The latter is a hybrid model and a common ratio is 70% inside/30% remote team members
  • Inside Sales as a Service (ISaaS): This approach involves seeking support through an outsourcing partnership with a firm that offers shared or dedicated resources for its clients, according to the client’s unique needs and objectives.

Question #2: More and more distributors are challenged by very large and powerful disruptive channels like Amazon Business. In response, distributors are seeking to build channels that can deliver a differentiated experience for business customers. What do inside and digital sales channels offer distributors to meet this challenge and strengthen their customer relationships?

SM: Consumer-oriented e-commerce disruptors like Alibaba and Amazon are growing at nearly exponential rates and dominating markets. Loyalty programs build around fast shipping combined with recommendation engines that prompt buyer purchases with options and reminders are entry-level capabilities. High-end cognitive analytics are used to profile customers with very high precision and allow mapping of products and services to generate huge shares and profitable businesses.

These companies are beginning to make inroads among business customers leveraging their reputation, analytics, and e-commerce platforms. However, there is still room for distributors to compete successfully, especially when they integrate a human touch to deliver the customer experience. An intelligent and knowledgeable customer service agent, who brings customer knowledge and makes an emotional connection, remains a highly effective sales model—one that is preferred over technology-driven experiences that are known to make offers intended to manipulate buying decisions. Human contact is effective, but business customers prefer the consultative model over incentive-driven salespeople. Advice, not pressure, is effective. Because of evolving preferences for speed and remote/digital communications, inside sales is a powerful model for meeting business customer needs. And when the social media and analytical capabilities of digital sales are added, industry-dominating or disruption channels are possible.

Question #3: In the USA, distributors range in size from very small to very large businesses. Often, they are family owned, although many are public companies. They serve a wide range of lines of trade and a few examples include food service, industrial, building products, technology, and flowers. Can a digital sales channel fit any line of trade, or is this channel limited in some way? Can a digital sales channel be implemented by small and large companies?

SM: Yes to both questions. Absolutely. Inside and digital sales channels are fully adaptable and scalable, and they thrive across a wide range of industries, markets, and customer and business size. These channels offer lower customer acquisition and retention costs in every situation I have examined. Often, a highly productive day for a direct field salesperson is three to five customer- facing meetings. When enabled by phone calls, text messaging, chats, video calls, and other digital communication methods, inside and digital sales reps can conduct many more introductions, demonstrations, Q&A sessions, and closed meetings. They can conduct these one after another with no travel time between meetings. Add in data captured from customer-facing digital tools and Internet of Things equipment at the customer location, and the fact-based proof of value capabilities of inside and digital sales teams can drive productivity to extremely high levels.

Employee job satisfaction also reaches high levels, contributing to sales success, and inside reps achieve professional and personal success as they drive business—whether they are working from home or from a nearby office with little to no travel time. All of this adds up to highly effective and scalable sales teams that are aligned with customer buying preferences, and implementable as investments and costs attractive for virtually any company.

 Summary

If you have questions that can be answered by Sudipta, or by other experts with their perspectives, please reach out to me at mark.dancer@channelvation.com and I’ll track down answers for you. Your input will help this blog stay current and become a source for speedy insights to help lead your business to becoming a digital distributor and to getting results from your digital investments. Going forward, I plan to offer more interviews from experts with valuable insights for wholesaler-distributors.

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Mark Dancer, NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence Fellow

Mark Dancer, NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence Fellow

Mark Dancer founded the Network for Business Innovation to drive awareness, advocacy and excellence for B2B innovation, and to enable an exchange of ideas between leaders on business transformation, technology adoption, social impact and community engagement. For more than 30 years, Mark has worked with leading companies to achieve go-to-market excellence across a wide range of industries in developed and emerging markets.

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