Years ago, packaging salespeople were extremely valuable to customers because they were the holders of information. Without salespeople, customers were hard-pressed to uncover facts and gain insight on pricing, product specifications, similar and innovative applications, and industry trends. Packaging sales reps can still be valuable, but not in the same way — and packaging companies need to make their sales teams relevant or risk losing a valuable asset and competitive edge.
Three things are working against them that threaten to make them obsolete:
1. Information Access
With the Internet, all that has changed. With a computer nearby throughout the workday, buyers have all the time they need to do packaging research, and in some cases learn more than their packaging reps know.
2. Communication Preferences
Younger generations of buyers generally prefer digital communication to the phone or face-to-face meetings. But packaging reps tend to excel at verbal communication and see digital (text and email) as a last-ditch option.
3. Time and Relationships
When I started selling packaging in the 1980s, buyers had more time to talk to sales reps. The pace of business was slower — for instance, it was perfectly acceptable to submit a quote a week after a sales call, whereas now the buyer expectation could be the next day or the same day. Buyers no longer have the time to cultivate the relationship side of business — and it was those relationships, in addition to information, that made packaging reps so important in securing and maintaining business.
New Roles for Packaging Salespeople
In light of this, how can packaging salespeople stay relevant and valuable in the eyes of customers? Here are a few ideas.
- Hire reps with exceedingly strong written communication skills, and train existing reps in how to use digital communication effectively. If email and text are what customers want, the packaging company that communicates best wins. And at the very least, skilled written communication will eliminate or reduce the problems caused by bad written communication.
- Develop the project management skills of sales reps. Customized packaging applications in FMCG, pharma and cosmetics can be rather complex, involving engineering, packaging design, prototyping, etc. If the sales rep can serve as an effective project manager and customer point person for the job, that rep becomes more valuable than ever.
- Train reps to be effective hosts of webinars. In our world of B2B marketing, we see companies using webinar campaigns quite effectively for sharing information on complex product and industry issues — excellent for attracting new customers and building relationships with existing ones. Sales reps are natural webinar emcees with the right training in communication and technology.
- Cold calling has become a near impossible task for packaging reps, no matter how skilled they are. To keep lead pipelines full, packaging companies can develop innovative inbound and outbound lead generation campaigns to help reps concentrate on what they do best, turning qualified prospects into customers.
Brad Shorr is Director of Content Strategy at Straight North, an SEO agency headquartered in the Chicago area. He has more than 20 years of experience in the packaging industry in sales and marketing.