Columnists / Rick Johnson: Distribution Management / Operations & Technology

Are you properly utilizing your inside sales force?

The driving force

July 12, 2013
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Relationship equity with the customer is still the driving force to success in sales.

However, many of us underestimate the value of that relationship equity between inside sales, customer service and the customer. Relationship building always has been the mantra of outside salespeople and the relationships on the inside oftentimes don’t get the credit that is due. Of course, relationship equity is important to success in outside sales. But who actually has more contact with the customer? In fact, studies show customers would give up their outside sales contact 83% of the time before giving up their inside contact if that is their only choice.

Ask yourself this question: Why aren’t we maximizing the leverage of those inside relationships to grow sales? How can we take advantage of existing relationships between inside sales/customer service personnel and customers?

This age-old question has caused managers to implement a variety of approaches in the attempt to tap perceived potential, but many fail. Why? Most firms do not have adequate measures installed to determine who does what within an inside sales/customer service group. Often times the customer service/inside sales function becomes so convoluted that selling becomes the last priority on anyone’s mind. Additionally, this culture of chaos is the primary reason “outcall programs” fail. There is never enough time.

You repeatedly hear the “lack of time” comment, yet when you try to examine the issue and search for the root cause, the easy explanation is understaffing. Personal experience in this area has validated my opinion that, in most cases, understaffing is not the reason we can’t leverage those relationships and expand proactive inside selling.

Lack of adequate measures is the real reason behind the inability for management to define department productivity or level of activity much less individual productivity.

Without consideration for the level of inbound call activity, it is common for management to want inside sales/customer service personnel to use suggestive selling techniques during inbound calls. Further, some firms also assign outbound sales call responsibility within the framework of an outcall program.

The reality of many inside sales/customer service operations is they are very busy handling inbound calls from customers. Their motivation is to handle each call as quickly as possible so they can get off the phone with the customer and take the next waiting inbound call. In a given day, one individual may handle upward of 50-100 inbound calls and related tasks, e.g., taking and processing orders, mailing requested literature, preparing bids or quotes, expediting, providing price and delivery information, checking inventory, and even purchasing buyouts, scheduling trucks and who knows what else.

Although some inside sales/customer service people are better than others at using suggestive selling techniques during inbound calls from customers, this practice depends upon:

  • Product and applications knowledge, probing skills and knowledge of suggestive selling techniques.
  • Having other resources in the department who are available to handle other inbound calls.

Even experienced personnel will stop this practice when incoming call levels peak. Why? Because they do not want to take the time during calls to talk with the customer, identify needs and interests, discuss options available and make recommendations. In other words, they switch to a different mode during peak incoming call periods. Their motivation is driven by the need to handle each call as quickly as possible so they can take the next call.

One strategy used by some managers is to remove inside sales/customer service personnel from the order desk so they can make outbound calls to customers assigned to them. Some actually create a separate “outcall” room. For example, an hour a day is set aside several days a week for them to make these calls. However, when they return to the order desk, they are faced with callback messages from customers who requested them.

Although management may perceive this strategy as a method for increasing inside sales/customer service productivity, this approach must be well-managed. Again, the lack of measures of this function is a direct cause of problems here.

Desired increases in productivity within the inside sales/customer service group have also prompted the installation and use of voice-mail systems. Taken from the customer’s perspective, this often means the customer cannot get orders and other information requests handled at the customer’s convenience.

The customer has several options: 1) wait for a return call from the distributor; 2) Fax the order or request if possible; or 3) locate a different supplier who is organized for the customer’s convenience.

The effect of many voice-mail systems is to cut the distributor off from customers. In today’s service economy, the practice of organizing the company for its own convenience can be the cause of lost orders and customers. Further, installing voice mail may preclude analysis, definition and solutions to the real problem.

The lack of appropriate inside sales/customer service measures also is the cause of:

  • Management misperceptions about the inside sales/customer service primary function. This is the distributor’s front line. It is the customer’s primary interface with the company. Through this job function, the distributor proves or disproves a commitment to service excellence.
  • Management tactics designed to increase productivity without consideration for their impact on existing customers. Any decision that cuts the distributor off from customers must be seriously evaluated.
  • Inappropriate compensation practices. If the distributor cannot measure individual productivity, it is not possible to recognize it much less compensate for it.

 

Maximize your potential

If management wants to take advantage of the inside sales/customer service opportunity, the first step in this process is to evaluate what exists in that department today. Questions managers need to answer include:

1.Are existing personnel so busy handling incoming calls that the mindset is to get off each call as fast as possible so they can take the next call? Conversely, does the staff have time to sell on inbound calls? If not, what do we need to do to make time available to them?

2.Do we have the necessary base measures in the department to prove there is or is not time available to increase productivity? What measures do we need to install? Do we need a time study to find our root cause?

3.Have we trained our people to know:

  • Our products, value-added services and what questions to ask customers to identify their needs and interests in using them?
  • What promotions are available?
  • What direct-mail materials are available for them to mail to customers? What questions should be asked of customers to determine their needs for our materials? What questions should be asked to identify if others at the customer’s location need our materials besides the buyer?

Have we installed computer support systems that help prompt people to use suggestive selling techniques?

What measures do we need to install to identify individual performance and productivity so we can recognize individual contributions and reward accordingly?

Do we have actual “inside sales” people in the department or are they all strictly customer service people? Do we have a hybrid mixture of the two?

 Management needs to evaluate existing operations. Everything from corporate culture, attitudes, reporting relationships, support systems, recruiting specifications and training needs must be analyzed. This is the proper focus of management attention.


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