IFDA Sales & Marketing Conference

"The success of our company is totally in the hands of our sales reps, who have to be the best of the best."
Furthermore, distribution decision-makers said in a panel discussion titled "Different by Choice: Positioning your Company to Drive Sales," in the wake of deciding what kind of distributorship it intends to be, management must focus its attention and finances on building the appropriate procurement, marketing, sales and operations machine that will fulfill the demands of the chosen model.

Notwithstanding the overriding importance of being different in the marketplace, supply-chain success cannot be achieved without a highly-skilled and devoted sales force that is capable of demonstrating the value of its products in every sales call, the speakers said.

{mosimage}Dick Blackwell, vice president, sales, marketing and purchasing, Harker's Distribution, Inc., Le Mars, Iowa, recounting why the company decided to change its go-to-market positioning, emphasized that its product niche demands the "best of the best" sales reps.

After years of functioning in an extremely loose, old-fashioned route-based organization, Harker's became challenged by its extensive 25-state trading geography as well as new distribution requirements. Blackwell said management settled on three possible options: remain a rural-focused company and accept being the second or third player, become a broadliner, or specialize in custom-cut protein products.

With its legacy in protein products, Blackwell said the company ultimately decided on the third alternative.

"The ultimate choice was to invest in custom-cut production and traditional foodservice sales model. There was no way that the company could have survived selling off the back of the truck with the pressures that the competition was creating," he said. "That decision was driven by the need to differentiate its sales people from the competition thus driving volume and relationships as the result of expertise and product selection."

GREATEST CHALLENGE – BUILDING SALES FORCE Apparently making this decision was easier than confronting what Blackwell described as the company's "greatest challenge" – building a protein-knowledgeable sales force. With more than 225 truck drivers-sales people who knew how to sell off the back of the truck in rural America, Harker's now set out to define its new DSR Looking solely at its protein product, Blackwell said sales reps would be involved with a "category of protein that is very changing and dynamic, with many pieces tied to it from the standpoint of its ultimate attractiveness to customers." Many of the veteran sales people were reassigned due to their inability to perform in the company's new business environment that demanded a self-starting DSR.

SELL AND TALK THE LINGO OF THE PRODUCT Blackwell said Harker's latest generation of sales reps not only has to understand protein products, their menu applications but also customer requirements with regard to back-of-the-house operations and efficiencies.

"We have to have people who can sell and talk the lingo of protein," he said, simulatenously creating a template of action items for other distribution executives to consider as they ponder their business models.

With "good customers" requiring 22-26 protein items on their menus, Blackwell said Harker's specialty distribution model couldn't afford "the appearance of sales people who walk in, take an order and walk out."

"If a DSR is not willing to be self-driven and self-taught, he will not make it as a protein salesperson for our organization. We can teach them a lot but if they're not willing to read on their own or be energetic about the opportunity to sell protein and be something different to the customer, they have no chance of being successful salespeople with a specialty distributor," he stated.

Blackwell stressed that in the company's new business model successful sales people – the only kind that it would tolerate – are the ones who provide value to their business relationship with the customer.

Inasmuch as it is selling a specialty, though commodity product, Harker's sales reps, of which there are now 105, are cautioned not to dwell on conversations about price and operator savings. Rather they are trained to focus on operator profits as they provide consultative services to their customers.

"If you have the right kind of people making the sales call they will ultimately move the image of the company to one of a specialty distributor that is very good and has an expertise in protein," Blackwell said. "The success of our company is totally in the hands of our sales reps, who have to be the best of the best."

"If you figure out the weaknesses of your opponent, you can shut him down."
Al Silva, coo and general manager of ID Top 50 broadliner Labatt Food Service, San Antonio, Texas, borrowed from his basketball playing days as he impressed upon his executive colleagues the importance of knowing the competition's weaknesses.

"If you figure out the weaknesses of your opponent, you can shut him down. If you're in business, you have to know exactly what your opponents are doing and be prepared to shut down his efforts," Silva said, adding that distributors do that everyday.

Equating differentiation with success, Silva explained that Labatt's all-encompassing differentiators are designed to meet the competition's challenge.

By studying its competition, Silva said the company purposefully differentiates itself from the competition by doing exactly the opposite of what it does – with regard to personnel, products, services, delivery and services.

For example, he said, if the competition offers employment contracts, Labatt doesn't; if the competition has high turnover, it doesn't.

"We have stability, we retain employees, we create careers, and we won't hire from competitors – it's too expensive to re-educate people who have learned another process," Silva said, adding that the distributorship moreover distinguishes itself by declaring that it doesn't sell products, rather it sells systems.

HIRE ONLY THE BEST CANDIDTES Underscoring the importance of sales reps, Silva said the company only hires the top 10% of its applicant pool and then immerses them in an intensive two-week training program. Subsequently, having designed a famous mentoring program, rookie reps are paired with veteran DSRs for street training.

"Training and hiring is super important when it comes to putting a person in front of a customer," he said.

A dedicated national-brands house, Labatt Food Service grew from several million dollars in annual sales to nearly $600 million exclusively through internal growth. With 85% of its customers regarding it as its prime vendor, Silva noted: "When an operator decides to buy everything from you, that's a sign that he knows you well enough to trust you."

Technology is another key element of differentiation and Labatt has been using it to improve deliveries. As Silva said: "The guy who has the least number of errors wins."

In 1996, Labatt shipped 9 million cases, of which 170,000 were errors. Recently adding radio frequency and then voice systems, errors dropped even more, Silva said, from 50,000 cases out of 16 million cases to six or seven out of 10,000 cases – "virtually statistically perfect."

Silva also called attention to the significance of a five-year sales plan because it "allows everyone to get on the same page and it tells you exactly what you're going to do."


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