How Distribution Sellers Compare to Other Verticals (and How to Close the Gap)

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Summary: This article analyzes sales competencies in wholesale distribution, finding that while they excel in relationship building, they lag in critical selling skills. Explore actionable recommendations for closing these skill gaps.

In mid-July 2023, I presented a webinar for our friends at Distribution Strategy Group about “The State of Sales in Wholesale Distribution.” As part of my presentation, I conducted some research to compare the level of selling competencies in wholesale distribution to those in other industries, and the results were both fascinating and concerning.

In this article, I’ll share some data points that shed light on selling strengths and weaknesses within distribution, and offer recommendations on how to close gaps that might be holding your team back.

The Backstory on the Data

At SPARXiQ, we partner with a company called Objective Management Group (OMG). They do sales force evaluations and hiring assessments for sales. They’ve been in the business for over 30 years and have assessed over 2 million people in sales, sales management, and sales leadership roles.

OMG assesses 21 core sales competencies. This includes eleven that they refer to as:

  • “The Will to Sell” (things like drive or grit, motivation, commitment, coachability, and others)
  • “Sales DNA” (which are mindsets and beliefs that support or hinder sales effectiveness)

It also includes ten more tactical selling competencies (such as hunting, qualifying, reaching decision makers, relationship building, consultative selling, selling value, and others).

Today, I’ll share just a subset of the data, primarily focusing on five of the selling competencies:

  • Hunting (prospecting/new business development)
  • Reaching Decision Makers
  • Selling Value
  • Sales Process (managing a milestone-centric process)
  • Relationship Building

I’m doing this because the other data – the Will to Sell and Sales DNA – was not that different. In fact, it revealed that the hard wiring of distribution sales reps is more or less in line with sellers across the broader sales profession. The data suggests that sellers in distribution have a similar drive and motivation to succeed. They also hold similar mindsets and beliefs about selling.

However, these critical selling competencies above revealed some areas where distribution sellers are lagging considerably. They also represent competencies that are proven to be impactful when they’re done well.

Let’s look at the data.

Selling Competencies: Distribution vs. the Broader Market

The data I’m sharing here comes from North America, in just the past ten years, because that’s more relevant than going back for the full 30 years.

See the Selling Skills chart below. The gray bars on the left represent the data from candidates and employees in all verticals, which includes wholesale distribution. There are over 463,000 evaluations in this data set, so it is very valid. On the right side in color, you’ll see data from just employees working in distribution companies. This includes 10,696 evaluations (still a significant and valid data set). The percentages represent the percent of sellers who assessed “strong” in each of the competencies.

As you compare the data for these five sales competencies, you’ll see that distribution sellers fared well only in Relationship Building, with 46% of employees scoring strong, compared to 53% overall. A small gap, all in all. This is not terribly surprising; many senior executives in distribution have shared with us anecdotally that their sales teams are great at building and managing customer relationships.

In Hunting (aka new business development or new account acquisition), Reaching Decision Makers, Selling Value, and managing a Sales Process, our sellers lagged significantly. While Relationship Building sees distribution reps lagging by 15%, the others range from 53% to 113%.

The Good News

The good news comes in two parts.

First, as I mentioned earlier, we compared much more favorably in the assessment of mindsets and beliefs (aka Will to Sell). Here is an example of a subset of these competencies.

The other verticals came out slightly ahead on the Will to Sell and Sales DNA competencies, but not significantly. This is a great sign because those factors are mostly inherent in the individual. Yes, they can be trained (to a degree), coached and counseled, but changing these factors is a lot like the old joke about how many psychologists it takes to change a lightbulb. The answer is, “Just one, but the lightbulb must want to change!”

Why This Matters

In addition to distributor reps having healthy drive, motivation, and mindsets, the second good news story is that the big gaps in sales competencies discussed above are all trainable. While mindsets and beliefs can positive or negatively influence learning and executing the sales competencies, the skills themselves can be taught and coached to mastery.

It’s an oddity that distributors have not always invested in skill development training for their sales force. We have historically relied on long-term customer relationships and what I call “Momentum Fuel” – or the fact that many customers have ordered from us for a long time, and even if the account manager retired or was hit by the proverbial beer truck, the orders would still roll in.

