CASE 1-1: What They Didn’t Teach Us in Sales Class
Rick Lester was depressed. He was cold and damp from the rain as he sat in his van in the parking lot of a Food World supermarket. He had just telephoned the Nabisco division sales office and talked with Helen, the office secretary. Rick had asked her, “What are we supposed to do when it rains like this?” Rick could hear her repeat the question to Mr. Brown, the division sales manager, who just happened to be in the office. Rick could hear the reply in the background, “Tell him to buy a raincoat!” When Helen repeated the response, Rick replied to her, “OK, have a nice day” with a slightly embarrassed tone in his voice. As he hung up the pay phone and sat back in his van he thought, “What a heck of a way to make a living.”
As a new salesman, it was clear that Rick had much to learn. He had only been on the job for one month, but he had about decided that it was no “piece of cake.” It had all seemed so much easier when he watched Mr. Brown make calls during his two-week on-the-job training period. Now that he was making calls on his own, it was quite different and much more difficult. Interestingly, the sales class Rick had taken at the University of Alabama at Birmingham the previous year had covered many reasons to go into selling, but few disadvantages of pursuing a career in sales. Rick was now learning about these firsthand.
Rick’s family—his parents and two younger sisters—had lived in Birmingham for many years. Mr. Lester was a salesman, and Mrs. Lester was a homemaker. Rick was an average student in high school, where he really majored in athletics and cheerleaders. After high school he accepted a partial athletic scholarship to Northwest Mississippi Junior College. His grades in college were about average overall but were low in basic math classes. The chief reason he selected business as his major was that it required no algebra. Following two years in Mississippi, Rick transferred to the University of Alabama at Birmingham and continued to work toward a B.S. degree in marketing. He met a nice girl there, and they later married when he graduated from UAB. There had been three specific job opportunities, all in sales, but he chose the job with Nabisco because it was a big company with many benefits. He also thought highly of Mr. Brown, the local recruiter and division sales manager.
Rick started to work on September 1. The first week was spent reviewing sales training manuals and completing employment paperwork. He also stocked his new van with merchandise, advertising materials, and displays. The following two weeks were spent “working the trade” with Mr. Brown, who made most of the calls while Rick learned by observing. Toward the end of the third week of employment, Rick was starting to make the sales presentations while Mr. Brown observed. They would discuss each call after they returned to the van. During the fourth week, Rick worked alone. The present week had been difficult … there was so much he didn’t know. On Friday it rained, and this was not helpful. It was about two o’clock when he called the office and was told to buy a raincoat.
As he sat in the van waiting for the rain to let up, he began thinking about the situation in which he now found himself, and it was depressing. The rain was not the only reason for his low morale. He thought about his wife and how she had told her friends that Rick was in public relations rather than sales. Although they had not discussed it, Rick assumed that she did not particularly like the title salesman. Somewhere in the back of Rick’s thoughts, there was clearly an image that selling has low occupational status. Maybe it came from his father. He couldn’t remember. Another troublesome aspect of the new job was the calloused way that some retailers treat all salespeople. Others simply try to brush them off or avoid them altogether. This job, Rick thought, certainly does not build up one’s ego.
There are other negative aspects of being in sales. One is that selling is physically demanding. It is a requirement to carry the sales bag into all calls. Properly loaded, Rick’s sales bag weighed 38 pounds and contained advertising materials, new products, sample merchandise, a stapler, and the selling portfolio. In addition, in some calls, salespeople must transport cases of merchandise from the storage area to the shelves. A great deal of bending and lifting is simply a part of the routine workday. By quitting time each day, Rick’s clothing was wrinkled and damp from perspiration. Yesterday he had snagged a hole in the trousers of his new suit.
At the end of each day, Rick had to prepare reports and mail them to the home office. It was also necessary to reorganize and restock the van for the next day’s work. Sometimes there were telephone calls that had to be made. By the time these chores were completed, it was almost bedtime. There was not much time left to spend with his new wife, and she had mentioned this a time or two.
The last annoying concern involved the knowledge that a good part of his success, or lack of it, depended on events over which he had no control. In several calls this week, a competitor had persuaded dealers to reduce shelf space for Nabisco products. These dealers reported that the competitor had a special promotion going on and the deal was just too good to pass up. There was no way that Rick could recover the lost shelf space in those calls. This did not look good on the salesperson’s daily report.
As the rain continued to come down, Rick felt very alone. Mr. Brown was not there to help or provide answers. The physical and emotional obstacles just seemed too big to overcome. The only way out of this mess, it seemed, was to quit this job and try to find another one that was not this depressing. “Maybe I could get a job in a bank, where customers are always nice and the work is easier,” Rick thought. As he started his van and drove away toward the division office, he felt relieved that he would soon be free of this impossible responsibility.
Answer the following four questions in the form of recommendations from the perspective of Mr. Brown’s supervisor:
- What would you recommend Mr. Brown say to Rick?
- Would you recommend to Mr. Brown that Rick be encouraged to resign? Why or why not?
- What could Mr. Brown do to motivate Rick, and how could he measure the effectiveness of that approach?
- If low employee satisfaction was widespread among Nabisco sales personnel, how could the company reduce turnover?
Mr. Brown should be advising Rick against resigning. Rick has been on the field only for a few days by himself and feeling overwhelmed. Also, he has many misconceptions and wrong perceptions about the sales function as such. At the moment he is finding it difficult to keep up with the expectations at the job. To retain him, Mr. Brown should have a two-front approach.
1) Hand-holding: Rick is feeling that he is all by himself facing the heat in the market. After the initial training with Mr. Brown, there was no hand-holding with Mr. Rick. A regular hand-holding with him could go a long way to show that his manager is helping him achieve his target. A couple of calls every day, one mid-day and one at the end of the day to review Rick’s specific concern with each counter/outlet that day could help Rick learn the tactics of the trade and become more competent in his role.
2) Addressing Misconception: Rick has a deep-rooted belief that sales are an inferior function/role. Showing how sales function is essential for business, its importance etc. should be able to make some difference. Also, showing him salespeople who are currently doing good and high performers can also help create a positive aspect to the function.
Rick has high expectations from himself (as it is clear that he is not happy with his own performance) and as a salesperson, this is very important. Thus, the above measures along with open continuous communication can go a long way to transform him into a high performer at work. However, this hand-holding should be a time-bound plan with measurable outcomes after every period. If he does not scale up even after inputs and hand-holding then he can allowed to resign, if he so wishes.
Continuous monitoring of his sales figures, also monitoring how he is tackling issues on the field on day to day basis can be effectively measured to see if he is showing progress or not.
Low employee satisfaction is directly related to lowered productivity and higher attrition thus, reducing the business results and profits for the organization