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How consumer goods firms can increase field sales effectiveness

A field sales team is an expensive asset for any consumer goods company. Deciding how best to focus the team for the best possible return is a perpetual challenge. While efficiency has traditionally been a key driver behind field sales initiatives, businesses are now looking beyond this to make their sales teams more effective.

 The shelf-life of the field sales strategy is shorter than ever before. Competitors are bringing products to market more quickly, retailers are pricing more aggressively, consumers are switching more frequently and shoppers are better informed than they’ve ever been. Ever-evolving marketplaces create new challenges on a daily basis. The sales force strategy has to evolve and adapt to these challenges and the field teams need to realign and execute behind this. Quickly.

 There are many process improvement opportunities - from ensuring your reps are spending their time where it will make the biggest difference, to massively reducing their admin burden so that they actually do more selling. In this post, we’ll look at how a smarter, more agile approach that is continually evaluated and led by sales rep effectiveness, can drive significantly improved sales performance.

The traditional roles of a field sales rep

 A common challenge for the modern sales force is creating sufficient time in visits to spend developing relationships and joint business plans with retailers. The standard visit format is often structured around a series of transactional tasks that collect shelf data or capture orders.

Broadly, there have always been two distinct groups of field sales teams working for consumer goods organisations. Within the Independent (General Trade) sector, sales reps will commonly capture orders and customer service issues as part of their responsibilities. In the Multiples sector (Modern Trade), reps call on chain retail outlets to check on-shelf availability, pricing, feature and display information.

For the reps visiting independent retailers, a typical half-hour visit may be dominated by order capture. And while that has a clear short-term upside, it means less time spent providing advice, gaining insight and driving outcomes that benefit both store and manufacturer in the longer term.

 With all this in mind, the following areas provide great opportunities for ‘smarter selling’ to increase the effectiveness of your field force.

  1. Visit prioritisation

 Visit management is, in itself, an area that needs rethinking (see more on this in point 3). In the interests of increased effectiveness, manufacturers should be considering a real-time deployment model that puts field sales personnel in the stores where they have most to gain - or indeed the most to lose. Live EPOS data makes it possible to identify non-compliant stores within the first day of a promotion’s start date. Predictive models can identify independent stores likely to defect by analyzing patterns of buying behavior and alerting the appropriate representative.

Visit prioritisation should be driven by potential sales volume, both today and in the future. It is clear that the more selling time is spent with large format stores with high sales volumes, will likely create more output. But this creates a tricky balancing act to ensure that some time is allocated to the much wider segment of smaller retailers.

Imagine the impact if your reps could play a more advisory role with smaller, but potentially higher growth retailers. Rather than being driven to rush to their next appointment, if the rep could simply extend the duration of their visit to look at ways to optimise the store, could this result in an uptick in sales?

How you evaluate your whole customer base is key. You can’t cover all bases, all of the time and do so cost-effectively, but you’ll want to ensure the right amount of time is given to prime locations based on growth potential.

Successful consumer goods firms define their visit strategies based on hard data that shows the actual, not perceived, growth of the location being visited. And they are able to switch their focus and align resources quickly in response to changing demand - all without risking internal chaos.

  1. Increasing effectiveness in major multiples

Although field sales visits to major multiples tend to be based around compliance checks rather than revenue targets, the shift towards an effectiveness agenda is key here too.

If a store has always been highly compliant and promotes and merchandises your goods as per the agreement, do you really need a rep to visit every week? Or could you deploy your finite resources more intelligently, increasing visits to stores where there’s more likely to be a problem that needs resolving?

Technology can play a part in finding this scheduling solution. EPOS data coming from your retail partners enables you to see what’s going through the tills, which products are out of stock and other insightful consumer data. Obtaining this information in a timely fashion and disseminating it to your field sales teams is crucial to driving a swift, agile response to opportunities.

When coordinating your sales team out in the field, communication is critical. In the event of exceptional circumstances (a rush on stock or a product recall), you could send an alert to your field sales people instructing them to visit relevant stores, as soon as possible.

