Sales success is crucial for all organizations. Yet, many companies have to give up control of this extremely important element and either partly or fully subcontract the sales process to independent partners.
Items ranging from cars to electronics to insurance policies are often sold through an independent third party, meaning that the customer and the original seller rarely-if ever-come into contact. This is a reality even in a business-to-business environment.
Giving up control of the part of the process that can make or break a company can be daunting, especially since these independent sales partners often represent a brand's competitors as well. "The single biggest problem associated with external sales resources is gaining and keeping mindshare," notes Matthew Bellows, Yesware's CEO.
According to Zorian Rotenberg, vice president of marketing at InsightSquared, one of the main challenges that organizations need to overcome is finding the right partners who will be engaged and active for the long haul. "This requires due diligence and seeking someone with the same values and focus on the same target buyer," he says.
Lawn and tree care company Spring-Green Lawn Care is one organization that depends on a national network of franchise owners. As company president James Young explains in this interview, these independent partners "are the face of the brand." Spring-Green's business leaders understand that in order for the model to be successful, the organization needs to help its independent partners, giving them the necessary tools to do their jobs properly and making sure that they are fully aware of the company's brand promise to be customer-centric. Spring-Green, for example, has been investing in technology that helps these independent franchise owners do their jobs better, including a mobile app that allows them to take notes when surveying a customer's lawn.
Help them become familiar with the brand and its products
Especially when sales teams are representing a number of organizations, companies have to make sure they stand out. "These folks are almost always selling your product along with many others," Bellows notes. "Your challenge is to be the product that immediately comes to mind when they encounter a relevant opportunity." Brands might be tempted to incentivize external sales teams through higher commissions for selling their products as opposed to those of competitors. But such a strategy can be counterproductive, becoming a race of which organization can pay most.
Organizations need to be wary of falling into the "out of sight, out of mind" trap. Just like companies have meetings with their internal employees, they should also spend time regularly with independent partners. Experts believe that organizations should think of independent partners as an extension of their workforce. "Make sales calls with them and bring them into deals proactively," Yesware's Bellows suggests.
Unless sales teams are familiar with a company's products, they won't be able to sell them effectively. In a competitive environment, companies need to make sure to provide external sales teams with all the necessary information that allows them to feel confident speaking with their clients about particular products.
Even with a captive sales force, organizations are challenged with making sure that sales teams have a firm grasp of the products they're selling and what they stand for. This challenge is intensified when it comes to independent partners over which the brand doesn't have control. "You need to provide them with the content and tools they need to translate the brand," explains Stacey Haefele, CEO of HNW. Otherwise, sales people will create their own depiction of the brand which they will then share with their customers. This can be harmful if sales teams aren't representing the brand in the right way.
While many organizations will provide training materials to their external sales teams, this isn't enough. "Give them an experience with the product or the brand," Bellows recommends. Haefele agrees. "Provide them with a reason to believe in the brand so that they will try harder to close a sale," she says. For example, organizations can invite external sales teams to visit the company headquarters to familiarize themselves with the brand and keep its products top of mind. It's also a good idea to introduce sales people to all the teams that contributed to the product, from design to production, allowing them to ask questions that would give them information that can eventually be provided to end customers. At the end of the day, the more information a sales person has about a product, the better able he will be to speak about it and answer customers' questions.
Share and extract insights about sales teams' routines
Providing them with as much information about the company as possible will allow sales teams to answer customers' questions without having to go out of their way to do research, saving them precious time that they can spend selling. Haefele recommends getting insight into a sales person's daily routine. "Take time to understand a day in the life of a sales person," she notes. "If you can give them the tools or information to save them an hour a week, you've given them value."
Moreover, additional information will give sales associates more reasons to engage with their customers. They might be able to tell them about an experience they personally had with the brand. "Give them an excuse to engage with customers," Haefele notes.
It's also imperative for organizations to be able to measure the effectiveness of their independent sales partners to determine whether they're investing in the right people. This has to be done in a similar way that companies measure the successes of their own employees to understand whether there's a need for more training or if someone needs to be cut loose.
Rotenberg uses the example of a software company which was not effectively measuring the pipeline generated by its partners, leading to an underinvestment in the partner program. The solution focused on bringing a new partner manager who, after a careful analysis, determined that transactions generated by the independent partner had a faster velocity and better conversion from leads to deals. After investing in a partner program, the company saw a tenfold increase in partner sales in two years.
Further, organizations need to keep in mind that independent sales teams want to do what's right for their customers. "The agent has a duty to his clients and is making choices from a broader selection on the client's behalf," Haefele stresses. Therefore, sales partners need to be provided with the information that allows them to be smarter in making choices. If, for example, a sales person doesn't know about all the functions of a particular electronics product, he cannot explain it to his customer and potentially recommend a competitor's product with which he is more familiar.