Change is hard; change in distribution sales is extremely hard. The road to selling Nirvana is soiled with the trash and beat-up remnants of failed processes. Salespeople know this because they have seen selling strategies that come and go. They resist, they grumble and, quite bluntly, they push back.

Any change to their environment is met with comments like, “Do you want me selling or doing reports?” Or, “I have 20 years of experience with these customers and I know what they want, how they work and how to get the maximum business from them.” Some salespeople will openly argue with any new technique that requires training, CRM systems and other tools. We circumvent that by starting slowly and building a few points at a time.

Institute targeting after a new product release; after the training, ask your team to provide you with five target customers. Use the following criteria.

  • The customer must be their best opportunity for a sale in the next six months.
  • The best contact at the customer must be identified as soon as possible.
  • They must provide their sales manager with a copy of the list.
  • The sales manager must be willing to invest time revisiting the selection.

Sound painless? Establishing a single target sets the stage for establishing a few targets each month. The sales manager closes the loop and builds on the process by scheduling times to review each of the lists along with their sellers. For experienced salespeople with good selling habits, these meetings are short, to the point and require little additional work. Working with the other salespeople allows for focused coaching. Each bit of coaching builds long-term habits and establishes cultural shifts.

The Final Product Target Results

We’ve started our sales teams off slowly with a single target assignment. Gradually, perhaps over the next six months, you have accelerated targeting activity. A year into the process, a typical salesperson is handling 40 to 60 individual target assignments. New coaching opportunities abound.

The sheer number of targets – 60 products targeted times five customers per product – equates to the need for organization and time management. This presents the sales manager with many opportunities to coach on topics like call planning, time management and opportunity management.

Further, distributors using a target-driven process find conversations with supply partners to be easy and forthright. Identifying and sharing product targets between sales organizations allows for better joint planning. And, in our age of multiple distributors per market, targeting allows the distributor to “quadrant off” accounts, protecting ongoing work from the encroachment of competitive distributors. Combine targeting activities with special pricing agreements, and the distributor creates what one of our clients calls “the new exclusive.”

Pushing into the Future

Target-driven distribution becomes a part of the distributor’s culture. Your work has better focus as product specialists, customer service and other support people are wrapped into the target process. Specialists in particular play a role as they join the sales manager in directing the targeting activities of the sales guys.

Using targeting, distributors identify and build relationships with high-margin niche products. Because in past years, distributors tried to identify products with a retail-like broad appeal, products appealing to just a few accounts in their territory were never pursued. The time required to manage the distributor-supply relationship outweighed potential profits. Today, the use of a targeting process simplifies the sales side of the task. Combine that with the willingness of many short line companies to work with distributors around drop ship programs and other logistics issues. By streamlining the product management issues apparent today, niche products become important components in the effort to open new doors and cement customer relationships. Growth flows from technologies once thought to be too small to explore.

Finally, supply partners play an active role in target-driven sales activities by compensating distributors to target – and accelerate the sale numbers of– specific products. In fact, today, a good many manufacturers are open to funding targeting activities around their products. It’s good business for them and builds a stronger bond within their channel.

It’s Planning Time and the New Year

As you ponder this article, think about how you might apply targeting to your sales activities, consider the options for adding targeting to your next supply partner agenda and think about the first product to test the theory.

But wait, there’s more; product targeting is just the first step in building a target-driven business. In the selling process, we have identified best practices around building strategic customer alliances, allowing us to “own” important accounts.

A final thought: Research indicates that selling organizations with a well-defined targeting process are 47 percent more likely to reach their financial goals. With the winds of a new economic storm stirring in the distance, a head start like this is too important to ignore.

Frank Hurtte provides Strategic Insight for New Times. He speaks and consults on the new reality facing distribution in a post-recession world. Contact Frank at River Heights Consulting via email at or via phone at 563/514-1104.