Are Field Salesmen Dead?

I recently read an article in Industrial Distribution Magazine by Justin Roff-Marsh that basically said that the industrial distributor field salesman, as we know it, is DOA.

I don’t know what planet he was born on, but it wasn’t this one! If he was, he would realize that to survive against the big national brands, they must have a unique selling proposition and a strong brand promise.

Granted, if you’re a general line house, your survival rate isn’t good. But most distributors today focus on either a market (Electrical, Plumbing, Construction, etc.) or in specific disciplines like power transmission, cutting tools or industrial hose and fittings. They become experts in that field and customers depend on them for not only product, but advice. This is how they can compete with the Biggies like Grainger and Fastenal.

Speaking of the big boys, who’s going to tell them to stop opening more brick and mortar stores and by all means don’t hire any salesmen!

If this guy did his homework, he’d know that in these models, a lot of their customers come to them. I bet he’d be surprised if he were to walk into a STAFDA, electrical or plumbing wholesaler between 6:30 and 9 any morning, that he’d have a pretty good chance of being run over by customers picking up stuff. And they’re not just picking up an order, they’re talking with counter people on how to solve a particular problem. What’s that worth?

Granted, the role of field salesman has changed over the years, and I don’t expect anyone makes cold calls anymore. But the seasoned field salesman is worth his weight in gold. He’s aware of his surroundings as he walks through a plant or construction site identifying opportunities for new sales. You can’t do that on a phone call or an email.

Years ago, I was making a sales call with a salesman who was called into a customer who was having some production problems with cutting tools. I was amazed as this salesman walked onto the shop floor and walked directly to the CNC machine that they were having trouble with (without even being told ) by just listening to the sound of the machine. He suggested a few adjustments to the feeds and speeds and the problem was solved. The point is, they don’t teach that in college or anywhere else. It comes from experience.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is people still like to buy from other people. If you have value and can help them do their job better, you can bet they’ll make time for you. Look at independent buying groups like Affiliated Distributors or NetPlus Alliance. Each year, they post strong sales growth despite the growing competition. I’ll bet field salesman come into that equation somewhere.

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  1. Rick Wallace

    Good points but I have followed Justin and he uses that title for effect, to get people to read his articles and open their mind a bit. There is and will always be a place for field sales. He concept id simply to free them up to have more conversations everyday. Studies show 60% of all salespeople’s time is non sales activity. Sales today wants and gets all the customer calls with questions from billing, to order writing, to quotes to delivery info.etc. etc. Not only is it poor customer service to have your sales people take these calls but it keeps them from having more meaningful conversations everyday . Justin proposes a customer service/inside sales platform. All calls come to one place, are answered quickly by this group, quotes are prepared, orders written, The inside sales people work as a team with the outside people — making appointments, following up on leads, finding new prospects etc. In this way we can double and triple the conversations we are having daily with prospects and customers. Lees outside people can cover more territory – I have had some clients move their best salesperson inside to work with the outside people — again tripling the conversations and providing better service and more sales.

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