In today’s fast-paced business landscape, savvy companies need to take advantage of every element that can give them a competitive advantage. One such element involves their deployment of top-notch sales reps—industry specialists who help identify and support customers, land sales opportunities, troubleshoot projects and bridge relationships between manufacturers, channel members and influencers alike. It’s a demanding job requiring a unique skill set, and a role which, if done well, can contribute exponentially to all parties’ growth.

Following, several IMARK member executives offer their perspectives on the characteristics of best-in-class sales reps and why knowledgeable outside sales reps represents a key competitive advantage.

What Customers Want

“When it comes to our outside sales reps, strong relationships with our customers are still the most critical, but it goes deeper than that,” shared Matt Coffey, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Electric Supply Inc. (ESI) in Tampa, Florida. “Today, customers want answers fast and nobody wants to wait on anything, so those who can accomplish that objective will win, be it via phone, iPad or laptop — being tech savvy is becoming more and more important,” he contended. “Some older folks can still get by on relationships only, but the younger generation isn’t able to do it.”

Bill Stone, vice president of digital buildings and factories at Mayer in Birmingham, Alabama, believes that sales reps must deliver differentiation. “This means helping the customer do their job better, safer, more effectively and more profitably,” he said. “It involves becoming a ‘trusted advisor’ to your customer and to their leadership and being the first call and the last look.” According to Stone, “those behaviors result from being the best educated sales person—not only on your products, but on their application, the services wrapped around them and, most importantly, how they help your customer do their job better.”

“In my view,” shared Dan Korthauer, vice president of sales and marketing at Gordon Electric Supply in Kankakee, Illinois, “sales reps are most rewarded by customers when they provide solutions. Best-in-class reps are reliable, consistent, disciplined, accountable and solutions oriented. They also maintain a competitive edge by being creative and resourceful and are continuously driven to build their knowledge of products, systems and options.”

A New Age In Rep Services

In today’s information-rich digital age which is influenced by the power of e-commerce and the strength of a changing demographic, our experts stress the need for connectivity and proactivity.

“We’ve all heard the same statistics revealing that in excess of 70% of our industry’s buying decision are done online, before ever contacting a sales representative—if ever contacting a sales representative at all,” said Stone. “But where is that customer doing their research? We all make buying decisions every day based upon the data we find in our research, so why would we believe that our customers are any different? We must provide value that brings customers to us and be their search engine, literally,” he said. “Sales reps need to become the source of digital, real-time, personalized information.”

“To me, the forces driving us toward e-commerce are coming from outside of our business,” Coffey agreed. “If customers can do it on Amazon, why shouldn’t they be able to do it with ESI?”

Korthauer concurred. “Customers are able to buy products quicker and easier than ever before electronically. They’ll engage outside sales reps who are resources for them,” he said.

In response, Stone said, top-performing outside sales reps will need to be “best-in-class, digital communicators and world-champion resource connectors. Life is a team sport today, selling is a team activity and each of us is only as good as the team we surround ourselves with,” he said. “It’s about preparation, continuous development and the ability to seize opportunities.”

Coffey feels that the ability to develop strong relationships will still be necessary for top performers, “but the need to be tech-savvy is more critical than ever,” he said. “Best-in-class sales reps must be open, willing and able to handle change, because everything is changing so quickly.”Along with that, Korthauer added, “they need to be effective communicators who will listen, embrace feedback, ask open-ended questions and be good team builders.”

Collaboration Counts

“Since successful selling is a team activity, you must recruit the best talent for your team,” Stone confirmed. “Who knows your supplier partner better than their own super stars? Besides, if they’re not working with you daily, they’re working with someone else. Top-notch sales reps need to become great teammates, participate in their supplier partner’s education programs and actively plan and execute plans with their partner.” In the spirit of a great sports team, he said, “they need to run plays, watch film and get better every day.”

Korthauer similarly feels very strongly about the need for collaboration between distributor and manufacturer sales personnel. By partnering in a positive and productive way, he said, “they’ll be able to concentrate their best attributes and efforts toward meeting the customer’s needs.” “Working with our supplier partners and our end-user customers continues to be critical,” Coffey concurred.

“We want to be the leader in promoting new products and provide true value to our customers. Collaborating is also the best way for our salespeople to be trained and able to sell these new products when not with the supplier. You can never forget—if the supplier is with us, he’s not with our competitor.”

Top Tips for Success In a Solutions-Based Market

IMARK members have long recognized the need to evolve from being product providers to being more service and solution-focused companies that provide electrical equipment from the best manufacturers. Following, our experts offer activities that outside sales representatives can undertake to both support and thrive in this changing model:

Ask the right questions: “As salespeople, we’re told to ask questions, then listen,” Mayer’s Stone said. “That hasn’t changed, but some of the questions have. Today, it’s about asking ‘what if?,’ ‘why not?,’ ‘what would it do for you?,’ and ‘what can I do for you?’ Overall, job No. 1 is to become the trusted advisor.”

Promote value-added services: Electric Supply’s Coffey believes that salespeople can support a changing model in many ways. Among those, “be sure that your management is involved with your customers, because that will be very useful in growing the business,” he said. “Promote your company’s capabilities, whatever they may be—staging jobs, paralleling wire, piggyback forklift unloading, 24-hour delivery, consignment inventory, etc. And make sure you get paid for additional services beyond just selling product.”

Seize opportunities to solve problems: “Sales representatives must be resourceful,” concluded Gordon Electric’s Korthauer. “They need to view challenges as opportunities and consistently review their performance and analyze what works. Ultimately, they’ll thrive on seeking better solutions.”

Susan Bloom
Susan Bloom is a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at susan.bloom.chester@gmail.com.