At this year’s AED Summit, I ended up in the same conversation several times. It took one of two forms. First, the question was raised, what is the role of the sales rep at dealerships in the future? The second, even more blunt, do sales reps still have a use? If they do have a use, what is it?
Let’s start off by saying, absolutely, sales reps are still important and will likely remain important.
Yet, the fact that these questions are being asked suggests the role of the sales rep must change. When I spoke to dealers, reps and even some customers, over the course of the event, it became clear that customers are changing. Modern customers, typically next generation owners or their buyers, have no use for the coffee-bringing and unprepared rep that comes for a chat and to ask “do you need anything”. Customers now have access to all the information they need about the equipment they are interested in. From numerous websites, social media and videos a contractor can research to their heart’s content. They find specifications, performance review, instructional videos and opinions. They use this information to make their purchase decision, often without the need or involvement of a sales rep. In a 2014 survey by the Acquity Group, only 12% of all respondents wanted to see a sales rep. The rest wanted to do their research and get various forms of on demand support. Imagine how much that has changed in 8 years and with Covid’s acceleration to digital.
When I was responsible for parts in service in Canada years ago, I loved getting invited by sales reps to meet their customers. When we arrived, conversation was always lively, with customers expressing their problems and concerns and we were able to discuss solutions. Sometimes these meetings took several hours but there was always value. I started to realize that customers were busy, knew their business and valued their time. When the conversation was valuable customers were happy to receive us, if not, they had work to get back to. It’s this question of value, the value we bring when we visit the customer that is changing the role of the sales rep. Providing value gives us access to the customer’s time and allows us to build a relationship.
Years ago, sales reps were the ones with product training and access to specifications and brochures. Their value derived from having access to information that customers didn’t have available. As the internet has taken over a huge part of that role, the value of brochure bearing sales reps has dwindled. The new opportunity is the role of Trusted Advisor. This role can focus on different aspects of the customer’s business, but typically it’s based on providing customers with a more in-depth understanding of their equipment and fleet in the context of their business. For the sales rep it’s a golden opportunity to develop a richer relationship with customers, by bringing more value to their customers, but with a new perspective.
For dealers and manufacturers this transition comes with several challenges. The first is recognizing the change is happening and unavoidable. Second it will require restructuring and retraining salespeople and finally dealers will have to become more knowledgeable about their customer’s business and put information in place to allow salespeople to bring new valuable insights to their customers.
This first challenge might be the hardest, it’s one caused by a generational and expectation gap between senior leaders at dealership and the age and expectations of the buyers and decision makers at their customers. If dealers continue to believe their customers think and act the way they used to, they will make the mistake of continuing old sales models. They risk continuing to provide sales teams with only modest product training and nothing of further value and they risk having customers who see no value in the sales rep or the dealership.
Once dealers and manufacturers wake up to the new reality of their customer’s expectations, the second challenge begins. It starts with redefining the role of salespeople, it means recognizing the new and changing channels of communication customers prefer and identifying the areas of knowledge reps need to be trained in. To some degree this will require sales teams with different backgrounds and skillsets. They will have to be able to understand construction, contracting and fleet finance. Dealers will have to invest in more training than in the past.
Finally, after recognizing the change, dealers, with the support of manufacturers, will need to create tools and information that exceeds the capabilities of their customers. These tools will need to be accessible to salespeople in real time, as customers are more informed and want to transact faster. The information will have to give the sales rep and the customer new insights into fleet management, finance, and project or production costs. Armed with this information the rep will continue to be a valuable resource for their customers. They will continue to be welcome.
Once implemented, this new role for dealers and reps will provide even deeper relationships, not only based on friendship and personality, but on knowledge and understanding. For those dealers that make this change soon it will be a source of competitive advantage and differentiation. What’s clear is customers are making or have already made the change. Their expectations are different, how they prefer to engage has changed more than dealers think.