Three Tenets to Leading a High-Performance Distribution Sales Team

Sales leaders are not only using data, but they’ve also internalized the concept with three core tenets that guide how their teams meet the moment and better serve every customer.

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Leading a B2B distribution sales team is not for the faint of heart. Sales teams have been dealing with complexity, increased competition, and an accelerating pace of change for decades. Along with these changes, the traditional sales model that rested upon the monolith of relationship-building has begun to crumble.

That’s not to say an inherent sales talent isn’t critical – it is; it’s that talented salespeople need assistance to help them sell as efficiently, effectively and broadly as possible. Consider this:

According to Phil Harrell, vice president and senior research director at Forrester, the way many B2B sales organizations operate is out of sync with customer buying preferences. “It’s not just enough to have data, the challenge for organizations is to mine that data and surface insights that will help decision-makers and reps make better decisions.”

I couldn’t agree more. In my role helping sales leaders use data science and software for better decision-making, I’ve observed that the highest-performing teams are mining data for better insights. And that’s not all. 

Sales leaders are not only using data, but they’ve also internalized the concept with three core tenets that guide how their teams meet the moment and better serve every customer. They embrace technology to slash inefficiencies, they engage in highly tailored customer conversations, and they home in on high-value opportunities. 

In this article, I’ll expand on how they do this in practical terms, and why shifting to an innovative, technology-first mindset has modernized how they interact with customers. 

Tenet No. 1: Get Sales Reps out of Excel & Email 

While the challenges facing sales teams have grown more complex, the tools used to meet these challenges have not. Ahem – spreadsheets, disjointed business intelligence tools, and email to pass around information – I’m looking at you. 

Case and point: One sales leader I’ve worked closely with was grappling with an incredibly high-touch, time-intensive method to get information out to her team. This U.S.-based distributor has thousands of unique product SKUs, many of which are customer-specific and each of which has varying customization options. 

Helping sales reps identify good opportunities to pursue required sales ops spending a full day of spreadsheet creation based on a clunky report that was pulled out the ERP. Next, it was sent out to dozens of reps, asking them to analyze it, reach out to customers, fill out updates and send the reports back. The approach was so cumbersome that by the time the report was sent out and updated, the information was stale and out of date. Even worse, the effort didn’t help sales reps understand where they had opportunities to sell more. Sales reps were spending more time analyzing spreadsheets than they were speaking with customers. Something had to give. 

Ultimately, she opted to replace bulky spreadsheets with predictive sales analytics to reclaim the lost time sifting through spreadsheets. Advanced data science mines the company’s customer, product, and order history data to reveal what customers and prospects should be buying and which customers are at risk for defection at the product category level.

Now, it’s easy for sales reps to see which products they should pitch and how to recover lost business. In-depth analytics embedded in their quoting tool makes it intuitive to understand why actions are being recommended. The net result is more time spent with customers having tailored conversations that drive sales. 

With the efforts by this distribution sales leader to get her sales team out of Excel and email, she was able to reduce inefficiencies and increase revenue. 

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Tenet No. 2: Give Every Customer the White-Glove Treatment

The first feeds into the second – once you get sales reps out of spreadsheets and email to pass information around the organization, you can empower them to have high-value conversations with each customer. 

Another distribution sales leader I worked with was facing a classic distribution challenge – complexity. Not only does the company have a massive product portfolio with 30,000 SKUs and 40,000 customers to serve in a highly competitive market, but the company is also multi-country with many locations operating like individual companies. 

This sales leader came to realize that while the team knew their top customers very well, they didn’t know the long tail accounts – those not in the top 20% – nearly as well as they thought. Given the complex dynamics of the company, it was impossible for sales reps to detect all the opportunities to grow sales. The sales team simply did not have time to speak with all their customers. 

This sales leader knew that he needed a more powerful approach to supply sales reps with the intelligence they needed to treat every customer as well as the top accounts and in turn grow revenue. To do so, he would have to find a solution that would empower sales reps to better serve all customers without wasting time analyzing spreadsheets. 

Ultimately, he leveraged data science to mine the company’s data for opportunities to grow wallet share and recover lost business in all accounts. By letting the AI do the number crunching, sales reps are now empowered with highly actionable insights across the customer base. 

The pinpointed actions enable reps to treat all customers as well as the top accounts with tailored, specific product recommendations that each customer is most likely to want and need. The net result is that sales can sell a broader scope of products to their core and non-core customers while recovering lost business.

Tenet No. 3: Hyper-Focus Your Reps on High-Value Opportunities 

Finally, develop a high-performing sales team that is equipped to pivot on a dime. This takes the output of data science a step further to hyper-focus sales rep actions on the highest-value and highest-priority actions to take week after week. Examples could include wallet-share growth, recovery, pricing, win-back, contract compliance, rebates, prospecting, mass agreement updates, inventory, or product substitutions. 

Recently, the distribution sales leader in the first example took her efforts a step further by introducing flexible campaign management software that allowed her to create actions for sales reps based on unconverted quotes. Reps are shown all the instances where quotes given to customers aren’t being converted to a sale – whether that quote is delivered by the sales rep, or the customer is requesting quotes online. The software automatically pushes new actions out to sales reps on unconverted quotes so they can attempt to win the business. 

Other examples include identifying and targeting customers that are most likely to purchase certain products with monthly email or printed flyer promotions. When you pair data science with a flexible scoping, filtering, and prioritizing mechanism, hyper-focusing your sales team, eCommerce channel, or marketing efforts where it counts is easy. 

The Final Word

By mining data for insights, providing those insights in an intuitive, actionable format, and having a flexible means to pivot sales team focus, high-performing sales teams can overcome the complexity and disruption in their roles and instead focus their time where it matters: with the customer.


Brian HirtBrian HirtBrian Hirt is director of product management at Zilliant. He's been with the company for over 9 years. Hirt manages Zilliant’s suite of sales guidance solutions, giving him the opportunity to work closely with new and existing customers and bring their experiences back to the engineering teams to drive continued product innovation. Before joining the product management team, Hirt spent seven years as an engagement manager on Zilliant’s professional services team. Prior to Zilliant, he spent five years leading marketing for an electrical distributor. Hirt holds a bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College and an MA in Economics from the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. Contact Brian at Brian.Hirt@Zilliant.com.

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