Salespeople are key players in an effective demand planning process. They can provide timely input on their customer’s plans and issues from the front line. They hear the voice of the customer first. However, gaining their confidence is challenging, especially if they don’t understand our role in the planning process. As Demand Planners. we need to proactively build strong relationships with our sales teams so they freely share their customer knowledge with us.
To accomplish this, here are 5 practices I have used to build good relationships with sales people:
- Understand the salesperson’s world.
- Provide data to help them understand their customer’s business
- Help them understand the corporate and S&OP expectations for their program
- Help them deal with difficult customers and service outages
- Warn them when difficult conversations may be necessary
1 – Understand The Salesperson’s World
Most salespeople operate outside of a corporate environment and often the relationship with the corporate office is strained. The daily challenges they face and the pressure they are under are often very different from what their counterparts in the corporate office face. Difficult customers, traffic, poor service, defective products and missed deliveries are frequently on their list of daily issues. So if we are going to ask these sales people to work with us and trust us, we will need to start building our relationship with them by understanding how they spend their time, and the problems they need to solve.
In my experience, this means arranging a time to call them when they have time to really explain and teach us about how they get their work done, and what gets in the way of their performance. It also means scheduling time to regularly check in with them throughout the year and really listening to them. They need to feel that we both care about, and want to understand, their world and what it takes to succeed there.
2 – Provide Data To Help Them Understand Their Customer’s Business
In my experience, salespeople crave useful data. They often don’t have time to compile it themselves, and they rarely have time to digest large amounts of it. So, the more we can provide them with focused data – data that tells them about the health of their customer’s business, and where there is opportunity or risk – the more we will be seen as allies in the sales process. And if we can do this via graphical data – charts, graphs, summaries – rather than long numeric reports – the more likely they will appreciate and use the data. When in doubt, ask them what data they would like to see, how often they want it, and what format would best serve them. And be prepared to tailor the data to each individual salesperson.
3 – Help Them Understand And Manage The Corporate And S&OP Expectations For Their Program
Sales people get paid to make their plan numbers. Often their plan targets are challenging, and sometimes they are truly unrealistic based on what is happening with their customers. While we as Demand Planners cannot take sides in these cases, we can coach the salespeople on strategies that can help them. We can help them teach the customer about what is happening in the overall market by sharing data with the salesperson on item performance with similar customers. We can offer marketing expertise to help the salesperson move the customer out of old products and into new a more appropriate SKUs, or show them what items or promotions were effective in the past. And we can show them how to speak to the opportunities and risks in their business in language that both the corporation and the S&OP teams will understand.
4 – Help Them Deal With Difficult Customers And Service Outages
Nothing is more frustrating to a salesperson than dealing with a difficult but profitable customer. Customers who demand special services, ask for special discounts or who consistently wants additional attention can quickly wear down even the most energetic salesperson. So if we can provide reporting to help solve these issues, get our supply team involved in providing updates on missing or damaged shipments, or get finance to help with pricing and discount questions, this will go a long way toward building the salesperson’s trust and confidence in us. In my own career I have even called customers to apologize for service outages so that the salesperson could maintain a positive relationship with the customer.
5 – Warn Them When Difficult Conversations May Be Necessary
When business is not good and sales are lagging, the pressure on the sales teams can be enormous. They know when they are missing their plan numbers. What they often don’t know is how to frame the conversations around their plan misses, and when these hard conversations may occur. As Demand Planners we can see when a salesperson is missing their plan. We often know what is causing the miss, and hopefully we have communicated this to them and provided them with reporting to back up our conclusions. And as Demand Planners we are often aware of how the company sees the lagging performance, and we can tactfully coach the salespeople on how to explain what is happening that is holding their performance back.
Building good relationships with our sales teams can give us a significant advantage in our planning efforts. Our salespeople can warn us about customers that are not performing as expected, and can give us a chance to manage our forecasts to account for this. As Demand Planners we want the salespeople to be our allies. At the same time we also need to teach them that while we will not hide poor performance, we will do what we can to help them reach their goals and provide outstanding service to their customers.
They need to know that we want them to succeed, so that when they meet with their customers they can be confident that they programs they are presenting are realistic and truly support the customer’s business.