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Key to success; improving sales operations by developing the role of the supervisor.

Key to Success Improving sales operations by developing the role of the supervisor.

The role of the sales supervisor is the most important and the most neglected supervisory position in nearly every company. This article will address the issues surrounding this key position by explaining why sales supervisors are so critical to a distributorship's success, examining the most common problems associated with the sales supervisory role and recommending corrective actions that can solve these problems.

Three Major Roles

To understand the critical importance of the the sales supervisory position to your company's success, an examination of its three major roles is required.

First, the role of the sales supervisor involves implementation of your company's sales strategies. Given the importance of this responsibility, distributors should ask themselves if their supervisors have a good understanding of their company's sales strategies. Supervisors should also be aware of the key role they play in implementing strategies and should be held accountable for implementation.

Second, the role of the sales supervisor involves enforcement of your company's policies. Sales supervisors should have an understanding of the rationale behind the company's policies. Supervisors must have an awareness of their key role in enforcing those policies and their accountability for enforcement.

Third, the role of the sales supervisor involves development of your company's sales force. Sales supervisors must have the skills neccessary to train others. They should be aware they are expected to establish and maintain performance standards for the sales personnel and must be accountable for progress or the lack of it.

If a distributor's sales supervisory system is not following each of these basic guidelines, there is room for improvement. The remainder of this article will examine the eight most common problems associated with the key sales supervisory roles and offer corrective actions you can take to address them.

Common Sales Supervisory


Over the past twenty years, distribution management has developed timely and accurate systems for measuring many aspects of business operations. Management can, for example, measure the effectiveness of different promotions, the success of different brands and the results of different selling methods. However, distribution management has generally been neglectful of developing timely and accurate systems for measuring the performance of people. This neglect is especially evident in the area of sales supervision.

The performance of your sales supervisors should be evaluated based upon their territories. As such, they should be held accountable for three basic performance areas:

1. Sales supervisors should be given sales quotas for their territories and be held accountable for meeting those quotas.

2. Sales supervisors should be given distribution goals for their territories and be held accountable for meeting those goals.

3. Sales supervisors should be held accountable for sales goals for the key accounts within their territories.

It is the responsibility of management to structure accountability in such a way as to balance overall territory goals and key account goals. Without this balance, sales supervisors will either concentrate on small accounts at the expense of key accounts or spend all their time on key accounts at the expense of small accounts.

Establishing key account sales goals is becoming a common practive throughout the industry. As large accounts increase in size, they become critical to a distributorship's profitability. Therefore, in addition to the establishing standards quotas and distribution goals for the overall territory, many distributors are establishing specific goals - sales volume goals, distribution goals, merchandising goals, etc - for the top ten or twenty key accounts within a given sales supervisor's territory.

Defining responsibilities clearly

The "catch all" nature of the sales supervisory position has made it one of the industry's most impossible jobs. Ten years ago, this was not the case. Then a sales supervisor's job was fairly well defined: manage a few people and run relief. Today, however, the sales supervisor is expected to manage numerous sales people, take responsibility for brand management, handle key accounts and run relief. As a result, many sales supervisors are stretched so thin they may have become ineffective in their jobs.

The problems stem from a failure to define the responsibilities of a sales supervisor. In most distributorships, the sales supervisory position remains vague and undelineated. Since it is impossible to hold someone accountable for something that is not clearly defined, the tendency of management is to ignore performance expectations in the area of sales supervision.

To combat this, management must narrow the scope of the supervisor's responsibilities. This requires redesigning a company's sales organization, establishing a method for determining sales objectives and restructuring the sales compensation system. While this is a time-consuming task, the advantage to be gained in undertaking it is that a distributorship ends up with supervisory jobs that are based on clearly defined responsibilities with a clear link between individual sales supervisor's tasks and the company's overall sales objectives.

The "work-with" philosophy

As a consultant, I often have the opportunity to engage in very frank discussions with individual salespeople. The most common complaint I hear is that sales management does not practice what it preaches. Weekly sales meetings are filled with directives from sales management such as "we have to increase distribution", "we have to increase market share" or "we have to sell more displays." The reaction of the sales force to these weekly "marching orders" is, "well, if we have to do all these things and they're so important, then why isn't sales management out there helping us?." As a result, in many organizations sales management has a major credibility problem with the sales force.

Sales management needs to adopt a "work-with" philosophy. The vice-president of sales, the general sales manager or the sales manager has to work with the supervisors in the market on a regular basis. If sales management is not working with the supervisors often enough, this causes four major problems. First, upper-level managers responsible for determining the overall sales plan and strategy for the company must depend on supervisors for market information. As a result, sales management does not have first-hand knowledge of what is going on in key accounts or in the market as a whole.

