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March 20, 2019 | Coach’s Corner | Greg Martinelli

The 4 Stages of Growing Pains in Your Sales Territory

Navigating the growth stages of your sales career

Just like anyone or any business, you will go through growing pains as you develop your sales territory over the course of a selling career. Learning to recognize and prepare for these stages in advance can save you considerable time, energy and frustration.

Let’s jump right in with …

Stage 1: Startup

Whether you are brand new right out of school or maybe just new to the company, everyone has a day 1. You’re full of energy and optimism as you approach the market and your future customers with lots of marketing material and ideas from your onboard training.

With all that energy, you want to go everywhere and tell everyone the good news on your products. I call this the, “The sell anybody anything stage”. Because that’s what we do. We are motivated but struggle to get a sale. We also don’t know exactly who our target market is and what our real value is to them. We end up signing customers we probably shouldn’t.

This stage is also marked with over-serving the customer. “How can that be?” “Aren’t we supposed to do everything we can for customers?” Sort of. Actually, no, you shouldn’t. In this stage, we only have a few customers, which gives us a lot of time. Time we should be using to sign new customers. Instead, we focus on our first few accounts and want to make them a huge success. To do that, we over service the account. We end up doing things with them that is not sustainable if you had a full territory to work with.

Stage 2: Gaining Momentum

You are now beginning to understand the market and how your products fit into the scheme of things. You also signed a few bigger accounts. Ones that fit the profile your company is looking for. However, you still have a lot of time on your hands to serve the customer, which is what you do. You are noble in your endeavors and you treat every customer the same, big or small. They all get your full attention.

At some point in this stage, you begin to realize this won’t be sustainable. Providing the same level of sales support to small accounts will burn up your time and prevent you from growing your territory. Whether you start now or wait until you are at 100% of your capacity, you know you need to make a change. You might also be in too many market segments. In one area, you are B2B (business to business). In another B2C (selling direct to farmers). Yet another you have a commissioned sales rep or go through a distributor. All are slightly different business models that require a slightly different approach. This scattered approach takes up valuable time switching between these them. It can also out sell your production capabilities.

Stage 3: Full Throttle

This is the fun stage. But it can also be the most stressful which results in burnout, customer loss or employee turnover. At this point, you found your niche in the market and you focused on that niche to grow rapidly. Word of mouth has spread through your territory that you are the one to work with on this product line. You even have prospective customers calling you to sign up. Most of your new customers are coming in from referrals from your satisfied customers. What could possibly go wrong?

It depends! There are two possibilities in this stage. If you realized the stages of growth early in your selling career, got organized and got focused, then it lead to….

Stage 3a: Found Your Home: You found out where you and your products really fit into the market. Then you focused on growing in that direction. To do so, you reduced your time or quit selling those accounts that didn’t fit into your niche. This focus is making you very effective.

Or …

Stage 3b: Running on Empty: You kept selling and selling, but never focused your efforts on a niche. Maybe, you didn’t want to be rude and stop spending time with them. Maybe you felt you couldn’t afford to lose any sales. Maybe your idea or paradigm of customer service won’t allow you to reduce time and effort in one area to focus on another. As the name of this stage implies, eventually your car quits running if it has no gas. You too, quit running when your gas gauge is on E. You might burnout and become ineffective, over worked and not even enjoy your job anymore. This can lead you to changing jobs, companies or careers fields. It definitely will lead to customer dissatisfaction.

Stage 4: Coasting Downhill

Depending on how you react to stress and how you organized your territory, eventually, you peak and then you back off a little. You no longer go down as many rabbit trails as you used to. Rabbit trails are new markets, new prospects, or any new opportunities. You have, “been there, done that, got the t-shirt”. You are not going to expend the energy to go down that trail again.

While this experience is helpful, overdoing it means you miss out on some possibly profitable customers or markets. The second problem with this stage is that everyone has customer attrition. Without new customers coming in, your territory begins to dwindle, be it ever so slowly. Customers retire, sell out, go out of business, decide to switch to your competition. Your company discontinues products, product lines and services. Industries pop up and then fade away. Examples, the ostrich feed business, the high oil corn, etc.  

Coasting a bit downhill to catch your breath in a hectic selling world is ok. But don’t forget to keep peddling before you run out of momentum.

What to do:

Recognize it: The first step of almost any program or problem is to become aware of it. Understand that it occurs and figure out which stage you are in. As I begin a coaching program with a salesperson, one of the first areas we try to figure out is what stage they are in. We look at years of service, customer segmentation and their business objectives. We also spend a lot of time on capacity. That’s the salesperson’s capacity. Are they new and need to focus on new accounts? Or, are they at peak and have a full territory?

Prepare: Surviving and thriving in each subsequent stage is best done by preparing prior to getting into that stage. We look at how sustainable their current path is. Then we project that path into the next stage and ask, “If you doubled or tripled your customer list, could you sustain the current level of service?” “Would you have the time and resources to do it?” If the answer is no, then we begin planning ways to streamline their territory.

Change: Actually, do the change you know you need to do. