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Benchmarking Branch Sales Meetings

Everybody has sales meetings. Experience dictates our salespeople hate them, our suppliers don’t know how to participate in them and branch leaders struggle to create anything more than a meeting that resembles a company bulletin board with product presentations. Considering that once you cut away the delivery trucks, warehouses and all the other trappings, distributors are sales organizations and I find it amazingly ironic how many of our sales meetings waste time and sap morale.

It’s high time to build a process. Why not take the extra time to build a process with a proven track record? Consider the next seven minutes your first investment in building something that works.

The Company Bulletin Board Syndrome

Over the course of three decades, I have attended hundreds, possibly thousands of distributor sales meetings. More than 75% of these meetings might best be described as community bulletin boards for “sales types.” The topics discussed have included some particularly non-salesy topics. One completely unmemorable 90-minute meeting contained a discussion of the company’s new dental plan and an overview of the following year’s holiday schedule. Cool stuff, but I could see nothing sales-worthy about it. When I asked how typical this meeting was, I was told it differed from others only in its lack of a vendor-led product presentation.

There is a need for meetings to communicate corporate direction, HR matters and other important points with the sales team. The remote nature of their job often means they are not present for the same kind of short routine meetings used to communicate with the accounting, warehouse or inside sales departments. In most cases, even a short meeting in the office can waste prime selling time, so the development of some more remote seller-centric meetings makes sense.

Time to Reinvent

Most people with more than a couple of years in the distribution industry have learned about products in two ways:

  1. Participation in an informal class conducted by a supplier’s local sales team member.
  2. Attending a “factory school” conducted either regionally or back at the manufacturer’s facility.

These methods worked well “back in the day,” but I wonder if they have outlived their usefulness.

In the case of the first option, many of the local sales organizations lack the time, have poor training skills and/or become frustrated because they repeatedly find themselves training on product basics and older products to bring the distributor’s new sales folks up to speed. Compounding the situation, veteran sellers are forced to sit through hours of mind-numbing dribble on products they already know couched under the heading of a review is always good.

Factory schools are probably still the gold standard in product training with the following caveats. They are only held a couple of times per year, and when held they are expensive to attend. Scheduling can be a nightmare. Further, many assume the attendees already have at least some background knowledge and focus primarily on new products rather than the full line offered by the manufacturer.

Assume the Responsibility for Product Training

In our individualized coaching sessions with 200+ brand new salespeople entering the sales force across North America, we discovered that most have almost no product knowledge. They typically go through a couple of months of indoctrination on company policies, where to send their expense reports and a little time meeting shadowing a senior salesperson then wham—these new sellers are tossed out into the real world.

Their lack of product knowledge “stunts” their growth and lessens their value to customers. Most have been promised additional product skill training—sometime in the future. Most have been encouraged to lean on the local supplier sales team for some level of support, only to be further delayed by the issues already discussed.

Product training is available, but most distributors have yet to fully employ the power of self-directed training available through organizations like IMARK or free training on the internet. Today, nearly everything is explained to one degree or another via platforms like YouTube.

The point of this is a motivated individual can self-train if presented with the task. However, self-training works best when individuals are told what they need to learn and are able to talk about it later with their manager or mentor.

Once the burden of rudimentary product understanding has been lifted from the supplier’s local salesperson, we are ready to advance to an honest-to-goodness sales meeting. Further, even novice salespeople will be ready to actively participate.

Setting the Stage for the Sales Meeting

First, the obvious basics. There should be an agenda and it should be announced well in advance. Second, the meeting should start on time. While this will be a break from the norm and will initially draw some pushback, expectations should be set with sellers that pre-meeting prep work will be required for the meeting.

Prep work might include any of the following:

  • Complete a related online course on IMARK University.
  • Take a short open-catalog test to build a better understanding of the products that are part of the sales meeting.
  • Develop analytics on products currently purchased that are tied to the new product.
  • Review technical materials and/or videos provided by the supplier.
  • Sort customers based on whether they are suited for the new product.
  • Practice (or develop a presentation) with an existing demo of the product.

Prepare the Supply-Partner Team

Expectations must be set. The supply-partner team should be briefed well ahead of time. The presentation should be a sales coaching session—not 45 minutes of product minutia. The presentation should be geared toward selling more products. Necessary components include answers to these questions:

  • Why will the product provide value to the customer?
  • Who are the competitors and what are the advantages over the competitors’ products?
  • Which customers would be the best targets for the products? Ideally, this would include some local customers who best fit the match.
  • What are some of the questions a customer might ask during a presentation/sales call covering the product?
  • How can the vendor and/or distributor’s own technical support team support application questions?
  • How does a person conduct a successful product demonstration?

A few other points:

The product and sales collateral have to be available. The best time for a salesperson to make the first-time calls covering the product comes during the week following the sales presentation. While it might seem logical to prime the salespeople for finding applications well before the product release, experience dictates this rarely works in a group sales meeting.

Salespeople must think about and develop a target list immediately following the presentation. The target list should include specific customers to talk about the products in the next week or two. The supply-partner trainer should lead the group in developing the target list, and it should consist of the five best matches for an easy sale.

If the product does not have a broad enough appeal for everyone in the group to have at least five targets, we recommend individual meetings with the salespeople who call on the targeted customers rather than a group sales meeting.

Target lists should be shared with both the sales manager and supply-partner trainer immediately following the sales meeting.

Joint calls, when appropriate, should be scheduled before the meeting’s end. Our research indicates joint calls are still very effective in creating new sales and in building rapport with the vendor salespeople and reps who can steer business to the distributors they feel are working with/for them.

The local supplier team must be coached on the criteria for a sales meeting. Many sales managers have found it useful to preview the vendor’s presentation outline before the meeting. This allows for a resetting of expectations if the format is not properly followed. Further, some sales managers have seen fit to brusquely “take over” the meeting when a supply-partner trainer strays from the proper format.

What About Non-Product Sales Skills?

At least a portion (perhaps 15-30 minutes) of every sales meeting should be dedicated to sales skills that are not tied to products. These are best delivered by the sales manager or some visiting outsider. One distributor uses its president to cover the topic of negotiations with its branch teams at least once a year. The president is an expert negotiator, so his presentations are well received and the company sees a bounce in gross margin percentage after each of his training sessions.

There are several resources for sales skills worth mentioning. Here is a short list of those successfully used by our clients:

  • A book club-style meeting with a chapter-by-chapter review of skills outlined in a book covering sales. Perhaps sounding a bit self-serving, I am happy to report my book Plan on Breaking Through has been used on numerous occasions. Also on the list was Dave Kahl’s How to Excel at Distributor Sales and Tony Parinello’s Selling to VITO.
  • Articles tied to sales from IMARK Today and other publications.
  • PowerPoints from distributor association meetings. Have you seen an interesting presentation at a meeting? Ask for a copy and carry the message back to your team.
  • Pre-prepared presentations on short topics from noted consultants in the industry.

Final Thoughts

If you are a sales manager working to develop your team, you have probably marked off days for your sales meetings throughout the year. Start adding topics to your calendar for nonproduct-related training and discussion. In addition, create a file for topics, articles and resources for later. These help immensely when you draw a blank on what you would like to cover.

Finally, this message started with a tirade on the “company bulletin board” meeting. Unfortunately, these will always creep into your organization. Be protective of time. Distributors are a sales organization. Make sales meetings about driving your business forward with more sales.

Still struggling for ideas? Feel free to shoot me an email and I will give you a list of nonproduct topics good for short discussions.