Eyes on the Prize: Managing Your Sales Team’s Mindshare

By Jim Perdue, Director, Client Strategy

Like all consumers, today’s industrial customers are less brand-loyal. They want the best, fastest, most cost-effective solutions regardless of brand. And most of the time they’re willing to buy from the lowest bidder, whether that’s the manufacturer, a distributor or a third party.

As a result, the manufacturer-distributor relationship is in flux. Not surprisingly, as customer loyalty wanes and distributors race to carry as many brands as possible, distributors are also less loyal to their manufacturing partners.

From a sales perspective, this means you have to work harder to ensure your distributors keep your brand top of mind. If you don’t manage to do that, your end-users are less likely to hear about — and buy — your products. So it’s critical that you earn and defend your distributors’ mindshare. And that begins with how you manage your manufacturer sales reps mindshare.

To Own Your Distributors’ Mindshare, Start with Your Sales Team

Most manufacturers struggle to keep their sales teams focused and aligned on their manufacturing sales strategy.

The fact that manufacturers have broad product portfolios makes this inherently more challenging. Over time, individual sales reps usually get especially comfortable with a certain segment of the business or subset of products. By narrowing their focus, sales reps make their jobs feel easier.

On an individual level, this may work reasonably well. But if everyone on your sales team does the same thing, certain products and programs will inevitably go untended. And that can seriously hurt your market share in a fiercely competitive market.

Of course, the problem isn’t usually a lack of strategic objectives. Chances are you take the time to rally your team around a set of priorities at the beginning of each fiscal year. But after the glamour of the annual meeting has worn off, many sales reps fall back into their old patterns.

With competition at an all-time high and brand loyalty at an all-time low, being an order-taker simply will not cut it. If your sales team is functioning in a reactionary mindset, you’ll never effectively capture your distributors’ mindshare — or see the growth you desire.

How to Drive and Maintain Your Sales Team’s Mindshare

It’s your job to maintain your sales team’s focus throughout the year. To do that, you’ll need to put in place turnkey programs and structured processes that support your big-picture goals.

Leverage Distributor Programs

Distributor programs are an old trick of the trade — one that should still be part of your toolkit today. Well-crafted programs are mutually beneficial to your distributors and your firm. Because of that, they can entice your distributors to keep your brand top of mind while simultaneously supporting your sales goals and building brand equity. Programs also incentivize your sales team to push high-priority products, even if they aren’t in their usual wheelhouse.

Your sales leaders and channel teams should work together to identify key programs that work for your portfolio focus. Don’t overburden your sales team with a laundry list of programs. Select just one or two for each area of focus so that your sales team is able to effectively implement them.

One word of caution: Running perpetual discounts on your products counts as promotions, not programs. If your only “programs” are promotions in disguise, you will quickly erode your brand into a trading company with little value or competitive sustainability. Remember, a program has benefits for each party and requirements that the distributor must uphold (for example, X amount of inventory, store-within-a-store flooring requirements, quarterly audits and so on).

Invest in Solution Selling

Solution selling is most often discussed in the context of end-users. Within this model, solution selling is about understanding how your products help your customers solve problems that matter to them. However, the same concept can and should be applied to your distributors, too.

In this context, solution selling is about owning your industry expertise and building valuable relationships with your distributors that go beyond just making a quick sale.

In order to excel at solution selling, your sales team must be trained to invest time and energy into their distributors in ways that don’t always include a sales pitch. They can do this by going out of their way to help the distributor. Have your team of experts offer distributor rep sales training for an entire category or a specific area in your market. Be the first to share current industry news and trends. Deliver forecasts and work to find solutions that truly help make a distributor’s job easier. By controlling the conversation in this manner, your sales team can deliver added value that cements into a sustainable relationship.

When your distributor has a problem or question, you want their first call to go to your team. Regardless of the topic. Distributors understand solution selling as ”my guy” will have the answer. Make sure your team is supported and understands the value of spending more time delivering solutions. They all need to be ”the guy” in your distributor’s mind.

