The Five Most Common Mistakes Distributor Sales People Make and How to Correct Them

Copyright MMXIII, by Dave Kahle

Over the years that I've been involved in distribution, I've worked with tens of thousands of sales people. Certain negative tendencies -- mistakes that distributor sales people make -- keep surfacing. Here's my top five. See to what degree you (or your sales force) may be guilty of them.

Mistake Number One: Ruts! (Addiction to comfort zones.)

It is the unique nature of the distribution business that sales people see the same customers over and over again. Regardless of how many accounts they have, whether 20 or 200, they see their customers much more frequently than almost any other type of sales person. As a result, it's very easy to slide into the routine of seeing the same people at around the same time and talking about the same things. Not only is it easy to get into ruts regarding which customers to see, it is also easy to extend that "stay in your comfort zones" mentality to the other aspects of the job. It becomes easy to stick to selling the same products, visiting the same departments and selling in the same way.

There was a time when the "same time next week" mode was a wise choice. Dependability was a desirable quality for a distributor sales person. But, alas, the market has changed and most customers don't have time for the same conversation about fishing and football they had last month.

For the widest selection of on-line training materials for distributor sales people and sales managers, see TheSalesResourceCenter.

But more insidious than this comfortable routine is the addiction to mental and emotional comfort zones. These comfort zones appear when a sales person doesn't present that new product the company has just picked up - because the sales person isn't comfortable with it. Or they evidence themselves when the sales person refuses to learn the new computer system - because he or she isn't comfortable with that. Or when the sales person doesn't call on a new market segment - just not comfortable.

These are all evidences of a sales person that is addicted to mental and emotional comfort zones. The comfortable rut has become an almost insurmountable chasm, hindering the sales person from reaching his/her potential.

The problem is that as long as we remain within our comfort zones, we're destined to dwell in the past. We do what used to work, we sell what we have been comfortable with, we do our jobs the way we are used to doing them. We allow our past to determine our present and limit our future.

This may have been OK in years gone by, but the pace of change today won't reward the sales person who is addicted to comfort zones built in previous days.

Personal and professional growth means continually venturing into unexplored areas, meeting new people, selling new products, and trying new methods, all with a mindset that understands the need for constant growth.

How to overcome this mistake:

If you find yourself guilty of the "comfort zone mindset," consider this simple rule: Extend yourself to an "uncomfortable zone" at least once a week. Do something in your job that you have not done before. Call on a new prospect, go see the manager instead of the purchasing agent, show a new product, ask a new question, etc. Every week, one new thing.

I suspect that before long the possibility of something new will no longer be threatening, hindering your ability to grow. You'll gradually come to see that you are a constantly changing and growing human being, and that you can meet any new challenge that your company, your customers or the economic environment throws your way.

You will have slipped out of your comfort zones, and expanded your confidence and competence at the same time.

Mistake Number Two: Reactive modality

It is so easy for a sales person to allow everyone else to dictate the course of their days. They carve out little empires of importance for themselves so they can constantly react and thereby be busy and feel needed. They train their customers to call them with routine questions when they could just as easily have called customer service. They need to be there to personally write down every order. They jump every time even the smallest customer calls. They must personally supervise every complex order, drop off every sample, and expedite every problem. Why? Because they want to feel important by being in such demand.

They aim to please, and they define that as reacting and responding to whatever comes their way. As a result, they develop for themselves days filled with frenzied activity. They drove this emergency shipment over to this customer, dropped off a sample to that one, checked on a couple of back orders for others, sourced some esoteric product for another. It's all so unnecessary. All this because they allowed and encouraged everyone else to dictate their activities. Where do they go tomorrow? Depends on who calls today. Instead of developing plans and working proactively, they let everyone else determine their days, and work reactively.

The net result? They squander their talents, time, energy and wisdom in a random distribution dictated by everyone else in the world. At the end of the day, they are exhausted. They are crabby to their spouses, irritable with their families, and negative about their companies and their jobs.

How to Overcome this Mistake:

If this one hits home for you, the solution is to focus, focus, focus. You must become proactive, not reactive. You must work your plans, not everyone else's plans. If you are going to work a plan, you must first have a plan. And since a plan is a series of actions designed to accomplish some goal, you can't have a plan until you have some goals.

Where do you start, then? By creating specific goals for your sales results. Create three to five measurable, attainable goals for the most important aspects of your job. How much do you want to sell this year? At what sort of gross profit? How many new customers do you need to acquire? How much of that hot new product do you want to sell? Answer those questions in a detailed, measurable and specific way, and you will have created some goals for yourself.

