Death of a Salesman

June 2016
By: Steve Simmance


Something is not quite right in the world of selling. In fact, I would go so far as to say it hasn’t been right for several years.  Basically the Sales function no longer seems to involve ‘selling’. 

As a recruiter with 30 years’ experience not a month has gone by when I haven’t been asked to find a ‘great salesperson’ for a client.  But this is the problem; what is a ‘great salesperson’ these days? What does the client actually mean when they say they want me to find a great salesperson? 

Traditionally a salesman/woman is an individual who sells goods and services to a customer, and their success was historically down to their ability to persuade customers to buy those in a given period of time.  A large part of the role involved building a successful relationship with the buyer(s) and using that partnership to sell the maximum amount of product possible through their outlet. This not only meant persuading the customer of the quality of your brands and need to stock them, (supported by all the marketing and promotional tools available) but also, and importantly, the fostering of close relationships, through regular face-to-face contact.

However, within FMCG, does this actually still hold true?

20 years ago an FMCG salesman or National Account Manager probably spent a day per week with his customer.  They would be focussed entirely on ‘making the sale’ through ensuring the brands were supported with the best available sales tools and techniques, and relying heavily on customer satisfaction and an active working relationship.

The other day, when a client asked me to find a great salesperson - not for the first time - the sentence that followed was; “I want a sales guy or girl, but not one that is too salesy”.   What they meant is that they want a modern salesperson who probably doesn’t actually sell anything anymore.

Instead, they are expected to account manage and administrate.  They analyse and interpret information.  They sit behind their desk, five days a week, in an office environment (God forbid they should be out on the road), crawling over sales data and scrutinising the customer P&L, and looking for ways to cut costs or increase margin.  What they are not doing is selling.  Sitting behind a PC most of the day they fear actually calling and speaking to the buyer, so used to hiding behind digital communication, and because this is no longer someone they know well and have a relationship with. One of the most frequent comments I hear is that buyers rarely return calls anyway.  

Moreover, buyers move between product categories so frequently that building a relationship is almost impossible.  Perhaps a deliberate tactic by the retailer?  So instead the salesperson is embroiled in carefully scripted email communication, desperate to be heard and noticed, involved in a totally transient dynamic.

That is half the job.

The other half is administration, more administration, and often overwhelming internalisation. In this there is a need to justify and defend actions and results, using pie and bar charts as security blankets of informed decision making.  This is replacing the man/woman out in the marketplace doing deals and building quality relationships.

To me it feels like we are in danger of creating robots out of those individuals, automating a process that by its very nature requires an entrepreneurial flair in identifying opportunities and selling.  If we merely follow the way of data, in search of creating the perfect algorithm of success, then companies have little point of difference in Sales and will end up relying purely on the power of their brands. This is fine if you’re a household name, but reduces the ability for new brands to form and be introduced to consumers.  If that continues, the retail and product environment will become dominated by large power players; stifling innovation, entrepreneurship and potentially choice in FMCG.

As the recruitment brief suggested, selling is no longer the primary task.   Instead it is all about managing a customer from a distance and trying to find ways of easing or slowing the deflationary world of food and drink in the hope of saving a margin point here or there, so that an average performance bonus can be paid out at the end of the year.  These days the main sales element of the job is the big reveal of an annual JBP (joint business plan) that the Buyer and Account Manager agree to subscribe to for a whole year.  They leave the actual selling of the product to a shelf barker or price promotion, and hope that the shopper will buy.

As a result, the industry no longer strives to find people who have the spirit and personality that come with great salesmanship, instead favouring the over engineered ‘ways of working’.  Ways that the actual best salespeople no longer enjoy, and that are unlikely to ever encourage fresh talent to pursue it as a career.

If there is one factor in every brief that has remained consistent throughout my time as a recruiter in search of ‘great salespeople’, it has been the fact that every business is looking for growth and revenue generation.  Yet, somewhat ironically, we don’t encourage our Sales functions to behave and act like true salespeople.  The commercial function appears to be more interested in controlling the cost of the sale which is why we are awash with functions titled Revenue Management, Market Strategy and Planning and to a certain extent Category Development.

I mourn the fact that one of the most distinguished functions of any business, and one that used to be the breeding and training ground for the good and the great, including some of FMCG’s best known successes, all started their careers as good old fashioned, grassroots trained salesmen.


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