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Specialists: Steering around the Rocks
In a Recession
Today’s recessionary howls like a hurricane on the horizon. Turbulent seas challenge business and toss our sales teams around like puppets. The Specialist needs to stand strong, maintain a steady hand on the wheel and a keen eye for rocky crags to the starboard. Best of class Specialists assume the responsibility for directing their team around the rocks and toward the light. In times of calm the ship will sail itself, but in stormy weather, constant adjustments to the course are necessary. In our world business is the ship, and the plan is our rudder. Specialists must review conditions and adjust course as conditions dictate.
For the next few moments, let’s spend some time thinking about the rocky shoals and rushing waters around us. We will look at a “Lucky -7” list that could have a dramatic effect on our business this year. So put both hands firmly on the wheel, we will set sail.
Get your plan finished
Hopefully you are in the practice of setting up an annual plan with your major supply partners.   But in this day of cutbacks and uncertainty, you may discover that some plans just didn’t get done. Don’t feel alone, many distributors have confided that this year’s details are lagging. And, even in great times, some of people just drag their feet on planning – with many plans not being finalized until mid-April. Now is the time to get yours done. And, in the immoral words of General George S. Patton, A goodplan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” Don’t try to impress people with flowery words or overly fancy charts. In this case, it really is the steak and not the sizzle.
Once your plan is finished, it does no good while lying dormant in the back drawer. This year more than ever it needs to be referenced and updated often – once a month minimum. Things change quickly and revising the plan to take advantage of the changes will have an impact on your performance.
One - Targeting
Targeting is one area that needs to be reviewed often. Specialists who work with their sales team to establish and systematically work their target accounts have an edge – research shows sales organizations who target are 47% more likely to reach their sales goals. Here’s where targets need to be monitored:
  • Has anything changed at the account? Companies are moving facilities. Some have declared a moratorium on capital spending. Others still are consolidating operations. The sooner you recognize the situation the better you can reshuffle resources. 
  • Has a major competitor down-sized? Often when companies downsize they leave temporary gaps in their account coverage. This can create opportunities that need to be addressed quickly.
  • Has any part of your own sales coverage changed? If a targeted opportunity ends up without solid account coverage, your target may be in jeopardy. A savvy Specialist works with the new salesperson to insure that no important target sits idle.
  • Has pricing or some other commercial situation changed?   Commodity prices are in a constant state of flux. These change pricing levels. Factory loading affects prices, too. Can any of these changes be used to improve your best interest?
  • Some industries are fairing better than others. Automotive related industries may be trending downward, but other facets of our economy are holding their own. Food processing and non-luxury consumer products continue to show promise as growth opportunities. Can you do better by moving these customer front and center?
Two - Sales Strategies
This is related to targeting, but not quite the same thing. You need to ask; do any of my products fall into “recession proof” categories? Experts predict that Food Processing, Health Care, Energy, Green Initiatives, Safety and Government sectors will not experience sever setbacks. If you can attach your products to one of these stars, you can find growth.
Three - Retool your Value Proposition
Specialists are the purveyors of customer value, but customer perception of value changes. For instance, most customers’ risk tolerance is at a 30 year low. If you deal in leading edge technology, you need to think about minimizing risk. Some customers may actually opt for the “old stuff” because they know how to install, configure or program it. Your presentations and proposals need to reflect this fundamentally different view of the world.
Four - Find New Measures of Progress
Measuring your sales team’s progress using the old stand-by of gross margin starts to break down during poor economic times. Things like number of new customers created, new products sold to old customers, product conversions and numbers of management meetings provide the new measures. Develop a new scorecard that allows you to quickly gage the best way to utilize your resources.
Five - Build Marketshare
If you happen to be the one Specialist in the country with 100% marketshare; call me – I want to learn from the master. Otherwise there are plenty of great opportunities to capture the business of your competitors. Most people fail to make significant gains because they fall into a trap. They attack the competitor’s strength. Sun Tzu, a Chinese general of the 6th Century, wrote The Art of War. Without sounding like a fortune cookie, his greatest strategy was – attack where your enemy is weak. What one or two products does your competitor sell that are iffy? How can you make your product seem like a low risk option?
Six – Rethink Training
How can we do more with less? How can we be more efficient and effective? These questions echo through the minds of Electrical Distributors – their echoing around your company too. Now more than ever, the distributor training process needs to be rethought. 
In 2005 we did a survey of sales managers from Electrical Distributors all over the country. On average, distributor sales managers said Factory Rep based training was on mark less than half the time – that’s inefficient! Specialists can make a difference by making sure training is “spot on” all the time. Here are a few areas to think about:
  1. Can we do the training better than the Factory Rep?
  2. Do we preview the Rep’s training before putting them in front of our team?
  3. Do we need product technical training, product application training or how to sell training?
  4. Do we provide the right sales tools/literature during the training?
  5. Does our inside sales team need different training than the outside sales team?
  6. Do we provide enough information that a sales person could establish a target immediately following the training?
Run your training times through this set of questions. The improvements will pay dividends now and well into the future.
Seven – Meet with your Purchasing Team
When the sales waters get choppy the waves bounce through our whole organization. Sales are up, sales are down, sales are everything but predictable – and your purchasing guys are pulling out their hair. How do you manage inventory in this kind of environment? Management is pushing them to reduce inventory expense and maintain customer service too. 
Specialists can provide the best “crystal ball” of the future – not perfect, but better than nearly anyone else. Large orders, seasonal orders, product obsolescence, and potential price fluctuations should be part of a short conversation each month.
And, before you set sail…
The business climate is a howling storm; don’t let anyone tell you differently. But, here are a couple of points to remember. 
1)      Every economic condition has a beginning and an end. There are ups and there are downs. 
2)      It’s only when you perceive that things will always be up or perpetually down that you start making strategic mistakes.

To keep to our nautical theme, ancient mariners learned to harness the energy of the seas. “In on the wind” and “Out on the tides” originate from this philosophy. So, let me implore you, adjust your sails and use this to your benefit. 

RHC 2009

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