Sales administration, after-sales services… : the best sales representatives’ allies are downstream
The “romantic” vision of the isolated sales representative, leaving bravely in the search of turnover in a hostile world, with his mobile phone as his only ally and for only occupation to meet with prospects, is a long-lived stereotype.
It is an evidence we sometimes tend to forget but, in B2B, customer relationship is generally continuous and iterative. In this context, exchanges developed between organisations are also important and often more fruitful and frequent than purely commercial relationships.
Good sales representatives know how to take advantage of it and an efficient sales organisation must take it into account. This simple common sense logic is even more vital in a digital and connected economy.
The sale is a beginning, not an end.
Once the sale is concluded or the contract is renewed, regardless of the product or the service, a critical phase starts or restarts for the successful completion of the transaction. Three main types of stakeholders are going to supersede to the sales representative.
In the first place, it will be necessary to finalise and keep the administrative and financial dimensions of the sale alive over time. Regardless of the name it carries and the scope of its prerogatives, a “Sales Administration” function is necessary. It will especially be about organising contracts, ensuring accounting management of exchanges, but also addressing matters such as insurance, conformity to such or such company policy or standard, etc. These “administrative” tasks hold an important sales potential which is often overlooked.
Apart from these administrative aspects, it will be necessary to physically organise the products delivery or the smooth running of the service. Stakeholders of “logistics”, delivery, commissioning and even user training services are also important players. Whether it is about normalised products (cement mixers to be delivered on a construction site), made to measure and complex products (a new radar guidance system for an airport) or even about “mere” services (an accounting audit), the sales representative has neither the time nor the means (and often nor the skills!) to plan in detail the implementation of what he has sold. However, it obviously is where the added value for the client will be expressed… or not!
Finally, beyond commissioning, it is obvious that contractual or legal (or even extra-contractual) after-sales service quality is a key factor in clients trust and is often a major differentiator (good or bad) in the B2B world. The potential turnover that the service represents is already, as such, an obvious reason for the sales representative to take an interest in it. For example, service will represent more than the buying price in the overall cost of ownership of a helicopter. Let us briefly mention the fact that margins are better and that competition is often non-existent… but there are other reasons to take an interest in it.
More privacy, more proximity… and more turnover!
“Downstream” trade functions are fundamental, their poor execution would obviously have a strong negative impact on the perception of hard-won clients… Through this selling/sales administration/logistics/after-sales service “continuum”, the sales representative must strive to guarantee the proper execution of the contract and constantly ensure the satisfaction of his clients (with the help of WHY Consulting if necessary!). There is an interest in maintaining his relationship and the credibility of his word. But not only.
Close and ongoing relationships with sales administration, logistics and after-sales service stakeholders also have a direct impact on the strictly commercial component. Downstream functions have more operational and generally more frequent relationships than sales representatives with their clients. They certainly are less “codified” than the sales representative/buyer relationship. This natural client’s privacy exposes them to a wealth of information about which the sales representative would not dare to dream. Contacts developed when contracting, delivering or during after-sales service bring a rich and precise vision of the life of the account to the sales representative who knows how to draw on them: What are the current issues at stake? Decision-makers on the brink of leaving or soon-to-be-promoted ones? Development projects?
This can go rather far. More than one may think usually. For example, it is “almost natural” for a sales administration representative to ask for a complete organisation chart of the purchasing functions (pretending the need to identify his contact persons) and, for a logistics manager, to obtain a forecast order statement or a complete mapping of locations from his counterpart… This information will be confidential for a supplier but is open to a link in the supply chain. If not poorly used, it allows the sales representative to a much more detailed understanding of his clients than the only information his contacts give him.
One area in particular is closed to the sales representative and easily accessible to downstream functions: the share of the competition. It is easy for the carrier to detect (or even to quantify) the presence of competing products in a warehouse or at a point of sale… Likewise, it is obvious that after-sales service functions will naturally be exposed to comments on comparative qualities of their competitors’ offer compared to that of the provider. In this line of thought, it is almost certain that competitive intelligence of downstream functions can have a major role in the early detection of a relationship rupture (“last” order, declining quantities ordered while the activity remains steady, etc.).
Finally and perhaps even more simply, the sales representative’s downstream functions can bring him what he is most fond of: qualified leads. If they are properly made aware, there are situations where downstream functions can “automatically” alert the sales representative: opening of a new destination for export, gaining a large market, buying a competitor, dissatisfaction with a related supply… All of these situations can lead to commercial development. Whether it is about preparing for it or about proactively putting forward an offer, the sales representative should not miss this information. For example, the project of opening a new factory or a new facility may seem a trivial matter for a logistician (a change in his trucks’ milk run) but could represent a major turnover challenge.
