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Professional Skills for Material Handling Distributor Sales Managers

By Gary T. Moore

In the 1992 movie Glengarry Glen Ross, actor Alec Baldwin portrays a hard-nosed sales manager. His basic sales management skill is to threaten and intimidate salespeople!

In the 1934 Thomas Wolfe novel You Can’t Go Home Again, a sales manager’s only apparent skill is cheerleading. At the end of an emotional sales speech, he faces the sales force, points to a map, and shouts, “There’s your market boys! Go out there and sell them!” While the “non-selling” public may accept these stereotypes, distribution sales management professionals know sales force intimidation is not effective; and cheerleading, while it may have its place, won’t get the job done. Success for distributor sales managers requires professional management skills.

Sales Managers’ Measures of Performance
Material handling distributor sales managers face “real time” performance demands. Performance criteria typically include one or more of the following: total sales and sales growth; acceptable gross margins; sales goals by product line; sales of targeted or premium products; penetration of existing and target accounts; new accounts; salesperson efficiency (total and increased sales per saleperson); sales department profitability and sales expense control, among others.

A sales manager’s performance is often examined on an annual, quarterly, monthly or even weekly basis.

Following is an overview of nine critical skills for distribution sales managers to operate successfully in this environment. This can provide a checklist for sales managers and their company to measure against, and to structure sales management skills development.

Conducting Sales Planning with Individual Salespeople
Setting sales goals or quotas is not sales planning. At least annually, sales managers should work through an individual sales planning process with each salesperson. This should include an opportunity for sales managers to hear from their salespeople about competition, sales skills development needed, obstacles faced, experience with suppliers and other factors which might influence that salesperson’s success. Together the sales manager and salesperson should develop, in writing, specifics of how they plan to achieve the mutually agreed upon sales goals. This plan, along with sales results, should be reviewed by the sales manager and salesperson at least quarterly, so that mid-course corrections can be made as needed.

Providing Sales Skills Training
Sales managers should adopt a specific sales model for their sales team, and consistently provide training in the skills appropriate for this model. This is not product training – it is training for sales skills such as prospecting, asking open-ended questions, listening to customers, dealing with customer objections and creating sales proposals that sell. That leads to the next sales manager’s skill.

Conducting Effective Sales Meetings
Sales meetings should be regular, focused on sales skills, and customer-based, not product-based. They should be fun, positive and informational. They should help salespeople sell more at higher gross margins. They should acknowledge sales achievements and share sales success stories. They should not be boring product feature/benefit presentations or rants about who missed their sales goals. They should be sales meetings, not anti-sales meetings!

Coaching Salespeople
With an individual sales plan in place, a sales model adopted, and regular sales skills training, reinforced by regular, positive sales meetings, sales managers are in a position to coach salespeople by making sales calls with them. The objective of these calls is not to evaluate salespeople, though that will naturally happen, but rather to coach salespeople in the sales skills being consistently worked on in your company. If properly structured, these calls lead to better relationships between salespeople and sales managers, and more open communication. And sales managers get to talk to some real live customers!

Managing Supplier Relationships
Sales managers should take the lead in managing supplier relationships. That means taking a proactive approach to selecting and evaluating suppliers; and building the appropriate personal/professional relationships with key supplier personnel. An important activity in managing supplier relationships is giving suppliers honest, professional feedback, as well as understanding how their company is perceived and evaluated by suppliers.

Succeeding with Large Order Opportunities
Most material handling distributors have a few important large sales order opportunities in a given year. These are opportunities for quantum leaps in sales. They also risk wasting time and resources on lost orders, or even worse, obtaining a large order that places the company at risk due to non-performance, over commitment or low margins. Sales managers must develop the confidence of their salespeople to get early warning of these opportunities; the tools to evaluate the opportunities for appropriate effort; and the skill to put together a sales team to successfully attack the opportunities appropriate for their company.

Suppliers often play a major role in success, or the lack of it, when addressing large order opportunities. That’s where the previously mentioned skill of managing supplier relationships can play a critical role.

Building a Sales Team and Sales Team Environment
While sales and selling can be seen as activities for highly motivated and skilled individuals, developing a sales team environment can bring powerful benefits for a distribution sales manager. These include less time spent on refereeing territory and commission disputes, mentoring of less-experienced salespeople by your sales pros and the ability to draw on the skills of several salespeople when addressing a large order opportunity.

This is particularly important when inside and outside salespeople need to work together.

A positive sales team environment attracts and retains top performers. Building a team environment in sales requires the appropriate recognition of both individual and team successes; effective team building exercises (including retreats, and some fun activities); developing team objectives and rewards; discouraging individual personality cults; and open communication.

Leading, Not Just Managing
Many books and articles have been written acknowledging that leadership and management are really different things. Sales managers must, of course, manage. However, to reach the higher levels of success, they must also be leaders. Leading includes creating an appropriate separation from the salespeople (especially important when the sales manager is promoted from within the sales team) while maintaining good communication (listening, not just expounding); putting the sales team and company objectives above the sales manager’s individual welfare; making decisions in a timely manner; being an advocate for the sales team within the organization; stepping forward to help with difficult situations; and providing a vision of where the organization is going while showing how that will benefit the individual members of the team. This leads to the next sales managing skill.

Being a Catalyst for Forward Motion
Motivated, successful, salespeople – in fact, motivated employees at any level of an organization – want to be part of an organization that is not only successful, but moving forward. Sales managers should provide the catalyst for forward motion in the organization. This includes charting progress through sales excellence communication and awards programs; sharing success stories; evaluating and adding new product lines; providing resources needed to support growth; trying new things; challenging the sales team to move to the next level; defining success by more than just sales numbers. Success in companies moving forward comes in many forms, including customer service excellence, capabilities added, awards achieved and contributions to the community. Sales managers should be the catalyst to “make things happen” in their sales teams and their companies.

More Information Available
This article provides an overview of nine professional sales management skills important for distributor sales managers. As a long time sales executive for a material handling distributor, I constantly worked on improving these skills. When I supervised sales executives, I helped them develop these skills in order to professionalize and improve the performance of our sales team. There are many sources of information on sales management skills. Check out the resources, then publication tabs at www.mheda.org. In the book Taking Charge of Distribution Sales: 9 Proven Skills to Lead and Manage Your Sales Team, I provide more details on the skills discussed here, including ready-to-use templates, real-world examples and a list of other sales managers’ resources. This book is available from the MHEDA website, www.mheda.org.

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Gary MooreGary Moore is a 40-plus year veteran of the material handling industry. After five years calling on distributors for a major forklift manufacturer, Gary joined Materials Handling Equipment Company in Denver as sales manager. He was promoted to increasing levels of responsibility as operations manager, vice president and president. In 1997 Gary purchased the company from its founders; in 2006 he sold it to Arnold Machinery Company. In 1997-1998 Gary served as President of MHEDA. For more than 25 years, Gary has been a frequent author, consultant and speaker serving the material handling industry. He is the author of Objective Based Selling, a material handling industry specific sales book, also available on the MHEDA website. Gary’s website is www.objectivebasedselling.net. His email address is garytrentm@aol.com. Gary and his wife Jane live in Denver.