salesman one use

In 1949, Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman. Halfway through, weary sales veteran Willy Loman laments to his younger boss how the business has changed since he was a young man.

“In those days there was personality in it. There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it. Today, it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear, or personality. You see what I mean? They don’t know me any more.”

That was 67 years ago. If Loman was depressed then, imagine how he’d feel now. Many fmcg sales reps, aka national account managers, aka NAMs, complain they spend far more time behind a desk poring over spreadsheets than they ever do pouring a relaxed buyer another drink over a lazy lunch.

If that’s a fact, it’s also true the sales game has only ever been about the bottom line. So what exactly is this latest change about? When did it come about? And who cares if the deal is clinched courtesy of a firm handshake and a winning smile or via an email from HQ?

A poll of nearly 300 national account managers has found that over 90% of NAMs believe the role has changed, with more time spent behind a desk, more time sending emails, more time utilising data - and less time on the phone and less time spent visiting buyers (see table).

“The role of the NAM has changed from underneath us,” says Steve Simmance, who has been an fmcg recruiter for over 25 years. “We don’t recruit salespeople anymore, we recruit very expensive administrators.”

He believes the “real change set in” about five years ago, when “people realised there wasn’t the time, or the need, for people to be out on the road. And in the last three years it’s become even more automated. The world of selling has been homogenised down to a scientific approach to getting things done, but we aren’t selling more products, or different products. It’s just about managing cost in a deflationary world. The art of selling, the vibrancy, the personality in what was once the biggest workforce in fmcg, have been cast out.”


A former marketing manager for an fmcg conglomerate believes something has been lost with this homogenisation. Successful selling used to require “entrepreneurial flair” he says. “Think of a cartoon version of a salesman, on the road five days a week, never in the office, always with his customers, they have been buying and selling from each other for years. They have a relationship, and it’s that relationship that says ‘how about you take an extra 10,000 cans of deodorant this week?’”

It’s not like that today. “The salesman isn’t out on the road, he’s not face to face with the buyer. They communicate by email, the buyer changes frequently, there is no relationship and there is no friendliness. My NAMs were with Tesco every week, with Asda every week, maybe twice a week. They knew these people and they discussed strategy together. The buyers wanted to move the brand forward. You just don’t hear that any more.”

How has the sales game changed?

Is the world of sales becoming impersonal to detrimental effect?

● No 74.7%

● Yes 25.3%

Does a data-driven approach, rather than a relationship-based one, help to make you a better salesperson?

● No 74.7%

● Yes 25.3%

Is the traditional salesperson role dead?

● No 62.8%

● Yes 37.2%

Is sales a young person’s game or can the older generation cut it?

● Older generation of salespeople can get with the times 85%

● Young person’s game 15%

How long have you worked in sales?

● Over 20 years 44.1%

● Up to 20 years 21.0%

● Up to 15 years 15.4%

● Up to 10 years 13.2%

● Up to 5 years 6.3%

One fmcg NAM, who started as a field sales rep at Kellogg’s in 2010, says back then a “typical day would be 12 convenience stores, filling my car up from the cash & carry and going out and selling. It was completely field based. I spent no time in the office. I had no desk. That’s where I learned how to develop relationships, and different types of relationships. You had to flex your style to appeal to different buyers. In convenience, the money the owners took from the till to pay me could have gone to feed their family. So you learned to understand what the buyer wants. Maybe it’s to hear about your ATL strategy, some want to talk pound notes, some want a brew and a biscuit.”

But although the ability to build a relationship is a “very valuable skill” he also questions whether it’s as vital as it once was, given the rapid rotation of supermarket buyers and the increased sophistication of data-based insight in 2016.

“Even the strongest buyer-supplier relationship is far more fragile than facts,” he says. “If I do business based on a relationship with a buyer and she moves on, anything could happen. But if it’s substantiated by data, that’s more concrete. And what happens if I am proposing something a buyer needs to send up the business? They can’t pass on our relationship, but they can pass on factual rationale. So if the question is ‘should you be a relationship or a data man?’ the answer is that today you need to be both.”

He’s now desk-bound as a NAM at one of the UK’s largest fmcg manufacturers, dealing with buyers at Sainsbury’s and the Co-op. He says that although “the field didn’t prepare me for account management, like P&L, commercials, or front and back margin, it’s still selling. I’m still a salesman. It’s still the same dance.”

If that’s so, others argue it’s no longer the quickstep. Anyone would assume the primary role of a salesperson was to sell, but of the NAMs who responded to our survey, only 36% said selling was the ‘primary focus’ of their role. Of the remainder, 11% said their primary task was to “control the cost of the sale” while the majority, 53%, said it was to create “an annual joint business plan that a buyer will agree to”.

“You end up being the custodian of the joint business plan to check everyone is sticking with it,” says Simmance. “It creates a static world with no room for flair or opportunity. We are trading months in advance, not actually selling anything, just managing a relationship to keep the same number of fish fingers in the freezer cabinet from one year to the next, with a little incremental growth from innovation and NPD.”