A major organisation and sales efficiency challenge
If the mentioned findings seem obvious and are probably shared by a majority of decision-makers in the B2B context, few of them actually get the operational and organisational consequences they are supposed to get.
Three types of actions are necessary to maximise sales efficiency functions downstream in relation to sales forces:
- First of all, it is essential to appoint sales representatives to each client, or at least to a compatible operational segmentation (especially by sector). There are two commercial reasons for this organisational choice. On one hand, the regular contacts between dedicated teams for clients, the sales representative and downstream functions will naturally foster trust and transparency (what’s more irritating than a “customer service” which asks you every time the same information, or a delivery person who ignores the instructions for access to the site, or even a sales administration representative who does not know about granted discounts, etc.). On the other hand, the regularity of contacts between a sales representative and “his” sales administration or “his” logistics team is a prerequisite for a smooth operation.
It is therefore important to resist, when possible, an approach exclusively focused on cost reduction, which would like to pool non-sales functions across the entire portfolio.
- Once this prerequisite is implemented, it will be necessary to establish the functional link between sales forces and “downstream” contacts of the accounts, and to know how to keep it alive. Without interfering with the operational management of teams, it will be about organising channels of exchanges about the client, his expectations, his needs, etc. The sales representative will bring much information by indicating quantitative and qualitative objectives for each account, he will need to be able to clarify his expectations. Symmetrically, stakeholders will be able to share any difficulties encountered, which will enrich the dialogue between the sales representative with his counterparts.
The sales representative will be a sort of “mini-KAM” (Key Account Manager) for each of his clients with a visibility and a certain access to the contact persons related to them.
- Finally, for these intentions not to go unheeded, aligning management systems will be necessary. If the only logic of costs reduction or the maximisation of processed volumes guides the evaluation of downstream functions, it is quite natural that their contribution to sales is low and that they are reluctant to invest in competitive intelligence or the detection of leads… Instead, if this contribution is valued in the evaluation and management system, the sales person will effortlessly find a representative.
We should mention that the integration of a sales dimension in sales administration and after-sales service functions (for example) is also a form of recognition for them and of improvement of their functions: we can expect a positive effect on their involvement.
Digitalisation makes this logic unavoidable
The above considerations are applicable to the “old economy” which still largely governs the B2B world but they will be even more necessary as and when technological and organisational ruptures that the digital world dictates will become widespread. Some exemplifications (non exhaustive list) allow to understand it.
Thus, network organisations, where organisational “silos” disappear at the expense of agile, not very hierarchical and “ad hoc” operating modes (by client, by project, by topic, etc.) are, in a way, the culmination of the above-mentioned logics. Especially among clients involved themselves in this evolution, answers such as “I must refer it to my colleagues in such department” will be less and less acceptable. And, if an order is placed following a phone call regarding a request for documentation, it still is an order that is placed!
Similarly, the decisive role of data quality will reinforce the need for a flawless “chain” when dealing with a client. The promise (not kept!) of CRM will be overtaken by operational needs. In this context, the sales representative who has it “all in his mind” or the logistician who fails to track a delivery “to go faster” exclude themselves from the new economy. “Data centric” companies understand the value of client information for obvious operational reasons (traceability, invoicing…) but will also know how to take its underlying sales advantage.
Personalised marketing (whether inbound or loyalty) is also an area where the sales representative will have to rely on the wealth of client data to design ever more personalised offers, forestalling needs rather than meeting them. For example, the detailed analysis of seasonality may help to define optimal quantities, adapted bundle sizes, etc. A geomarketing approach on the basis of locations can lead to offers adapted to the needs of the different units, etc. “Data scientists” are allies of sales representatives for the next decade.
Finally, the interpenetration of information systems will definitely streamline relationships (and establish strong barriers of entry for competitors). Distant descendant of the “EDI” flows (Electronic Data Interchange), the “M2M” dialogue (Machine-to-Machine) will allow the tank to signal that it is empty, the truck to indicate that it is full, or the engine to alert that a preventive maintenance is necessary… Suppliers who will be able to take advantage of these opportunities have a clear competitive edge.
By way of conclusion
Each sector and each market will, of course, have its specifics and the challenge is not as important everywhere, but it will always be possible to take a substantive sales advantage through a greater attention given to stakeholders of the downstream functions. More often than not, this already supposes a change of attitude: a little consideration and knowing how to give thanks is already a good start! Then, you should not hesitate to ask: sometimes downstream functions simply have no idea about what the sales representative tries to know or to understand… Finally, you should also help out: downstream functions have expectations as well and more often than not, the sales representative can greatly make their life easier by taking them into account (if 90% of orders are “urgent”, how can they get organised?)
More structuring organisational implications are worth considering and are often necessary, but the first step is the state of mind. The sales function must draw on the same ability to listen and empathise with its internal representatives as he does with his clients… It is in his own interest.