- With the uncertainty of the COVID-19 variants, distributors need to embrace flexibility for how and where they conduct their sales calls with customers.
- Not being able to see customers in-person for sales calls has hampered some distributors in 2021.
- Some companies, such as Disney, are requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination before allowing in-person sales visits by distributors.
With the wide availability of the COVID-19 vaccines, distributors were hopeful that things, such as sales travel, would get back to a modicum of what they were before the pandemic hit in 2020, but the Delta variant dashed those hopes.
As distributors, manufacturers and their customers slide toward 2022, flexibility will be key when it comes to distributors’ sales team travels. Distributors’ sales teams were faced with a shifting landscape in 2021 as some customers were open to having sales teams drop by while others were more comfortable doing business virtually.
While e-commerce platforms, which allow customers to order online, have flourished ever since the pandemic hit in March of last year, the bulk of distributors’ sales are still done via their sales teams, whether in-person or remotely. There are a large number of customer branch locations that prefer salespeople to drop-in Friday morning with a box of donuts in hand to talk about product ordering. In addition to showing up in person to seal a deal with a handshake, salespeople also have the opportunity to stock the shelves and backrooms themselves with their products when they visit, but some of those doors have been closed this year.
“We can’t get into see customers like we’d like to, and I think that’s probably one of the biggest things, not being able to get in and see them,” says one MDM Trends survey respondent. “They’ve got restrictions that kind of curtail vendors coming in. It’s hard for us to get traction on an evaluation that might be a value add to help save them money. It just kind of created a lot of friction in the relationship.”
Continuing to adapt
In a recent MDM interview, Motion President Randy Breaux says his company has been adapting ever since the pandemic hit. Motion, headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, is a distributor of industrial parts and is ranked No. 5 on MDM’s Top 40 2021 Distributor list. Breaux says Motion was deemed an essential company during the pandemic.
“We had to learn how to adapt and continue to service our customers and I’m very proud of our team in the many ways they figured things out and continue to do so,” Breaux said. “We have had a few customers now requiring salespeople to provide proof of vaccination to call on them, Disney being the latest, but we know how to adapt and get the job done.
“We’ll continue to figure out how to properly serve our customers be it the Delta variant, the lambda variant, or any other new variant. We’ll figure it out. We have up to this point. No doubt, we will continue to figure it out and adjust accordingly to continue to serve our customers the way they want to be served for many years to come.”
Breaux says customers “absolutely” want Motion’s salespeople to continue to make their calls in-person, but they want them to be done safely. On that note, Motion adheres to each customer’s COVID protocols to get the job done, but there’s more at stake than just completing a sale.
“Many of our customers rely on us to provide solutions that they just don’t have the technically skilled people any longer to figure out,” he says. “They’ve left the company. They’ve retired or whatever the case. So we have those types of people and relationships with the best suppliers in the business.
“We deliver solutions, not just parts, and for us, doing it in person still outweighs any other method, although we do have omnichannel methods to service the customers, be it online via an inside sales call center. Whatever method the customer really wants to do business with us, we’re going to figure out how to do it where they want to do it.”
With sales staff access limited in many cases, one of the survey respondents says decisions are now being made at a distance, which makes it harder for customers to do evaluations of the products being pitched to them.
“It’s become more difficult to affect change within the organization for one reason or another,” he says. “Things slow things down. The rate of change is much slower than it was. How do we communicate value to a customer? We don’t get the high margins that some of the national guys do, but we provide so much service and so much value.”
Without meeting with distributors’ salespeople, some customers have opted to shift toward an online marketplace model that includes clicking on check-out baskets, but the traditional, in-person sales model provides a high-touch approach to tailor products to each customer’s needs, according to a survey respondent.
Advantages of remote sales
While sales travel has been on again, off again in 2021, there are some advantages to not sending salespeople on the road, namely reduced travel expenses, according to several survey respondents. Along with the reduction in travel expenses, distributors have been working on digitally enabled and connected sales forces with the integration of digital marketing and sales. A survey respondent says one of his company’s primary challenges going forward was restructuring its “salesforce activity in alignment with customer expectations and continuing to realign our sales organization post-COVID.”
When distributors and their customers went to remote work, there was concern that productivity would drop-off, but that hasn’t been the case. Given the uncertainty related to the various COVID variants, remote sales could remain a fixture for some time.
“I think virtual is here to stay to some extent,” says Ted Stark, president, Dalco Enterprises. “I think our industry is going to want to get back to in person as much as possible, but certainly to some extent virtual is here to stay. We’ll need to keep getting better at that and in figuring out how to adapt to that. There are certainly some advantages to it.
“I think we will continue to see growth in e-commerce and electronic transactions. For us, I don’t think it will totally replace the face-to-face sales because we do a lot of consulting and training as part of our sales process.”
Regaining the big picture
Distributor Data Solutions President Matt Christensen says his company did a lot of customer phone calls and emails in North America prior to the pandemic. With customers in Europe and Latin America, DDS did more video calls. For remote employees and its salespeople, DDS implemented a few rules, such as always having cameras turned on.
“You don’t get the whole story if you’re not seeing the cues of the face, and so I think that was big,” Christensen says. “Whether we’re on a call with customers and they’re not on a video, we still are because we want them to be able to see us and the same thing with the employee interactions.
“I think video was huge. It just kind of changed the way we communicate even if it’s a quick little call.”
Having a hybrid salesforce — one that can do inside sales on e-commerce and a separate sales staff that can meet with customers face-to-face, provides the best of both worlds going forward.
For the rest of this year and into 2022, distributors are also figuring out if they need to have a hybrid environment for their employees as well. Motion’s Breaux says 95% of his company’s employees were back at the company’s headquarters or branches by Memorial Day, but others expect remote work and remote sales to continue.
“I would probably say that over 50% of our purchasing responsibilities at the customer level are working remote,” says Mallory’s Andy Mitchell, vice president of sourcing and supplier relations. “While we do continue to work on a remote basis, I think buyers have found it a lot more advantageous to have a meeting over video than in person.”