|Counter Sales – One of the Toughest Jobs in Distribution.|
By Dr. Rick Johnson, CEO Strategist, LLC
Wednesday, 22nd October 2008
What role does counter sales people play in this century’s sales process? The role often becomes blurry and in many cases crosses over the functional line of inside sales and customer service. How does the company leverage the existing relationships between counter sales personnel and the customer?
The answer to this question plays a key role for upper quartile performers. Upper quartile performers understand the important role played by counter personnel. Customers are very dependent upon counter sales personnel for information, suggestions about products, substitution products, application help and expertise, new product information, new services, and promotional opportunities for cost savings.
Progressive managers truly understand what counter sales means in regard to market share growth. They know that the consistent use of suggestive selling techniques, up selling and promotions can have a dramatic impact on average order size and increase share of spend in each account. Counter sales personnel traditionally build relationship equity and many customers would give up their contact with field sales before giving up their relationship with counter sales personnel.
This is one of the front lines in the battle for success. Customers have not only come to expect competent counter sales people, they demand it. It can become a competitive edge, the differentiator for your business compared to the competition. It’s about the commitment the company has made to customer demands for world-class service.
Let’s Get Real
The reality that exists in most companies today is that counter sales personnel are extremely busy just handling customer walk-ins and inbound calls. And on top of the demands of the customers, we expect them to take the time to help in the warehouse, answer questions and complaints from outside sales, apply suggestive selling techniques, up sell and create a pleasant experience for the customer. And dinosaurs still roam the streets of New York.
Some counter sales personnel are better than most at using different selling techniques and creating customer relationship equity. It requires specific skills that depend upon product knowledge, probing communication skills, effective listening and training in suggestive selling techniques and offering the customer options. However, even the best counter sales people will stop these practices when the inbound burden becomes too great because they can’t take the time to leverage their relationship equity by talking with the customer, exploring options and identifying needs and interests. They go into an expeditious call turn over mode just to keep up with the inbound traffic.
The Cause for Confusion
The issue is the total lack of understanding and misconception about the primary function of counter sales. Counter sales must be passionately understood and supported as the battlefront of increased sales, market share growth and increased profitability. This is the funnel that is used to prove competitive advantage.
It’s put up or shut up time on the front line. Management cannot design productivity tactics without considering both the short term and long-term impact on customer relationships. Lastly, the front line must be fed appropriately. That means they must be compensated in accordance with their contribution to the success of the organization. Of course that means that we must have performance metrics and the ability to measure the productivity of the counter sales staff.
If We Are Lost -How Can We Be Found?
There is no magic answer if you don’t have the process and measurements in place to develop a counter sales initiative that is in alignment with your company strategy. That does not mean you give up. There are alternatives if you are willing to put forth an effort and make an investment. Start slow and minimize your exposure by creating a pilot project. Select one or two of your best counter sales people to test a systematic approach to increase productivity.
Hire a replacement for your counter sales people that are in the pilot project. This is your investment. This creates adequate staff to handle all inbound traffic. They will handle the entire overflow to allow the pilot personnel to utilize their skill sets to increase sales by utilizing suggestive selling techniques and up-selling techniques. It will also provide role clarity between inside sales, customer service and counter sales. That means that the pilot personnel must receive extensive training that includes:
The results of your pilot project may be surprising. You may conclude that counter sales can generate opportunistic sales increasing your share of customer spends. Growth and increased market share may also improve based on the contribution made by counter sales. Customers respond well to recommendations and suggestions. Counter sales given the time needed provide the kind of information that many customers need to know about your products and services.
- Up selling techniques
- Suggestive selling techniques
- Outcall training
- Product training
- Communication and questioning skills
- Needs satisfaction selling that includes
- Features and benefit training
- Value Propositioning and value added selling
- Promotional selling
- New product and New Source introductory selling
- Service and warranty selling
However, make no mistake about it; your success will depend on changing managements existing mind set regarding the support necessary to allow for this type of proactive selling. Counter sales cannot effect change on their own as it must be driven and supported by management. Appropriate staffing is a key component to handling counter sales at a level of adequacy to allow for time to employ proactive selling techniques. Having competent, aggressive and talented people is also an essential ingredient.
The first step necessary to leverage the counter sales opportunity and to provide the kind of sales support essential for overall company growth is to evaluate what exists within the counter sales department and how they function not only in the normal course of business but especially during peak times of counter traffic. Lastly, you can’t manage it if you can’t measure it. Adequate measurement systems must be in place to identify individual performance and productivity to recognize contributions toward success and appropriate adequate financial reward.
Conquering the Counter Conundrum
The counter sales life becomes one of juggling several balls in the air at the same time and becoming skilled at multi tasking. Dealing with “will call”, customers at the counter, inbound phone calls and whiney salesmen create quite a challenge for the professional counter person. More importantly, this counter conundrum puts customer retention and value at risk.
There is no magic formula to conquer this conundrum and answer the tough questions. Questions such as:
The sales evolution on the customer side of the equation has changed customer awareness, which has lead to different service output demands (SODS). These demands now focus on immediate response, cost savings opportunities and an expectation that knowledge and support of their business initiatives go beyond the traditional business model. Counter distractions such as donuts, coffee or popcorn are just not enough to overcome subpar service standards at peak times. Nothing short of service excellence is acceptable today to retain customers and create competitive advantage.
- How do you effectively staff the counter
- How should incoming calls be handled
- Should a prioritization policy be developed
- Should the will call counter be separate
- Should inbound calls from sales people be handled by someone else
Creating appropriate solutions to conquer the counter conundrum must be based on branch operational metrics. The starting point is to evaluate this branch data. Increasing counter staff may seem like the obvious solution but it may do nothing more than increase costs and not solve the problem. You must diagnose through the analysis of these metrics the real disease and treat the disease and not the symptoms.
Branch data analysis must include determining the pattern of peak times during the day and week for counter sales, incoming calls, will call and other specific counter responsibilities. Sales transactions and line item order entry information by counter person is relevant to the diagnosis. Faxes, e-mails, sales and profit trends, inactive and active account trends, average call time, call on hold time; call abandonment and the voice mail connection are all part of the situational analysis.
This analytical diagnosis should help you determine peak activity patterns, sales growth trends by segment such as will call, phone orders and walk in trade. Staffing levels and scheduling may then be matched more appropriately according to these patterns. This analysis should also help you determine overtime needs, whether new account development is successful and what your track record is on customer retention.
Analyzing transaction errors and when they occur will also help in conquering the counter conundrum. Don’t lose focus on those specific patterns that have the biggest impact on direct customer service. Things such as; the average wait time at the counter during peak periods, average on-hold time for call in customers, the % of call abandonment and very specifically what are the sales trends telling you?
Lastly, don’t rely on metrics alone. Talk to your counter pros. You may find out that a large percentage of their time is utilized on activities that don’t directly impact customer service and increased sales. Activities directed by field sales requesting prices, availability, order status, expediting or other requests that take up time.
Conquering the Counter Conundrum is possible but it takes hard work, analytical diagnosis and a commitment by executive management to address critical constraints and create the systems and processes that result in world-class service becoming one of the company’s core competencies.
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