What Is the Best Way to Use Field Sales Reps in Our Digital Marketplace?

Digital communication has completely changed the customer-field sales rep relationship.

With mobile phones, email, text and virtual meetings, the need for sales reps to be in the field to deal with routine and even complex issues has diminished drastically.

In addition, the Internet has enabled customers to find industry- and product-related information without involving a sales rep at all.

Major effects of these changes include the following:

  • Field reps who continue to visit customers to handle issues that can be handled digitally become an annoyance to customers. If customers become sufficiently bothered, they will seek out a new supplier that uses digital technology to conduct business more efficiently.
  • Prospecting for new customers, at least in the early stages, is far more efficiently handled over the phone or email. This has blurred the line between inside and outside sales, and put sales management in a quandary over how to divide responsibilities and compensate inside and outside reps.
  • Without a clear mission for field reps, evaluating their value and performance individually and as a group has become difficult for management, leaving companies unsure about whether to expand, contract or maintain field sales operations.


Rethinking the Role of the Field Sales Rep

At our agency, Straight North, the role of the field sales rep has changed gradually and strategically.

This approach carries two important benefits: first, gradual change is less disruptive to individuals and the organization as a whole; second, strategic changes, as opposed to making a series of disconnected tactical moves, prevent costly missteps that make customer service worse rather than better.


The two most important questions to ask:

  1. What is the best way for field reps to help us now?
  2. Given the changes we anticipate in technology, industry best practices, product/service development and marketing strategy, how will field sales best support us two to five years from now?


Obviously, the answers to both questions will vary widely from company to company — but having the conversation will put all the opportunities and challenges on the table.

One other thing: Before you have the conversation about a new role for field sales, you must have a clear and shared understanding of the cost of customer acquisition, the lifetime value of your customer (preferably divided into two or three levels of value) and whatever other key metrics you use to calculate the ROI of your field sales team.

As you begin rethinking the role of the field rep, you will probably find yourself rethinking the value of your metrics.

For instance, a common way field reps are evaluated is through onsite visit reports.

The thinking here is that the more the field rep is in the field in front of customers, the better.

But is this really the case? Perhaps a better metric would be a combination of in-person and digital customer “touches.”


New Work Options for Field Sales Reps

In general, the most important shift in thinking is to understand that field reps need not be in the field all the time, but they do need to be ready to be in the field at any time.

This is because a field rep’s digital productivity may produce more ROI than his or her in-person productivity, in terms of time spent.

The key is to maximize digital and in-person productivity.

How are field reps most productive in the field? Here are several tried-and-true options.


Resolving problems

The personal touch has high value even in cases where the customer’s problem could be resolved digitally.

A sales rep on the scene helps maintain the relationship and enables his or her company to get a complete and accurate assessment of the issue.


Introducing new products and services

In-person presentations are most effective and efficient when products or services are complex, when demonstrations are required and when several members of the customer’s team are involved in the decision to buy.


Closing sales

In many situations, there is simply no substitute for an in-person closing effort.

Email or even a phone conversation does not allow the seller to fully assess the customer’s true state of mind.

Without the full picture, it’s easy for the seller to misread the situation and either sell too hard or not hard enough.


Onboarding customers

When a new customer has complex buying procedures and/or has left a highly regarded vendor, having a sales rep on hand, either in-person or digitally, to build relationships and smooth out the buying process will make the difference between a short customer relationship and a long one.


Reviewing performance

A formal, annual, in-person business review where all key customer stakeholders meet with all the key members of your staff is welcome (and sometimes required) by certain customers.

A field rep is your best resource for scheduling, preparing for, moderating and following-up on these meetings.


Managing inventory

Vendor-managed inventory (VMI) is a welcome service for many customers, especially those that purchase a large number of SKUs and/or have limited resources for purchasing and inventory control.

While this process can be executed with VMI software, having a field rep in the customer’s warehouse is extremely valuable for identifying/confirming slow-moving items or damaged items, identifying issues with product storage, and through conversations, learning about developments in the customer’s business that will affect order volume, replenishment levels and other supply chain issues.


Building relationships

Entertaining customer contacts, showing an interest in the customer’s business, meeting and getting to know several people within the customer’s organization, visiting the customer’s remote facilities, participating in customer and customer-sponsored events, taking customers to trade shows and other industry events — these activities are supremely valuable for retaining and acquiring customers.

If you’ve been thinking that the field rep entertainment budget is only for existing customers, you are missing half the benefit!


Blending In-person and Digital Activities

If you’ve identified other high-value activities for field reps to perform in the field, that’s terrific.

In the highly unlikely event your organization does not see value in any of the above-listed activities, then you really don’t need a field sales force.

For the most part, companies will see value in some of these activities and then will be able to allocate time to each activity, based on factors such as the rep’s experience and ability, customer value and business acquisition potential.

Is there time left over? The balance of the field rep’s time should then be filled with digital selling activities such as phone/email prospecting, account analysis and digital relationship-building/selling/problem resolution communication.

Because many in-person sales activities are unpredictable — in particular, problem resolution and onboarding — digital activities should be flexible enough to enable reps to be physically present with the customer whenever and wherever needed.

Determining compensation that reflects the work requirements and their value is the next step in the process — a whole new topic indeed.

But, as complicated as sales compensation can be, the best way to make the compensation plan simple and motivational is to develop a clear idea of what the work looks like and what its value is.


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