Streamline Communication with a CRM

Many manufacturing sales teams have a love-hate relationship with their customer relationship management tools (CRMs). More to the point, sales leaders tend to love them, while sales reps are more likely to hate them. Unfortunately for sales reps, CRM solutions can’t be ignored. Manufacturers must standardize their processes and require complete adoption from their sales teams to drive the growth they desire. CRMs help sales leaders shape their sales reps’ mindshare by formalizing the team’s approach and documenting individual progress within the system.

To begin, you’ll need to make sure your entire sales team is properly trained in how to use your CRM. Emphasize that their ability to use your CRM will give them easier access to the tools they need to do their job well. And appeal to their naturally competitive instincts by telling them the CRM is a way to stay sharp and remain ahead of the competition.

Once your team masters the CRM, they should start to see the benefits for themselves. They will come to appreciate how easy it is for them to track their sales and access the tools they need for success.

More importantly, having your entire sales team on the CRM gives you a single view of your organization’s heartbeat. It identifies where your sales team’s mindshare actually lives. If it isn’t properly balanced or focused, sales leaders can work to redirect them. If your sales team doesn’t have the CRM’s insights and support from sales leaders, they will eventually fall back on what they’ve always done because it’s easiest for them.

Make Success Contagious by Encouraging Healthy Competition

Sales members are competitive by nature. As a sales leader, you can harness and drive this competitiveness in a positive manner in order to shape your team’s focus. Of course, making your lowest performers a whipping board will never establish a healthy community. Instead, focus on making success contagious. To do this:

  • Build transparency. Sales leaders and teams live and die by their numbers. Make sure this dashboard is public to the team so they can see how other regions and members are performing. Remember, however, that blanket goals can lead to disgruntled teams. Make sure each territory’s performance metrics are backed by data. Then, monitor each territory by that goal. Work with the team to make sure everyone understands why each territory or member is (or isn’t) hitting their mark. There shouldn’t be any secrets on the team.
  • Introduce Weekly Important Goals (WIGs). For sales members, monthly goals can be overwhelming (“how will I ever hit that?!”). Help your team achieve success by establishing a culture of WIGs. Sales goals should be distilled down to a weekly level, with successes and misses documented at the end of each week. As an added benefit, WIGs allow sales leaders to more readily see what their team is focusing on. Are they maintaining proper mindshare, or are they falling back on unhealthy habits? Remember, WIGs are still data-driven, so encourage your team to be completely transparent. There is no shame in a miss as long as there is a plan in place to address it moving forward.
  • Share successes and failures. At the end of each month, roll up the key successes and failures and share them with the team. Drill down into the “why” of each. Share and review failures in the spirit of helping your team to improve, not as an exercise in public shaming. This will help lower-performing territories regroup and overcome selling obstacles with renewed focus — and a better understanding of how to change course. Regularly sharing successes and failures also helps sales leaders determine when it’s time to drop an activity. Overcommitting to something that isn’t working is a waste of time. Don’t be afraid to drop a low-performing program in a particular territory and replace it with a different focus. Mindshare is going to vary by territory, and it is the sales leader’s responsibility to understand what is working and where in order to maintain that balance.
  • Hold each other accountable. Lastly, in a competitive environment, it is important to maintain unity while also rewarding success. Personal incentives will only get your organization so far. Encourage your top performers to work with the bottom tier. Develop a culture of leadership and camaraderie within your organization. Having stretch goals and territory-specific incentives will help keep the team engaged and proactive. Give your team the opportunity to lead. This will imprint the solutions and value mindset needed to reach peak performance.

As a sales leader, you must find a way to keep your sales team focused on the products and programs that align with your larger corporate goals. Doing so will, in turn, keep your brand top of mind among your distributors as they make their case to your end-users.

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