It’s a cold Monday morning, just above freezing, and I have more chores than time, as usual.
I was just getting ready to grumble quietly to myself, when I thought of the many road warriors (sales representatives) who are already out on the road to see prospects. I began to smile, my mood lifted immediately, and I realized how fortunate I am.
I have written many posts about the triumphs and pitfalls of working for others and for yourself, but I have never addressed the aspects of an outside sales career that make it one of the more challenging occupations.
For about six months, I was a sales representative for one of the leading companies in a particular field. I had been brought on board to recover a territory and was being “groomed” to replace the manager that had caused the territory to be lost. My entry to the opportunity was a senior vice president of the company who knew me as an independent marketing and business consultant.
The products were superior, the company was well-known and well-established, I had a friend in high places, the pay was good, I had a territory within easy driving distance, and I was given a great car. So, what’s not to like?
I got my first clue when I reported for work. I reported to my new manager and he didn’t know that I had been hired. The VP he reported to hadn’t told him I was coming on board. This manager never got over the shock and guessed immediately that I was going to replace him, if I did well as a salesman.
The VP did mention that he did not have too much information on this manager. What I didn’t realize was that the VP was too busy with other pursuits to put any attention on this manager at all. The area was a disaster and there was no management oversight.
Everything I did to set up my sales territory was an immediate threat to my manager although I was too busy working to see it. This manager had let the previous salesman go without reclaiming his sales book or any route information. As a result, the company had no idea who this salesman had been calling on and the territory had been unmanned for almost a year.
I reconstructed the customer contact list by accessing the company’s main database and filtering for addresses in my territory. My manager, who didn’t know how to use a computer or email, insisted that I should be out cold calling to get business.
My argument that we already had 700 existing customers in this territory that we should recover did not register with him. I persisted in calling existing customers and found that almost all had been converted by the former sales rep to his new company.
I also found that we had a major distributors covering our sales territory and my manager didn’t know which of our customers were served by this distributor until I arranged a site survey at a major prospect and the distributor showed up.
I had no real problems with this territory once I recovered the list of contacts, but it took me several months before I could report on how many of our former customers were still prospects. Sales began to come in although my manager still insisted I should be cold calling instead of wasting time digging through computer records. (I had my hands full just calling on old customers and trying to get an appointment to see them.)
As things began to pick up, I reported my findings to the VP who had hired me. He was a bit of a playboy, with other interests on his mind, so he absently thanked me for doing a great job and told me to keep it up. He also mentioned that the company was buying out it’s largest competitor.
A few months later, we had two sales organizations to merge together and my manager saw his chance. He managed to put together a long string of complaints about my failure to make cold calls and the fact that it had taken me so long to develop a “wide open” territory. I wrote a full report to the VP, but he apologetically refused to read it, saying that the manager had been with them for a long time and they were going to defer to him in this matter.
I decided not to pursue the matter further, but I warned my friend, the VP, that he was ignoring a situation that was going to come back and bite him. This manager was terrified by all of his salesmen who were successful! He was in fear that management was going to promote one of them to succeed him.
Did I mention that this was a tightly held corporation and that all of the officers were family members? I saw my friend, the VP, a few years later and his company was in a very bad way. The good old boy atmosphere of the company had allowed it to become a haven for incompetents and the competition was eating it alive.
I enjoyed the selling experience and working with customers to develop solutions to their problems. I should have been more alert when I didn’t get support from those who benefitted from my efforts.
Getting no acknowledgement for revitalizing a territory inspired me to make changes in my attitude to authority. I learned, once again, that there is little point in working for someone who is afraid of you.
My hat is off to the sales reps who are out there keeping the country’s business growing. It is a vital profession and I got a better perspective of how enterprise works from my tours in sales than I did as an executive. The sales person knows what is happening at the customer interface. The difficulty is getting that knowledge to the executive who can do something about it.