The Distribution Blog

Evolving Your Outside Sales Team to Thrive in Today’s Realities

March 20, 2023

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A sales career has a reputation for its ups and downs — it’s no wonder writers from Arthur Miller to David Mamet have mined it for drama.  

This hyperconnected modern era requires more perseverance and grit than ever. Paradigms and customer demands keep shifting. Markets are increasingly competitive, even as the economy teeters on the edge of recession. And everyone continues to deal with the fallout of a once-a-century global pandemic.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that only 45% of distributors are satisfied with their sales efforts, according to the State of Distributor Sales report.

Outside sales teams (OSRs) have always been essential, but if distributors hope to compete in an evolving world, their outside sales reps can’t just continue business as usual. New realities require a new approach.  

Just as distributors evolved and built killer inside sales teams in response to the pandemic, their outside sales teams must adjust to succeed in this environment. Some distributors are already adapting in smart ways. In this piece, we’ll explore some reasons why the game has changed, outline the ideal outside sales model for today’s world, and lay out a path your business can follow to get there.

Factors Forcing Distributors’ Outside Sales Teams to Change

Current market conditions, from changing customer expectations to labor shortages, have challenged distributors’ operations and require a new sales strategy.

  • B2B Sales Shift to Digital

Forrester first reported on empowered customers and the shift to a digital-first market in the Death of a B2B Salesman report in 2015. When the pandemic hit, this trend accelerated. Customers have become used to less in-person and more digital shopping.  

Most distributors find their customers want to interact more digitally and less often in person. Today, they want fewer interactions with sales reps overall unless the sales reps can add value to the experience, such as when they are buying something very technical. Customers also want a personalized B2B buying experience.  

  • Supply Chain Disruption

One survey found 97% of senior procurement executives in the U.S. and U.K. are experiencing significant supply-chain disruptions. Even the delay of one item can have a domino effect. With hundreds of thousands of SKUs, it’s impossible for a sales rep to know acceptable substitutions for all products when they have a stock-out.  

Sales reps must have technology at their fingertips that delivers information immediately to keep up with all the inventory changes.  

  • Inflation and Economic Uncertainty

While economists are still debating if and when we’ll hit a recession, distributors are grappling with economic tension, from contemplating the what-ifs to tightening margins to rising costs. The underlying pressure is to do more with less, close deals and increase sales while remaining cost-efficient, and grow business without hiring more sales reps.  

  • Labor Shortages

Many factors at play are driving a labor shortage in distribution, including an aging workforce that’s retiring, few remote work options, the Great Resignation, and more. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for distributors to attract qualified talent, so it’s even more necessary for distributors to train and develop the sales professionals they already have.  

With all the factors driving change, some things remain the same. Field sales is still the dominant sales channel for distributors, with 78% of distributors relying on it. However, the definition of “field sales” is evolving. We think yours should too.  

The New Outside Sales Model

  • Since COVID, customers don’t want or need distributors to visit them as much. Since the pandemic hit, distributors’ customers, along with the rest of the world, have become Zoom or Google Hangouts experts. They’re now comfortable taking online means instead of in-person. What does that mean? Less travel time for the OSR.
  • The outside sales reps we talk to say their typical week doesn’t look the same as it did pre-pandemic. There are 3 main changes:
  • They travel less: Since many meetings are now digital, they don’t have to travel as much. If a typical week involved 4-5 days/week on the road, today looks more like 2-3 days/week.
  • Their sales territory is larger: Since they now travel less, they can now drive farther distances when they do in-person visits.
  • They manage 10-20% more accounts: Another benefit of traveling less, OSRs can now manage 10-20% more accounts than they did pre-pandemic.

Distributors’ Benefits of a Hybrid Outside Sales Rep

When you cut out 50-60% of an OSR’s travel time, you give them more time back to manage accounts virtually, enabling reps to take on anywhere from 10-20% more accounts located in a larger sales territory. The result? You can keep customers happy with fewer reps.  

Converting your outside sales team to a hybrid sales team addresses the factors we discussed earlier – customers’ needs to be served digitally. It also addresses some of today’s challenges in the market, from inflation to labor shortages.

But, wait. If you’re a distributor reading this article, we’re not done yet. To pull off the new hybrid OSR model correctly, distributors need to support their reps with the right tools.

The Right Software for Distributors’ Outside Sales Team

At Proton, we’ve interviewed some OSRs that are pretty burnt out and frustrated by the existing systems they’re using.

One we interviewed recently has to use SAP ERP, an SAP CRM extension, Outlook, and a different BI tool for pre-call or customer visit prep. None of these systems talk to each other, and the OSR has to go into each individual system to get the customer and product info they need to do their job.

In today’s market, it’s essential to equip your teams with the right digital tools to boost their efficiency and help them succeed.

According to the Distribution Strategy Group report, many distributors believe investing in digital tools that increase sales productivity will be essential to survive in today’s market. As a result, more than half of distributors (66%) are digitizing their business with CRM.  

Tools like Proton, an AI-powered CRM purpose-built for distributors, can give your outside sales reps a 360° view of accounts in the palm of their hand. Proton integrates with all of a distributor’s relevant data sources, analyzes it with AI, and displays it on an intuitive dashboard (on desktop and mobile) so reps in the field and in the office can get everything they need to “wow” customers on a single screen.

Don’t forget best practices when rolling out your new technology and tools. Effective change management is key to ensuring your team will use the technology.

Ready to Evolve YOUR Outside Sales Team?

You can’t expect business as usual for your outside sales team when they are working in an entirely new world. Boost your satisfaction with your team’s sales efforts — and lessen their drama — by taking a different approach.  

Since they travel less and manage a larger sales territory and more accounts digitally today, you can convert your outside sales team to a hybrid model. But this also requires an investment in the tools and technology they need to be successful. With Proton, your outside sales reps have everything they need to drive proactive customer interactions — and increase sales.

To see Proton in action, get a demo today.

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