Once you've developed goals, then you need to develop a plan to reach those goals. Look at each goal, and break it down into monthly pieces. For example, if you want to sell $1,000,000 this year, then maybe you need to sell $83,333 per month for each of the next twelve months ($1,000,000 divided by 12). Then, each month, create a plan for the best way to do that. Where should you go? Who should you see? What products or programs should you present?

Having answered those questions, you will have created the skeleton for a monthly plan. Finally, you need to discipline yourself to follow the plan.

Then, when a small customer calls and asks you to drop everything and bring a case of product that they were too unorganized to order last week when they should have, you can look at your plan, and suggest that they call customer service and arrange to have it shipped, because you have a product demonstration to an A account to make.

You'll be working proactively, not reactively, and working at the highest priority tasks. And that's a route to exceptional success for distributor sales people.

Mistake Number Three: Wasting the sales interaction by not learning more about the customer.

There are some customers who have been called on for years, and yet the sales person doesn't know any more about them today than he/she did after the second sales call. These are accounts where the sales person cannot identify one of the account's customers, explain whether or not they are profitable, or identify one of their strategic goals.

Distributor sales people have this wonderful opportunity to learn about their customers in deeper and more detailed ways, and often squander it by having the same conversations with the same customers over and over. They never dig deeper. They mistake familiarity with knowledge.

What a shame. I am convinced that the ultimate sales skill -- the one portion of the sales process which, more than anything else, determines our success as a sales person -- is the ability to know the customer deeper and in a more detailed way than our competitors know them.

It's our knowledge of the customer that allows us to position ourselves as competent, trustworthy consultants. It's our knowledge of the customer that provides us the information we need to structure programs and proposals that distinguish us from everyone else. It's our knowledge of the customer that allows us to proactively service that customer, to meet their needs even before they have articulated them.

In an economic environment where the distinctions between companies and products are blurring in the eyes of the customer, the successful companies and individuals will be those who outsell the rest. And outselling the rest depends on understanding the customer better than anyone else.

How to Overcome this Mistake:

If this one sounds like you, then force yourself to dig deeper and understand the customers in a more detailed manner. Create an account profile form, and methodically fill it out. (See my website for a free download.) For each major product or program that you want to sell, create an "opportunity profile," listing all the things that would like to know before you presented this product or program.

Armed with these tools, go into your accounts focusing on collecting good information and understanding the customer by gathering the information asked for on the forms.

Develop a matrix with all the key people in an account on it, and methodically meet and form relationships with each one. As you meet and come to know each person on the matrix, check his/her name off the list.

Prepare good questions which probe the account's deeper needs and values. Ask them. Listen carefully. Take detailed notes. Study what you have written down. Think about what you have learned about the customer.

Look at every sales call as an opportunity to learn something more about this particular account, and don't be satisfied until you do.

Mistake Number Four: Poor questioning

This is a variation of the mistake above. I am absolutely astonished at the lack of thoughtfulness that I often see on the part of distributor sales people. Most use questions like sledgehammers, splintering the relationship and bruising the sensibility of their customers by thoughtless questions.

Others don't use them at all, practically ignoring the most important part of a sales call. They labor under the misconception that the more they talk, the better job of selling they do, when the truth lies in exactly the opposite direction.

And others are content to play about the surface of the issue. "How much of this do you use?" "What do you not like about your current supplier?" Their questions are superficial at best, redundant and irritating at worst.

The result? Sales people never really uncover the deeper more intense issues that motivate their customers. Instead, they continually react to the common complaint of customers who have been given no reason to think otherwise: "Your price is too high."

Fewer sales, constant complaints about pricing, frustrated sales people, impatient managers, and unimpressed customers - all of these as a result of the inability to use the sales person's most powerful tool with skill and sensitivity.

How to Overcome this Mistake:

If this one makes you a little uncomfortable, it's time to get some training. Take a class, read a book, attend a seminar to learn the why and how-to of good questioning. (Check our website for several resources.) Use sales meetings as opportunities to work on creating good questions. Take 45 minutes, propose a certain sales call to your colleagues, and brainstorm some questions you can ask in that sales call.

Give yourself a rule about questions, and stick to it. "I will prepare and ask three good questions for every sales call." Then, be sensitive to what happens when you ask questions. Watch the customer's response to your language. Refine your skills as you go.

In my study of sales, I have come to the conclusion that the skill of asking good questions is one of the five most important, most powerful skills an effective sales person has. Dedicate yourself to continuous improvement in this area, and your results will improve dramatically.

Mistake Number Five: No investment in themselves.

Here's an amazing observation. No more than 5% to 10% of active, full time professional distributor sales people ever invest in their own growth. That means that only one of 20 sales people have ever spent $20.00 of their own money on a book on sales, or subscribed to a sales magazine, taken a sales course, or attended a sales seminar of their own choosing and on their own nickel.