  1. Agile visit scheduling

 Even with the most organised and well-orchestrated visit scheduling system, there are elements outside of your control that can have a major impact on sales effectiveness.

Consider a product recall here where reps need to prioritise this work over their regular scheduled visits. Also a competitor product launch which has massive impact upon sales of your products in existing customers. There is a bigger agenda than just the individual rep getting there on time.

Road works, traffic jams, breakdowns, the last minute personal crisis – not to mention customers cancelling meetings at short notice. Such incidents are commonplace and can create a severe knock-on effect for field sales teams already working to incredibly tight schedules.

Route optimisation can alleviate some of the strain, but this does not go far enough. The biggest challenge is typically getting the right people on both sides to agree to meet at an appropriate date and time.

Assuming most people do have some flexibility in their daily or weekly diaries, a technology-led scheduling system that automates the calendaring process through requests and notifications, can re-organise a rep’s diary quickly, with minimal intervention. This helps to overcome a common situation where a rep’s day can be completely derailed, and the manual rescheduling process can’t begin until the next day. 

  1. The modern toolkit for field sales reps

Given their high overhead, field sales reps need to make the most of every sales meeting. Nevertheless, there are many seemingly obvious issues that prevent reps from being as effective as they could be, especially when in front of a customer.

  • Shorter product development times are creating more product launches.
  • Digital collateral is often poorly managed and distributed.
  • Reps can learn from each other – but don’ How have they been effective with a new product launch.
  • Insight and analytics – this can be used to drive targeted conversations and decisions.
  • The ability to reallocate tasks / work intelligently between visits depending on what happens during the current visit.
  • Engaging the back-office – the rep can’t solve everything but they can provide a route into the wider organization for the customer.
  • Productivity tools which minimize data input activity and let them focus on face-time.

A fundamental problem is that often the field sales team is the last to know about a new promotion or launch of a new brand. It is not uncommon for customers to enquire about a new product that they’ve seen through a TV commercial, only for the rep to be completely unaware. The point here is that reps need to be armed with the latest product and promotion information, without needing to spend all their time trying to keep up with their company’s marketing plans.

Mobile tablet devices equipped with apps that provide reps with a ‘digital folder’, ensure that the most up-to-date branded collateral is available at their fingertips. With intelligent content management, sales information can be automatically maintained, tagged and easily searchable, allowing reps to access the content they need as the conversation flows during a sales meeting.

Many content management applications also provide analytical tools that help sales and marketing teams identify which content and media is most effective in the field, which helps improve the performance of the team as a whole.

  1. Optimising the retail environment

The symbiotic relationship between manufacturers and retailers will remain strong, as both sides agree that innovative ways to improve sales effectiveness are needed. Along with consumer data insights and omnichannel sales models, the optimisation of the retail environment will be a key component, and manufacturers’ field sales teams will have an important part to play.

Photo recognition applications are emerging specifically for shelf space, enabling reps to take a picture of a stocked store shelf and automatically compare against a pre-approved planogram, ensuring the store is delivering against your retail partner agreement.

Similarly, virtual reality tools will soon allow reps to hold a device up to a shelf and identify failings in the merchandising, instantly generating a report that can then be raised with a store manager.

Perhaps more significantly though, is the emergence of crowdsourced field sales support. Of particular interest to organisations that don’t have the budget to employ a sales force full time, are apps like Field Agent, which links businesses to consumers who are willing to perform local field research tasks in exchange for a small payment.

Such tasks might include checking on the location and appearance of in-store promotional displays, or verifying the prices of specific products - with a report and photo delivered back instantly from the ‘field agent’ via the app.

In summary

Field sales is evolving, with the role of the rep in future being more about smarter, rather than efficient selling.

Instead of simply trying to increase order value with every visit, reps should be focused on helping retailers increase the average basket value of their shoppers - recognising that a prosperous retail partner is a more sustainable approach to sales growth for the manufacturer.

Above all, it’s time to revisit your evaluation cycle and those KPIs. Embed an agile sales strategy that can adapt quickly to changing customer needs and focus your team on the right measures based on sales output, not input.

Ben Robinson

Ben Robinson

Practice Director: Customer, Consumer & Digital


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