By Jonathan DeVito
Who do you talk to when you want to understand your customers?
A good place to start is speaking to customers directly. However, another source of insights sits right under most organizations’ noses: their sales reps. Sitting at the intersection of customer experience and route to market dynamics, sales reps are a powerful source of strategic insights. Despite this, many organizations view customer research as being a two-way conversation: stakeholder or customer interviews are conducted and insights are relayed to management to inform strategy.
The following post discusses the value of integrating front line sales perspectives into customer research and why organizations should bridge this gap.
Views from the front line
The front line is an interesting place. Sitting at the nexus of products’ routes to market and customer experience, sales reps have a wealth of knowledge that can leveraged for market strategy. However, my experience has been that sales reps perspectives are frequently sidelined from customer research and strategy. This is an interesting phenomenon since:
- Sales reps are often the closest bridge between an organization and its customers.
- Sales reps have breadth of experience: they can relay insights into the “whys” and “hows” behind buying decisions across multiple customers
- Sometimes how a product is sold is just as important as the design of the product itself.
- Sales reps may come across competitors’ reps in the field. These experiences can provide insights into competitors’ strategies, realities on the ground, and competitors’ sales collateral.
- Sales perspectives can help separate fact from fiction: insights derived from customer research may contradict sales reps’ experiences.
So what are the implications or ignoring the front line? How can organizations leverage the value of front line insights? Let’s explore these questions.
Ignoring the front line: implications
The implications of leaving sales teams and sales reps out of the strategy process can be serious. According to an article published last year in the Harvard Business Review, 50-60% of strategies fail in terms of predicted financial performance. Much of this is due to strategic management’s obsolete perceptions surrounding sales behavior and customer-company interface.
I’ve interviewed countless sales representatives across industries such as food processing, agribusiness, hygiene products. Reps often view themselves as lone wolves, create their own sales tools (sometimes as simple as using a pad of paper), and have little contact with strategic management. This leaves room for inconsistent customer experiences and sales performance. According to the same article referenced above, b2b sales rep performance frequently varies as much as 300% between the top and bottom performance quartiles across similar territories.
Suggestions: leveraging insights from the front line
Separate fact from fiction:
Obtain both customer and sales reps perspectives and tease apart discrepancies to drive deep insights.
For example, restaurant operators that I interview frequently cite a preference for manufacturer reps that make appointments. The flipside is that reps I interview often complain that restaurant operators do not keep appointments. Conflicting perceptions force us to look deeper. The issue may have more to do with other factors such as:
- The utility of the product being sold
- The way sales representatives interact with buyers. For instance, how likely are you to keep an appointment with someone that contacts you twice a year to sell undifferentiated products?
- An external factor. In my experience, foodservice distributor sales reps often monopolize restaurant operator relationships, causing manufacturer reps to be viewed as outsiders.
There are two sides to every story: benchmark customer and sales reps insights against one another to develop deep insights.
Customer-sales reps relationships can be complex. I once had a customer interviewee tell me he was so close with his sales rep that he invited his rep to his wedding. Leverage sales reps interviews to gain insights into the buying experience. Sometimes the way a product is sold is just as important as the utility of the product itself.
Obtaining insights from the field does not have to be part of a formal research or strategy project. In many cases, I find that organizations only seek front line insights when conducted a formal research or strategy project. Management should keep in close touch with the front line to ensure that initiatives continue to be aligned with realities on the ground.
 Cespedes, F. (October 2014). Putting Sales at the Center of Strategy. Harvard Business Review.