He blames retailers for “changing their behaviour and stifling entrepreneurship and ingenuity. It’s about making their lives easier and more defensible through the eyes of an accountant looking at the P&L. They want more of the same, for less, without straying from the tried and tested formula of getting products on shelf that make money quickly. That’s not progress. That’s holding on for dear life to what we’ve got, rather than expanding on what we could have.”

Others say the slow dance is the best dance. Jason Ash, MD of cidermaker Orchard Pig, who worked in marketing roles at Unilever, Mars and Cadbury, says the salesperson “as an individual” hasn’t been “successful in sales and revenue generation for some time.”

Although “revenue in fmcg is as important as ever”, today sales is about “building mutually beneficial and commercially sound partnerships over time. These principles are more important than the singular transaction of selling.”

Numbers man

No one doubts the sales game has changed, mostly thanks to the pros of a digital world, where a supremely detailed and persuasive pitch can be assembled and delivered visually to a buyer over Skype, for free. So can the old school, dreaming of cars, camaraderie and chutzpah, still cut it in a world ruled by the internet, email and Excel?

As you might expect, the response is positive. Although 15% say sales is now a ‘young person’s game’, that still leaves 85% who believe the older generation can still shift product. Though one former fmcg buyer for a c-store chain says there may be an element of bravado in that response.

How has the sales game changed?

Has the role of the sales person changed?

● Yes 89.7%

● No 10.3%

How has the role changed?

● More use of email 83.8%

● More use of data 77.5%

● Less face time with buyers 70.4%

● More time at my desk 58.8%

● Less use of phone 38.3%

Is it hard to establish a relationship with buyers?

● Yes 62.5%

● No 37.5%

What are the greatest barriers to establishing a relationship with buyers?

● Lack of F2F interaction 54.9%

● Calls/emails not returned 23.5%

● They change role too often 21.6%

What do you see as your primary task?

● To create an annual joint business plan a buyer will agree to 54.2%

● To sell to buyers 35.2%

● To control cost of the sale 10.7%

“I saw a lot of salespeople. And I’m a numbers man, that’s how I like to operate, but I could see some of the older sales people not enjoying that. They bring knowledge and contacts and a great way of building relationships, and relationships can still go a long way. But there is a recognised need that you can’t just be a relationship man anymore.”

As for the eager, fresh-faced youngsters, “they tend to be very intelligent, with business degrees or A-levels. If they get on the right graduate course and are taught straight away about margins, profit on the turn, that sets them up very well”. But he also says he knew a “very young” graduate who was “extremely savvy commercially” but he “had to learn how to build relationships. You can teach anyone to work a spreadsheet, but it’s hard to teach someone how to build a relationship in the classroom. That comes with age and experience.”

Terrible shame

That’s if they want to join in to begin with. Young graduates are no longer as attracted to a sales role in fmcg as they once were, says Simmance. “We have incrementally degraded the role down to an automaton who sits behind a desk. And the more we keep doing this, the more vacancies will keep going up, and the population of salespeople will go down. I read there are 20,000 vacancies in fmcg and there are 400,000 graduates who enter the market every year. But they aren’t being encouraged to join our industry. We are going to end up with a talent pool that doesn’t exist.”

That’s a “terrible shame because every single fmcg manufacturing business in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s built its success on fantastic salespeople, some of whom went on to lead the retailers, like Justin King. They were great marketeers. And that’s all gone.”

Not quite. Although 37% of respondents say the traditional salesperson role is ‘dead’, that means 67% don’t. And fmcg isn’t quite ready to give it up just yet. Hundreds of field sales roles (‘driving licence essential’) are advertised on every week. And as recently as June, Premier Foods said 10 field sales reps would be needed to sell its new Cake on the Go range to the convenience sector.

Ten years ago, such a team might have been 10 times larger. Fmcg players like Pepsi, Coke, KP and McVitie’s would have teams of hundreds out there on foot or in vans combing the UK. But even if they are stuck behind a desk, the “dynamism remains” insists Ash. “Perhaps it’s even enhanced? It’s a more rounded commercial approach, more generalist, as opposed to just ‘selling’.”

That won’t be of any comfort to the old school salespeople who pride themselves on their instinctive ability to do just that. But old and new skills can work in harmony, believes Andrew Robinson, planning director at TMW Unlimited. “Sales achieved by data may be true to some extent, but data is never a straitjacket. The real skill comes in finding glimmers of opportunity in the mass of information. That sounds like a pretty inspiring challenge to me.”

Crispin Reed, MD at JDO, also believes the “exponential growth of granular data” will mean brands sell more. But he also says “whatever the job title” the fmcg salesperson role will “never die” because “ultimately people like to deal with people”.

To the Willy Lomans of this world, it’s reassuring to think progress will never replace personality in sales. But they need to build a relationship with the impersonal power of data - and fast.