There’s a reason it’s called a sales force. Here are four innovative ways companies can use their sales reps to drive growth.
Maryanne Hancock, Homayoun Hatami, and Sunil Rayan
Look over the horizon
The sudden arrival of a truly disruptive technology—one that upends markets in ways few anticipate—presents obvious challenges to industry incumbents. Yet it’s also a huge growth opportunity. One supplier of parts to high-tech manufacturers has created a team of “speculative market analysts” to better identify the emergence of disruptive technologies and to predict their business implications. The team helps the company to position itself as a supplier that’s ahead of the curve and to enjoy superior sales growth while competitors scramble to catch up.
The full-time team cuts across all business units and draws on a variety of internal and external sources: the sales force provides insights into the technology initiatives of the company’s customers while continually pressing them for feedback about its shortcomings and the efforts of competitors. In addition, the team closely scrutinizes all reports from competitors and customers—easier said than done, given the sheer volume of market information emanating from countries such as China. It even fosters close ties with venture capital firms and provides up-and-coming companies with funding and “sweat equity” to convert innovative concepts into realities. Together, these efforts have helped the company’s sales force to get ahead of recent major disruptive trends, including the boom in tablet devices and e-readers, as well as the growing fields of LED lighting and solar technology. What’s more, the team’s efforts are generating an estimated annual return on investment that exceeds 12 percent.
Hunt and farm
It’s easy for organizations to fall into the habit of seeking sales growth only through existing customers. Even though the sales force is typically best placed to find and approach potential clients, individual reps may shun the uncomfortable task of cold-calling in favor of selling to customers they know well. Yet there’s only so much each customer can buy, so finding new business is critical for growth.
One large distributor of auto parts tried tackling this problem by separating these activities. Its sales leader designated some reps as “hunters,” who focused exclusively on finding new prospects, while “farmer” reps concentrated on existing customers. The model succeeded initially but later foundered as hunters became discouraged by the time and effort required for their relatively scant wins, as well as the perception that they were second-class citizens compared with farmers.
As attrition rates among hunter reps grew, the sales leader changed tack. To demonstrate the importance of finding new customers, he designated one day a month as a “hunting day,” when all reps would exclusively chase new prospects. The rest of the time, they could focus largely on existing customers. The result was astounding: in a single day, the company signed up as many new customers as it normally did in two months. Setting aside one day a month for hunting new business is now an ingrained part of the company’s sales practices.
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