Second, if the sales manager does not get out and work with the sales supervisors, the supervisors and salespeople often feel that upper level management is not in touch with the market. They are right.

Third, if management does not work with the supervisors, the supervisors do not get trained. The only real opportunity for sales superviors to get hands-on training in the market is from sales management during the work with time they spend together. The need for training of supervisors and the development of this vital position cannot be emphasized enough. If the president or sales manager is not pleased with the performance of sales supervisors, management should not blame the supervisors. The cause of this frustration is probably because management does not work with supervisors closely enough and does not provide supervisors with adequate training.

Fourth, if management is not in the market working with the supervisors, there is really no way for key accounts to get evaluated to make sure they are being serviced properly and that company goals relative to these accounts cannot be evaluated from the office. Sales management has to get out into the marketplace. This should be a joint effort between sales management and sales supervision.

Just as there exists the problem of a lack of a "work-with" philosophy on the part of sales management, so too, there is a lack of a "work-with" commitment from sales supervisors. The result is the same in both instances. The sales force feels that it is out there all alone trying to "win the battle" without any support from the "generals" who are giving all the orders from their safe position back at headquarters.

Frequent Contact

The next step in the "work-with" or management process is that sales supervisors have to work with their salespeople more often. Based on my experience, the sales supervisors should spend three days a week working with their salespeople.

It is important that management define what a "work-with" day consists of. It should be a day when the sales supervisor leaves with the salesman in the morning and spends the whole day with him. If the supervisor is the type of manager that goes out and "highlights" the market and meets his salespeople at only a few key accounts, management needs to explain to the supervisor that "highlighting" is not acceptable.

There are three key things that can be accomplished during the time that a sales supervisor works with a salesperson. First, it is the best opportunity for the salesman to receive training. The training the salesman receives fro the supervisor during the "work-with" days in the market will be of better quality and more practical use than any training the salesman can receive at sales meetings or from watching videos.

Second, if the sales supervisor works with salesmen, the supervisor will be more aware of what is going on in the market. If he is responsible for implementing the sales plan and sales strategies, he must know what is going on in the market inrder to develop effective action plans.

Third, the time a supervisor devotes to working with individual salespeople provides an opportunity for him to evaluate both the salesperson and the accounts. This enables the sales supervisor to develop specific action plans to make sure targeted improvements occur. On subsequent "work-with" days, the supervisor can observe whether or not the saleperson and account has improved.

As stated earlier, sales supervisors should work with the salesman at least three or four days per week. While many wholesalers strive for that level, most settle for as little as one day per month. This is because the supervisor's job is not designed to allow for three or four "work-with" days per week.

Upper-level management must make certain that when it promotes a salesperson to a sales supervisory position, the person understands that this promotion does not mean he no longer has to make sales calls. It should be explained to the sales supervisor that the new role consists of less individual account responsibility for total territory sales. Making sales calls and working with salespeople must be built into the job. As such, both upper-level management and the supervisor have to understand that the "work-with" responsibility represents the vast majority of a supervisor's job and, therefore, is the major consumer of supervisory time.

To summarize the "work-with" concept, if sales management is not "working-with' the supervisors and if sales supervisors are not "working-with" salesmen, then what the distributor ends up with is uninformed management and autonomous salespeople.

Excessive paperwork

Another major problem in the industry is that sales supervisors are burdened with excessive paperwork. This is the result of an evolution of their jobs and a priority system that is an acknowledged failure - from the breweries all the way down to individual distributorships. As was emphasized at the beginning of the article, the three key roles of a sales supervisor are implementation of sales strategies, enforcement of policies and development of sales personnel. Given the importance of these roles, it is difficult to justify the additional expectation of paperwork - a mundane task that can and should be delegated to someone with clerical responsibilities.

Management needs to look at the paperwork that is being completed by sales supervisors and evaluate whether or not it is important and whether a portion or all of the paperwork should be completely eliminated. This is often difficult to do because it takes time and the sales manager does not want to get involved with paperwork because he would rather be strategizing and calling on key accounts. The sales manager who is responsible for the sales supervisors must have a full understanding of every part of the supervisor's job, including the paperwork. If suppliers need certain reports, this is understandable. But with a little creative thinking, the wholesaler can often find a more effective and efficient means of getting the information to the suppliers without burdening supervisors with this additional responsibility.

