Training inside sales reps means going back to the drawing board and teaching them the fundamentals.

In order to increase a wholesaler's sales volume, inside sales personnel must have comprehensive sales training. They need to learn how to make the most out of inbound calls from existing or prospective customers. They also need a good coach to teach them these skills and provide them the right tools to learn.

The problem for most managers is how to find the right tools to sufficiently train and motivate their sales staffs. Lebanon, Pa.-based APR Supply Co., a plumbing and HVAC distributor, faced this problem at its 10 branches. The traditional monthly sales meetings attended by the branch managers didn't seem to be effective. "We realized that the information discussed at these meetings wasn't getting to the right people at the branches," says Bruce R. Hoch, APR's director/ sales and marketing.

The next step had the firm scheduling monthly branch meetings. The big step, however, came in March 1998 as APR established quarterly companywide meetings. APR requires all of its 85 employees to attend, Hoch says. The company conducts the gatherings on a Saturday and includes some type of seminar conducted by professional motivators. Breakfast and lunch are provided to employees.

Because of their interest in industry education, APR's vendors help fund the monthly event, Hoch says.

Not all of these seminars are sales-related, such as a recent program on team building, but sales is a key issue. In June of last year, industry consultant Bill Stiles presented an inside sales seminar to the group.

"We need to get back to basics," Hoch explains. "We don't teach people how to sell anymore."

But APR doesn't stop there. It uses all of the methods available to train its sales personnel, including continuing education programs through the American Supply Association and the Northamerican Heating, Refrigeration and Airconditioning Wholesalers Association. APR Supply recently sent several key salespeople to Philadelphia to attend an ASA seminar on counter sales.

"We believe that education is important for our staff," Hoch says. "In fact, we have a program where some of our people receive salary increases based on their continuing education courses."

In preparing for the future, APR is testing a computer-based training program at a couple of its branches. Sales staff can access the firm's central computer from their desktop computers to obtain whatever training program they need.

Ask questions

One of the most important sales skills that any salesperson must learn is to ask the right questions when speaking to a customer.

"Asking questions or probing generates the feedback needed to establish mutual understanding between the customer and the salesperson," says Peg Fisher, president of Peg Fisher & Associates, a Racine, Wis.-based sales, marketing and customer-service consulting firm. "It proves you can be depended upon to take accurate orders, specify the right products and services, solve the right problem, make good recommendations including options and help the customer to use buying practices that control purchasing costs."

Fisher explains that sales personnel need specific questions to ask their phone customers, such as whether the customer has the latest company catalog, needs jobsite delivery or will accept equivalent product substitutes. These are examples of closed-ended questions, which can usually be answered with a yes or no response. How the customer answers determines which direction the salesperson will take in the conversation.

Open-ended questions, such as who within the company makes the decision of where to buy and what types of customers the firm does business with, typically generate details needed to understand the customer and his business. Fisher says these questions encourage the customer to explain a situation or provide specific information about his needs.

If they are unsure of what questions to ask, sales personnel should begin with a probing statement, she says. Some examples include:

  • "Tell me about your business so I have a better understanding of your needs."
  • "Describe the kinds of purchasing problems you have."
  • "Explain the types of services you need from a supplier."
  • "Tell me about the business processes that affect the products you buy."

Statements such as these can provide an overview of the customer's business or any problems/complaints he might have, Fisher says. Salespeople are then able to identify specific questions to clarify the needs, interests and sales potential of the customer.

Make suggestions

To increase average order value and help penetrate accounts through new product sales and value-added services, inside sales reps should take advantage of the inbound contact opportunity and use suggestive selling techniques, Fisher says.

"Remember McDonald's; they taught America the power of suggestive selling," she notes. "Their employees are trained to ask if you want french fries when you order a hamburger, a drink if you order a meal, hash browns when you order breakfast. And it works!"

Fisher explains the four types of suggestive selling:

1. Add-on sales. These are items that usually "go with" the item being ordered, such as asking a contractor on a commercial job if he needs toilet seats to go with the toilets he ordered. Recommend them at the time of a sale to increase the dollar value of the order. The customer will benefit by saving purchasing time and costs.

2. Substitute items. When the item a customer requests is out of stock or is a brand the company doesn't carry, suggest a substitute item. It may meet the customer's need and eliminate further shopping, as well as save the order for the firm.

3. Quantity discounts. Show the customer how to buy in quantities that provide him a better discount and a lower per-unit cost. The distribution firm will receive an increased dollar value in orders and penetration of the account's sales potential.

4. Upselling. This means recommending a higher quality product and pointing out enhanced features and benefits to the customer. Paying more may best meet the customer's needs, and the sales rep will increase the order's value.

Fisher emphasizes that suggestive selling techniques must be specific; they should make the customer think about the suggestion and consider its benefits.

Sidebar: Sales Training Resources

  • American Supply Association - ASA's Education Foundation has a number of reference materials available, including "New Directions in Inside Sales," a five-segment, 90-minute video and workbook training program for inside sales. Contact the foundation at 312/464-0090 or e-mail at
  • Northamerican Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Wholesalers Association - NHRAW's Home Study Institute offers a course, "Counter Service & Sales," geared toward HVACR salespeople. Contact the institute at 614/488-1835, or e-mail at
  • Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration Wholesalers International Association - ARWI's Research and Development Foundation has various inside sales training materials available, including "Man-power Development Inside Sales Training Program." The program combines product training with sales skill training. Topics include the fundamentals of selling, asking the right questions and knowing the customer. Contact the foundation at 561/338-3495 or e-mail at
  • Industrial Distribution Association - IDA has several inside sales training materials available, including "Changing Role of an Inside Salesperson," "Good Phone Skills Pay Off," and "Increasing Sales with Hardly Any Effort." Contact IDA at 404/266-3991 or e-mail at