Don't believe me? Take a poll. Ask your sales people or your colleagues how many of them have invested more than $20.00 in a book, magazine, tape, etc. in the last 12 months. Ask those who venture a positive answer to substantiate it by naming their investment. Don't be surprised if the answers get vague. You'll quickly find out how many sales people in your organization have invested in themselves.

Distributor sales is the only profession I know of where the overwhelming majority of practitioners are content with their personal status quo.

Why is that? A number of reasons.

Some mistakenly think that their jobs are so unique that they cannot possibly learn anything from anyone else.

Still others think they know it all. They have, therefore, no interest in taking time from some seemingly valuable thing they are doing to attend a seminar or read a book.

Some don't care. Their focus is hanging onto their jobs, not necessarily getting better at them.

But I think the major reason is that the overwhelming majority of distributor sales people do not view themselves as professionals and, therefore, do not have professional expectations for themselves. They worked their way up from the customer service desk or the warehouse, and they view their work as a job to be done, not a profession within which to grow.

They are content to let their companies arrange for their training or development. And between you and me, they would prefer that their companies really didn't do anything that would require them to actually change what they do.

How to Overcome This Mistake:

If you expose yourself to inspiring, motivating and educational material regularly, you'll slowly begin to think of yourself more professionally. You'll gain new skills, develop new attitudes, and become more confident and competent. You'll inevitably rise to the top.

Begin by having some faith in that process, and discipline yourself to follow it.

Dedicate a certain amount of time each week to your personal development. Five percent is the number I advocate. So 5% of a 45 hour work week would be about two hours. What would happen if you would dedicate two hours each week to your own personal growth? What would happen if you spent two hours each week reading sales books, magazines or newsletter? You could even lump those two hour blocks together and every now and then invest eight hours by attending a seminar.

You know and I know that you would find ideas to implement, things to think about, new attitudes that would make a difference in your confidence and competence. And that difference would evidence itself in measurable results.

These are the most common negative tendencies that I see. It may be that you and your colleagues are immune to these dampers on success. Good for you. But if you are not immune, and if you spot some of your own tendencies in this list, then you are not reaching your potential for success. You have tremendous potential for success -- for contentment, confidence and competence - that is being hindered by these negative behaviors. Rid yourself of these negative tendencies, and you'll begin to reach your potential.

Five Most Common Negative Tendencies of Distributor Sales People

Use this self-test to determine the degree to which you (or your sales force) may be guilty of Dave's five biggest mistakes.

Directions: Circle all the statements that describe your behavior.

A. Comfort zones

1. You almost always visit the same people at about the same time.

2. When you have been tempted to call on a job title that may be new to you (like calling on the CFO and not just the purchasing agent) you found a reason not to do it.

3. The last time your company presented a new line or new product to you, you did not show it as much as your boss would have liked.

4. You were very slow to implement the last major change that the boss asked you to make - or you resisted making that change.

B. Reactive modality

5. You often spend a major portion of your day doing things that you had not planned to do that day.

6. You go into the office several days a week.

7. You have your customers call you for things that customer service or inside sales could do instead of you.

8. You personally expedite back orders, or source products for your customers that someone else in your company could have done.

C. Not learning about the customer

9. You don't use an account profile form, either electronic or paper.

10. You find yourself having the same conversation with the same people, month after month.

11. You would be hard pressed to identify one or two of your customer's customers.

12. You don't know most of the key decisions makers in most of your good accounts.

D. Questioning

13. In most of your sales calls, you do most of the talking.

14. You don't know the goals and objectives your major customers have for their business.

15. You rarely prepare a question before the sales call.

16. You hear "your price is too high" almost all the time.

E. Personal Growth

17. You haven't spent more than $10.00 on improving your sales kills in the last 12 months.

18. You don't regularly listen to audio recordings, or read sales magazines, e-zines or newsletters.

19. You haven't been to a seminar to help improve your sales skills (product presentations by manufacturers don't count) in the last 12 months.

20. You think you pretty much know everything there is to know about selling in your job.

Scoring: Look at each of the five tendencies. If you circled more than two of the four items within that tendency, you are definitely guilty of it, and need to take intense corrective action. If you circled one of the behaviors, then you should watch this behavior of yours, and try to fine tune it. If you did not circle any within any of the tendencies, congratulations, you are probably not guilty of that negative tendency.

Dave Kahle has trained tens of thousands of B2B salespeople, sales managers and business owners to be more effective in the 21st Century economy. He's authored nine books, and presented in 47 states and seven countries. To access Dave's training, insights and tools online, visit The Sales Resource Center. Visit to check out a seminar near you.
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