Relationships Are Still Important in Distribution

There is a restaurant in my hometown that I often go to for breakfast.

When I walk into the restaurant, I’m always greeted with a warm good morning, my coffee is poured, and my order quickly entered. The food is good, the service is excellent, but its price is higher than the “new” diner located only a few streets away. Yet I choose to go to “my” restaurant, primarily because of the relationships I have developed.

Relationships are, in many cases, the key reason that people choose restaurants, cars, or even industrial products.
When I first entered this business many years ago, I was told that relationships differentiate companies from one another. Distributors and other employers often used non-compete clauses to protect their “investment” in sales personnel because they understood that valuable relationship that exists between customers and salespeople. There was also the argument as to who “owned” the customer: the company or the salesperson. That argument still goes on today.

But in an era of instant communications, the Internet, and electronic gadgetry, just how important are relationships in selling industrial and construction products?
That was the question I posed to a distribution executive a few weeks ago. He insists relationships are still important but not as critical as they were years ago. He says it’s because of the new environment in which technology dominates the decision-making process.

I disagree.

There’s no doubt that we live in a wired world. We’re constantly on our smart phones, using it for Internet and other services. We text and Tweet, but we really don’t communicate. One recent example: a survey showed that half of the couples in the U.S. had texted one another while they were in the same house and under the same roof.

The art of communicating in face-to-face meetings doesn’t have to be a thing of the past.

If you’re in sales, just think of how many deals you’ve closed because you got that face-to face meeting and were able to get in front of the customer and provide them with key features and benefits of the products you’re selling.

As a sales professional, you’ve learned to “read” customer signals by their facial expressions and body posture.

So in this age of technological innovation and on-line ordering, some would believe the role of the outside salesperson has been lessened. In fact, a leading industry observer who has spoken at many distribution meetings over the years had predicted the demise of the outside salesperson because of the Internet and disintermediation.

But I’d argue that, today, the role of the outside salesperson has never been more important. If you were to look at some of the largest distributors in the country such as Fastenal, WESCO, and MSC Industrial Direct, you’d see that hiring salespeople is one of their strategies for growth.

But salespeople today are going to have learn new skills if they are going to be successful. It means also that they are going to have to work harder than ever to set up meetings with prospective customers and shorten and sharpen their sales presentations.

One of my best friends is a very successful outside salesperson in the medical supplies field. Now as a veteran salesperson, he is mentoring a younger entry-level salesperson who goes with him on sales calls. Both learn from one another. The veteran teaches his new colleague how to close sales and relate to the customer, while the younger salesperson has taught my friend to use additional skills in areas like social media.

As employers hire younger people, they are going to have to work on the “blocking and tackling” that goes along with the selling process. That means additional training on communication and presentation skills in addition to training on how to sell new products.

Relationships will always be important in selling. Just how important is up to you, the outside salesperson.

Jack Keough is contributing editor of Industrial Distribution. You can reach Jack at

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