Retool & Retrain: Does Your Sales Team Have a Data-Driven Growth Playbook?

How can distribution leaders help their sales teams adapt to this new environment of selling and customer expectations? The answer lies in leveraging customer data.

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By During our recent industry forum, a distribution sales leader mentioned that his sales team is not achieving sales goals consistently. He went on to say that when they do, profitability takes a hit. Another executive in the group asked if they provide growth playbooks, and the distribution sales leader emphatically said yes. The follow-up question brought the conversation to a long, thoughtful pause: “Are those playbooks seller-specific and customer-data driven?” The answer was no. This incident represents many sales organizations that under-utilize one of their most valuable assets: customer data.

As we progress through 2021, there is little doubt that we’re in a redefined business landscape. A recent McKinsey B2B decision-maker survey concludes there is a great deal of uncertainty, but signals indicate an acceleration of previous trends—omnichannel selling, inside sales, tech-enabled selling, e-commerce—rather than entirely new behaviors.

While everyone adjusts to such trends at their own pace, how can distribution leaders help their sales teams adapt to this new environment of selling and customer expectations? The answer lies in leveraging customer data. 

There Are Two Decisions to Make

Though the external environment is undergoing many changes, salespeople still answer two key questions every day: 

  1. Which accounts to call? 
  2. What to pitch? 

As a sales organization, do we provide the sales team the guidance, data or insights they need to make those two decisions? Truthfully, not really. 

Some of us assume our CRM software is enough. However, according to a recent survey from Distribution Strategy Group, less than 10 percent of respondents indicated they are satisfied with their CRM solution. Although reasons vary, the least successful cases tend to be those where CRM is used more for management oversight than for increasing sales team efficiencies. Additionally, many salespeople cited that the CRM reports are too generic and do not dive deep into cross-sell/up-sell opportunities (such as customer-product category level details). Left to their own abilities, salespeople answer the above vital questions reactively using their recent experience. 

Proactive, growing sales professionals are hungry to add value to customers, and they need unique customer insights and playbooks. If we do not provide these tools in more accessible and easy-to-consume ways, we are asking them to run faster without teaching them proper running techniques. How can we provide customer data-driven growth playbooks that are actionable?

Provide a Two-step Roadmap

We prescribe a two-step roadmap: 

  1. Retool: Leverage customer data. 
  2. Retrain: Make it actionable.

Retool: Leverage customer data

There are many ways to slice and dice transactional customer data to understand customer profitability, buying behaviors, market basket analysis and cost-to-serve. The common objective is to reduce the complexity created by thousands of customers and items spread across millions of transactions. A common, tried-and-true practice is to use the 80-20 rule to identify the 20 percent of customers who drive 80 percent of sales. The challenge, however, lies in understanding profitability and cost-to-serve – valuable customer insights that sales can leverage to inform daily decisions. 

Customer stratification or segmentation is one tool that groups customers into four quadrants: core, service drain, marginal and opportunistic. These quadrants are based on sales, gross margin, growth, account penetration, days to pay, average order size, etc. 

For example, an HVAC distributor analyzed customers across three major market segments: commercial, residential and industrial. It performed customer stratification for each segment using a subset of the factors mentioned above. The overall result highlighted that 14 percent of customers drove 52 percent of the gross profit, landing them in the “core” category, while 60 percent of customers accounted for just 8 percent of gross profit, distinguishing them as “marginal.” 

Imagine the potential for improved decision-making, cross-selling and upselling with this information in hand.

In the next phase, distributors must help the sales team access and apply the results. 

Retrain: Make it Actionable

As we’ve implemented sales growth analytics across organizations in the past decade, we’ve observed a wide range of practices. One of the main tenets of successful analytics implementation is making the data easy to access and apply. In other words, customer insights must be integrated with the salesperson’s workflow. Salespeople are creatures of habit and routine, like all of us. They have their own way of making decisions and thinking through information. Unless we integrate customer insights into their workflow, the chances salespeople will use them are minimal. 

We surveyed hundreds of salespeople to understand priorities and workflows, asking what top two to three things are on their mind every single day and how they make decisions. Here are a few of their responses: 

  • I don't want to lose my core customers.
  • What can I upsell to my existing customers? 
  • How can I land new customers? 

We grouped their diverse responses into two overarching sales goals: mitigate risk and drive growth. That’s how salespersons are wired to think. It can also be thought of from a sports perspective: defense (mitigate risk) and offense (drive growth).

Playbooks informed by customer data can help salespeople tackle each sales goal strategically. Distributors frequently make the mistake of asking their salespeople to analyze and understand customer data. We don’t want our salespeople to be analysts. We want them to be salespeople. At ActVantage, we develop growth playbooks by integrating advanced data visualization techniques and micro-learning principles to help identify salesperson-specific action items. 

For instance, one of the playbooks under the ‘mitigate risk’ category is designed to minimize customer churn. By analyzing transactional customer data, we provide the salesperson with a list of customers who exhibit signs of churn in advance. This helps the salesperson reach out to at-risk customers, assess the competitive situation and prevent customer churn.

Here are a few examples of distributors who have leveraged customer analytics as part of data-driven selling. A foodservice distributor integrated growth playbooks with their CRM, helping the sales team access customer analytics conveniently (increasing visibility). A chemical distributor coached the sales team to use specific playbooks that provide a list of product categories to cross-sell (specific to the customer) or the list of core customers whose revenue and margin dropped recently (the signs of potential churn). A lube distributor decided to measure the ROI of customer analytics by tracking the salesforce effectiveness in terms of wallet share growth and cost-to-serve reduction (such as increasing average delivery size). 

Analytics in decision-making was “optional” or “good to have” in pre-pandemic times. As the pandemic accelerated digitization and customers’ preferences for virtual interactions, many distributor sales teams were not given the tools and training required to elevate their game. It’s time for distributors to act and adapt. Customer data-driven growth playbooks are must-have items now and are an essential part of forward-thinking distributors’ strategic plans. Are they on your list of strategic priorities? 

Senthil GunasekaranSenthil GunasekaranSenthil Gunasekaran is co-founder of ActVantage, which helps distributors drive profitable growth through analytics and talent development. He has more than 18 years of experience helping hundreds of distributors and manufacturers, while co-authoring seven books for the NAW. He also delivers executive education and speaks at industry forums. ActVantage has worked with hundreds of distributors to help them better understand and leverage customer analytics. We’d be happy to chat and help you empower your sales teams. Prior to ActVantage, Senthil led research and industry projects at Texas A&M’s ID program. Contact Senthil at [email protected] or visit

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