Channel Partners: Gaining Visibility and Creating Accountability

Kristina Belyea 26 September 2017 - 7 min. read

It’s simple. If you’ve invested in something, you need to know it’s working. Sales training is no different. If you’re waiting till the end of the quarter to crunch your numbers and measure the business impact of your training program, it’s already too late. The best organizations have insight into how comfortable their reps are with their product portfolio and how productive they are being with their resources and sales tools on a daily basis.

Having this insight will allow you to bridge gaps when it comes to reps understanding your product and messaging, and your ability to hold individuals accountable, and ultimately facilitate a closer connection between head office and the sales force.

Distributor reps are not your employees. They’re accountable to the distributor you’ve partnered with. But this doesn’t mean you can’t hold individual reps accountable – it just means you need to do it differently than you would with a direct rep. And in both contexts – direct or distributor – accountability begins with visibility.

If you know that a rep hasn’t looked at 60 percent of the sales resources you’ve pushed out, then you’re in a better position to bring this up with their field manager – and with his or her blessing – have a direct conversation with the rep. If, on the other hand, you know that reps are looking at every sales aid you’ve sent them, but keep missing quota, then you know you should probably reassess the underlying training content. It’s always smart to look at the data in a relative manner. If the whole group is struggling, then it’s likely your materials that need work. But if it’s particular individuals, then they may not be as strong as other reps.

We spoke with Kerry, a VP of sales in the life sciences industry but a distributor rep in his past life, about the proper way to hold distributor reps accountable.

“You have to set your expectations with the distributor principal and then get his or her permission to hold the rep accountable … because some of the distributors can take that wrong.” The key, Kerry explained, is making sure distributor reps understand that you’re trying to make it easier for them to do their jobs.“Our job as managers of distributors is to show them that they can make money, and how to make money with that product.” Trying to reprimand a distributor rep in the same way as one might a direct rep will not garner a positive response. Kerry told us of one such interaction in his distributor rep days, and his response was “who signs my paycheck? You or (his company)?”

When it comes to your distributor reps, accountability needs to be framed as support. It’s all about showing the reps that you’re there to help them and that they can make money with your products. If you see a rep isn’t using your training materials, don’t ask them to explain why they’re being unproductive. Rather, ask them if they’re having a hard time accessing the content they need, or if they think the underlying content is unhelpful. Even if your reps have completed the required training, this just means that they’ve checked off the right box. It doesn’t mean they understand your product’s value, or that they can speak to it confidently. And this means that they’re probably not bringing your product up in sales conversations nearly enough. With traditional training models, after onboarding, many companies only have the bandwidth to get their field managers in front of distributor reps once a month – if that. That leaves reps on their own 29 days a month. Even touchpoints via email, phone, or webinar are just not sufficient to ensure that they really get it.

Visibility and accountability are two of the most difficult sales training challenges to fix without investing in learning technology. Even if you were to personally follow up with each and every rep once a week – which is clearly unsustainable – you would only be able to ascertain their subjective comfort level with the product, and not how productive they are being. And without visibility you have no basis on which to hold them accountable. Companies know this, and are already investing in different types of learning technology from elearning tools, webcasts, CMSs and LMSs to mobile applications. But just as with any tool, the learning technology you use needs to provide you visibility on how reps interact with it.

Four reasons to invest in learning technology:

One. Learning technology will help you consolidate your existing training resources.
Companies use a whole host of tools to train their reps. Webinars, slide decks, in-class sessions marketing collateral, emails, phone calls, LMSs, CMSs, ride-alongs, the kitchen sink. Effective learning technology should provide you with the ability to consolidate, streamline – and above all, simplify as much of your sales resources as possible. Break down that webinar, and host it there. Upload that sell sheet, the relevant (but short!) video, and marketing collateral. Making sure your sales tools and resources are easily accessible to your reps makes it much more likely that they’ll actually leverage them.

Two. Learning technology will help you gauge productivity in the field
Once you’ve organized your sales tools and resources, you need to track how your reps are interacting with them. Have they even looked at that PDF on objection handling? How much time did they spend on this week’s webinar? Did they rewatch it? Did they pull that marketing collateral up during a customer meeting? There’s learning technology that will show you exactly how much a rep is interacting with the training, resources and sales tools you provide them. By getting insight into what reps are looking at, how often, and for how long you can gauge not just their productivity, but also their commitment to your brand. Having this objective data is important, because it’s unlikely that a product manager or a distributor rep will openly admit to not bringing you into conversations with customers – even if you know they aren’t from the sales numbers. Having hard data will let you see the real picture, and with that you may even reassess whether you should continue to put resources behind a particular distributor.

Three. Learning technology will help you identify competency gaps.
Many manufacturers assume that just because they’ve spent time and money creating training and marketing resources, reps are going to be prepared to sell their products. Whether it’s classroom training, a webinar on a new product launch, or a weekly conference call, it’s very difficult to ensure that every individual rep is paying attention and not only understands the product, but also how to sell it. It’s also nearly impossible to ensure that each rep can attend these sessions at the same time.

The beauty of learning technology is that it’s scalable. You can train every rep individually and as a result, get insight into individual competency gaps. If the whole team is failing whatever testing mechanism you have in place, this likely speaks to the training you are providing them. If it’s only a few individuals, then these are incredible coaching moments that you want to capture and rectify in real time. If for example you’re using quizzing to measure retention, and one of your distributor reps Susan has failed all the quizzes on the clinical evidence supporting your product, then – with visibility into this – you can call her and see what’s going on and how you can provide her with support. You do this because you know that without a deep understanding into your clinical data, her chances of success in sales meetings are extremely low.

Four. Learning technology will help you track the ROI of your training.
In Kerry’s experience, “the metrics are just as important as the content … because if you build all this content and no one looks at it, but you don’t know that no one’s looked at it, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” In an industry where the buying process is becoming increasingly complicated, every single sales interaction counts. And when your training budget is contingent on results, you need to be getting returns on what you’ve put in. Learning technology provides you insight on those returns in real-time.

A distributor rep’s comfort with your product equals mindshare, which equals revenue. When that rep is comfortable, they will happily reach for your product and effectively represent it. When they are uncomfortable they will avoid it like the plague for fear of losing credibility in front of the buyer. Ensuring that your distributor reps are comfortable and bringing you into conversations hinges not only on how strong and accessible your training and sales resources are, but also on your level of visibility. Without it, you cannot say with confidence that those reps are indeed comfortable or productive. You can only make an educated guess – and that’s not good enough.