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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NetPlus Alliance Announces Their First Group Meeting

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Here is another reason Suppliers should think about the value of joining a buying group. The trends are that they are starting their own meetings which means lots of quality time with distributors. Here are the details:

Lockport, NY – NetPlus Alliance, a buying group for industrial and contractor supplies distributors, has opened registration for its first annual group meeting. The event is scheduled for March 16-18, 2014 and will take place at the M Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. The group’s first stand-alone gathering will engage NetPlus distributors and suppliers through one-on-one business meetings, networking and educational breakout sessions.

M.K. Morse, ORS Nasco, Proto Industrial Tools and Walter Meier will host the breakout sessions that will deliver product knowledge and sales opportunities to NetPlus distributors in a classroom style setting. Dan Judge, NetPlus Alliance Chairman and CFO spoke on the value of these sessions. “The breakouts were an idea that came out of our advisory meetings last fall. These sessions will give our distributors something to take back to the office: product knowledge and new sales opportunities.”

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What Are Your Thoughts on Buying Groups and Trade Associations?

I know there’s been lots of discussions on the pros and cons of buying groups over the years, and I’m not here to try to sway you one way or the other.

I recently came back from STAFDA, which for those who don’t know, is an association of construction distributors and the manufacturers that sell into that market. What struck me at the trade show part of the event was it was obvious which manufacturers didn’t belong to a group. You saw plenty of Evergreen, Sphere 1 and NetPlus badges there, but they were concentrating mostly on seeing the manufacturing members of their respective groups. (I’m using STAFDA as an example and I’m not trying to pick on them.)

So my question is for those who don’t belong to a group
(and don’t have a unique product), how do you justify going to one of these meetings? Should the association try to incentivize distributors to stop by new member booths? I feel sorry for those folks who ponied up the cash but not very many distributors stopped by.
Another interesting issue is that most of these buying groups have their own annual meetings and some are incorporating trade shows along with these get-togethers. From a manufacturing point of view, which shows do you go to? Obviously it’s the ones where you get the most bang for your buck.

Associations/buying groups may want to look at their model as things have changed over the past several years.
They need to ask about the value proposition of getting these distributors and manufacturers together. Instead of trade shows (whoever introduces a new product at one of these), maybe there should be a series of round table discussions on how to improve the supply chain for everyone involved.

There are some really smart people out there (on both sides), and I believe a lot more could come out of these kinds of meetings and they could include all members.

Any of you belong to other type groups that have changed the model? I’d like to hear from you.

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