Delegation of paperwork often requires training of a lower-level person. Many supervisors complain that they do not have time to train a clerical person to do their paperwork. This is a Catch-22. They do not have time to train, but they have time to do the paperwork week in and week out. This is a situation that demands upper-level management intervention. Supervisors must be told to delegate paperwork and must be held accountable if they fail to do so.

Running Relief

Sales supervisors spend entirely too much time running relief routes and not enough time supervising salespeople. Many wholesalers feel they are saving money by having their sales supervisors run relief. Distributors believe they are saving money, since by using sales supervisors, they do not need additional relief salespeople. This is a mistake. Firstly, a sales supervisor makes more money than a relief salesperson would make. Therefore, each day of relief is costing more per day in payroll expense. Second, many companies use their supervisors to run relief and end up adding supervisors simply to handle relief work. Third, and probably most costly, when supervisors are running relief, there is no supervision over the sales force and the sales force ends up performing at substandard performance levels. If a supervisor oversees four salesmen who each have two weeks vacation and five sick days a year, the supervisor may have to run relief for a total of twelve calendar weeks. Add to this the supervisor's own two weeks vacation and five sick days and he is not supervising a total of fifteen weeks. This is 30% of the year. Not only is the payroll cost higher for a supervisor versus a relief salesperson, also sales have to suffer if other routes are not being supervised 30% of the time because the supervisor's time is consumed running relief.

Some wholesalers use the excuse that by the supervisor running the route, he can evaluate the entire route. That is true, but even more value would be gained if the supervisor ran that route with the salesman. This would give the salesperson and the sales supervisor the opportunity to evaluate the total route on an individual account basis, the call sequencing, the salesperson's relationship with the accounts, and the level of execution in each account.

Quite simply, if a distributor want better performance out of his salespeople and more productive use of his sales supervisors' time, then he cannot burden supervisors down with too much relief responsibility.

Lack of training skills

Development of personnel (i.e. through training) is a major responsibility of the sales supervisor. However, most supervisors need formal training on how to train salespeople. Management cannot assume that supervisors know how to do this. Nor can management assume salespeople don't need training. Even the most experienced salesman will need training and retraining to prevent bad habits from forming and to reinforce successful skills.

If management has the attitude that training will happen or is supposed to happen but does not have a structured training program for supervisors, then it is very unlikely that training will take place. The strengths and weaknesses of each individual salesperson need to be evaluated and a training schedule has to be developed. Training time must be built into both a supervisor's work requirements and a salesperson's program of development.

Lack of a formal evaluation process

Salespeople are seldom evaluated. There are many reasons why this occurs, but two of the most common are that upper-level management does not see how evaluations fit into the overal sales management concept and upper level management cannot figure out a good way of evaluating salespeople.

Often, evaluations are based on subjective criteria - usually the opinion of the supervisor - rather than clearly defined performance standards. In most distributorships, these performance standards are readily available. Information that can be used to establish performance standards includes quota attainment, merchandising goals, key account sales performance and scheduled stop adherence. If these performance criteria are utilized rather than opinions, the evaluation will have more meaning to both the salesperson and supervisor and will be more constructive to all concerned.

It is important for management to remember that the supervisor cannot realistically evaluate a salesperson if that supervisor has not spent adequate time working with his salespeople. It is not uncommon to find supervisors who feel somewhat uneasy about evaluating salespeople because the supervisor does not really know how they are performing since the supervisor has not spent any "work-with" time with them. This contributes to a supervisor credibility problem.

It is the responsibility of the management team to make sure that its distributorship does not suffer from these problems. The team has to make sure that the sales supervisor's role has been clearly defined. Additionally, the team has to make sure that the job defined for the sales supervisors can be done from both a time and a capability standpoint. Finally, the management team has to make sure the sales supervisors are doing the things that make the distributorship more competitive and profitable. Above all, it is unrealistic for the wholesaler to think about improving the sales supervisory position until he has made sure the job is correctly structured and the supervisor is properly trained.

PHOTO : Joseph J. Verno is a founder and managing partner of the Denver Management Group, Inc. Headquartered in Denver, CO, the Denver Management Group is a nationally-recognized management consulting firm to the beer wholesaling industry. Verno grew up in a family-owned beer distributorship and has served as a consultant to brewers and wholesalers. He has authored numerous articles and was regularly featured in Beer Marketing Management. Verno is also a speaker at seminars and workshops throughout the U.S. For information about the Denver Management Group, call 1-800-777-6364.
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Title Annotation:sales supervisors in the beer distribution industry
Author:Verno, Joseph J.
Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Date:Jan 22, 1990
Previous Article:A talk with Jim Sanders; the president of the Beer Institute discusses the issues confronting the beer industry.
Next Article:Bud Light reaches top sales volume.

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