“Service the hell out of your customers!” or “How Territory Managers can avoid extinction.”

That was one of two bits of advice I was given many years ago.  I’d just accepted my first job as an outside salesperson.  I was sort of hoping for advice that was more specific but that’s what I got.  The other piece of advice was equally helpful: “Don’t f*&k it up.”  Pretty much the ingredients for success.  But back then there wasn’t an internet that clients were able to use to research price and products.  I didn’t have an internal network to direct customers towards for promotion, service, warranty information.  It was all done person-to-person.  So my clients sort of needed me (emphasis on “sort of”).  I was, almost literally, the link between a distributor and the customer.  Not a bad place to be–especially because I didn’t know what I was doing.  I could “fake it till you make it” big time.  That first year  I drove through two sets of tires and two brake replacements trying to figure out what the hell it mean to manage a territory.  It felt like I was trying to lasso jello.      

I spent today with a territory manager and one of his powerhouse clients.  Our conversation ranged from there here and now to futurist trends.  Great stuff.  And because the market is always a moving target, and because the target is moving faster than ever, what exactly does it mean to be a “territory manager?”  How do you manage a market that is evolving faster than most business owners understand?  In other words, how does a territory manager do her job when simplistic product-based sales have become a thing of the past and when nearly every growth/profit resource is available on-line?  In other words, how can a territory manager avoid extinction?

Business owners want a flashlight not a review mirror.  As rapid as things are changing an exemplary territory manager helps his clients see the future, if ever so slightly.  “What’s new?” and “What’s next?” are important strategy questions.  Having a relevant answer based on credible research and practical examples is a first rate ticket to relevance.  Talking about the past may only serve as a simple reminder that the weather really wasn’t that great, that sales weren’t that strong, or that it’s been better “when the economy was booming.”

Speak an owner’s language not  a salesperson’s language.  Owner’s care about gross and net profit.  Margin.  Inventory turns.  Overhead cycles.  Depreciating assets.  Capital.  A relevant TM has the business acumen to speak an owner’s language.  Discussing promotions and reminding them about things they can google means the TM is an outsourced administrator (and redundant).

Relationships are a small part of the job.  Ever lost business from a “friend?”  Get the point?  Business is business.  I’ve never met an owner who wouldn’t trade a “free” booze cruise for significantly increased net profits.  Focus on moving the needle.  There’s always time for golf.

Know the entire organization.  The real decision maker might not be the person that TM typically spends time with or is comfortable spending time with.  Widespread organizational support, however, is the surest way to advance an agenda.

Make leadership decisions.  If an account isn’t growing then assess the reasons as to why.  Never be afraid to open new accounts in order to maintain a healthy territory.  If an account refuses to engage then make the call.  It’s ok to trim the tree if it fosters new growth elsewhere.

Be prepared.  Really prepared.  If a new product brochure and some free swag is your “meeting” then the likelihood of the client asking “Why am I giving this guy my time?” is pretty much guaranteed.

Build your business like a business.  Budget exercises are usually top-down snowflakes (“great year, now pick it up by a soon-to-be-disclosed amount”–most sales managers).  Control your activities with detailed account development plans, co-created forecasts, your “marketing” plan (how will you build your brand?).  Drive results proactively–just like your clients.

Fall in the love with the growers.  It’s easy to love the friendly accounts–they’re fun and accessible.  They invite you to their barbecues.   But the growers, drivers, skeptics are the one’s that pay the bills.  They can be hard to work with.  They can be intense.  Combative.  Pushy.  But they have their lives at stake and they’re fighting hard.  Love the warriors.  Learn to love the accounts that might be hard to work with but will become loyal and exclusive while you help them make more money.

Understand the complete sales cycle.  Most TMs I know have no idea how their product is sold at the kitchen table.  I think that’s too bad.  Understanding the entire sales cycle gives a TM the leverage to effectively coach in a relevant manner.  Otherwise it’s guess work.

Reward the right behavior.  Save the free lunch for the accounts who are fully on-board, buying and growing and thriving.  It’s the best way to not have to defend your expense account decisions.

For most small businesses the big decisions are made early in the morning and after the doors close.  If you’re going to ask for time in the middle of the day it damn well better be awesomely spent.  

What’s your secret sauce?  Honestly?  What are you brining to the table that has your signature on it?  If nothing then start putting some thought in to the type of memory you’re making with your dealers and the types of value you bring beyond product and price.

Beware hubris!  A couple of really great years are the basis for over confidence and complacency.  

I could go on, but “service the hell out of  your clients” didn’t do me any favors.  And today, sitting with a TM and his client, I kept asking myself: “How’s this guy going to keep growing an account that’s already ahead of the curve?”

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