How To Sell Through Distributors

Published: 05th March 2010
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The start of this latest recession has brought sales training into sharp focus and has marked the beginning of many companies battle for survival: with competitors invading all their traditional markets by lowering their prices by 10%. One leading manufacturer has reacted this way. Along with heavy cost reductions and reorganising the sales force, the company responded with their sales team development system, a training program for distributors. With this they succeeded in binding their distribution trading partners closer to the company and in reinforcing their market position again.

The system contains the following points

Objectives of distributor training: Building up trust and motivation in the distributive trade The training is intended to make the distributors work more efficiently for the supplier. Questioning distributors has shown that the company has chosen the right route to its intended goal. All the trained distributors stated that their organisational skills had improved. 80% said that training had made them better at planning and selling. 50% were able to polish up their financial know-how.

Raising turnover Distributors who have a precise knowledge of their products and markets will also sell more. Even in the trial phase of System, those taking part were already able to increase their sales by 102%.

Methods and contents of distributor training

Who should be trained? Not all distribution partners are amenable and suited to a training program. Participants were chosen by the manufacturer according to the following criteria:

How great is the likelihood that the distribution partner will commit themselves fully to the company?

Does the distribution partner possess a sufficient financial base to be able to invest the necessary time and the appropriate personnel in the training course?

Does the trading partner have a stable organisational structure?

Is the trading partner's home country economically and politically stable?

Does the trading partner hold out sufficient prospects of growth in their sales, market shares and margins?

What should the contents of training be? Product knowledge: Many managers believe that distributor training should above all be sales training. They forget that a solid knowledge of products is and remains the foundation of successful selling! No customer will remain loyal to a distributor who has proved himself incompetent in the customer's eyes!

Selling technique: On this score the manufacturer transmits know-how in the fields of negotiating tactics, concluding techniques and general sales management.

Planning: Products entail enormous transport and storage costs. A sensible system of requirement planning [dictated by plant divisions for materials and operating supplies] will help to reduce costs here markedly. Where should training take place? This is a very complex question primarily confronting internationally active companies. Centralised training at the firm's headquarters has the advantage that highly-specialised staff and all the products necessary for demonstration purposes are available there. In addition, the participation of top management in the training strengthens motivation.

Opposed to that as disadvantages are the substantial travel and accommodation expenses that usually have to be assumed by the company. An extra problem is that the distribution partners only make half-hearted use of the training as they infrequently get away from their everyday job.

The manufacturer follows a twin-track policy here. Two to four-day basic training courses take place at the company headquarters. The distributors spend 60% of the available time on theoretical and 40% on practical instruction. Besides that, the company maintains regional training centres in Brazil, Japan, Australia, Malaysia and Spain, where the subjects of selling technique and planning are dealt with more intensively.

Who should give training? An internal staff unit is responsible for developing training concepts and contents as well as the management of training. The individual programs are carried out by external trainers. Trainers with practical sales experience are preferred. They are more convincing than pure theoreticians, have a feel for the market and bring in more ideas. They are continually deploying new trainers so as to avoid signs of strain.

What methods of training? Methods are employed which stimulate the distributors to assume an active role: role-playing, video recordings, direct observation. Monotonous 'cramming' has proved to be inefficient and is rejected.

Conclusions as to the success of training can be reached by a comparison between 'trained' and 'untrained' distributors.

Monitoring results The company continually compares the sales results of trained and untrained distributors using the indicators: turnover per customer visit, market share, new products as share of turnover and lost order rate (share of orders that fail to be achieved).

Concrete proposals for the improvement of training procedures are translated into practice straight away and recognised defects are immediately eliminated so as to guarantee the success of training.

Follow-up training It is not enough to invite a distribution partner to a training course once and then just to 'cross him off'. That is why the manufacturer also offer their distributors the self-monitoring and training program Management Minded Supervision (MMS). MMS enables distributors to carry out their own sales training courses for their salespeople and to monitor their own results.


Richard Stone ( is a Director for Spearhead Training Limited specialising in providing management and sales training courses for improving business performance.

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