This is changing, however. The average age of many top performing salespeople in distribution (and their long-term buyers and customers) was 46 years old in 2021 (Bureau of Labor Statistics). If that’s the average, a good portion are nearing retirement. As the “changing of the guard” occurs, newer generations exhibit different buying behaviors and will not have the relationship or loyalty that was previously developed over years of working together.

When you combine these factors, it’s clear distribution is sitting on a demographic cliff and facing even more change in the future than the recent disruptions. Acting now and investing in talent development and other sales effectiveness foundations is the only way to future-proof your sales force and your company.

How to Close the Competency Gaps

Distributors have long allowed their salespeople the freedom to sell however they want. This model now has a very limited shelf life.

Numerous distributors have recognized that now is the time to implement a formal sales process and sales methodology. The process is the stages a sale moves through, and the methodology is how your sellers sell, to guide buyers through the process to a successful conclusion.

An aligned process and methodology can be trained and coached to mastery. This provides a common language, a set of competencies that can be assessed, and allows you to establish a cadence of continuous improvement in your sales force.

Multiple sales research studies have taught us that when there are high levels of adoption of a formal sales process and sales methodology (75% or greater), there is a significant lift in revenue plan attainment, quota attainment for individual sellers, and overall win rates. It works.

An effective sales methodology covers the entire customer lifecycle, and would include the sales competencies I reported on earlier:

  • Hunting (prospecting/new business development)
  • Reaching Decision Makers
  • Selling Value
  • Sales Process (managing a milestone-centric process)
  • Relationship Building

A modern methodology should also be:

  • Buyer centric: Meaning to operate in your buyers’ best interests and to meet their high expectations for sales professionals
  • Consultative: Meaning to bring insight and expertise to the table, with the ability to diagnose a situation or problem and recommend solutions that will solve the problem
  • Outcome oriented: Meaning to understand the current and desired future states, including the desired outcomes and priority of the outcomes, to ensure you can deliver them.

Choosing and aligning on a methodology is only half the battle. Then, you must be able to implement it in such a way to develop the key competencies, foster learning and retention, change behaviors, gain adoption, and continuously move toward higher levels of mastery.

With no slight intended toward sales leaders or other company leaders, this level of talent development and change management has simply not been part of leadership equation of the past in wholesale distribution.

Enter, Modern Sales Foundations

This is exactly why we developed Modern Sales Foundations, which is both:

  • A full-cycle sales methodology, built from years of top-performer analysis and updated to work with today’s modern buyers
  • And an innovative, bingeworthy training program that is fun to take and easy to learn.

It’s also why we implement it differently than any other company in the market today, with a drip-method, weekly approach, engaging sales managers to support the implementation. The goal is to work it into the fabric of the company and make it “the way we do things around here.”

But even then, to get the best possible results, the end of the training is just the beginning of the full transformation. At that point, you can assess your sellers against the competencies on a regular basis, identify gaps, and develop personalized learning plans with coaching from managers, to close those gaps. This becomes a continuous improvement loop.

It is also a best practice to integrate what’s taught in the program into CRM or other systems, wrap it into pipeline management meetings, use it for deal reviews and forecast management, and integrate the forms and worksheets right into the daily workflow for the sales force.

When you look at this all at once, it feels like it’s going to be like running a marathon. But what we’ve learned with distributors who have gone down this path is that, in practice, it feels more like a short walk each week. As a leader, you’ll see the entire plan stretched out ahead of you. Your team and sales force, however, will take it one step at a time. It’s much like the old joke about how you eat an elephant: “One bite at a time.”

When You’re Ready…

Are you feeling the pressure of change already? Or are you looking ahead and wanting to foster change before it hurts?

In either case, we can help you explore options and find the right path forward for you. And because we walk our talk on being buyer centric, consultative, value focused, and outcome oriented, we’ll tell you if we don’t see a close fit and make other recommendations.

Modern Sales Foundations

Use a buyer-centric approach to improve sales results.

What it takes for salespeople to deliver value has changed significantly as the modern buying process has evolved. Modern Sales Foundations is an end-to-end sales training program that teaches sellers the buyer-centric strategies and approaches needed to excel in today’s marketplace.

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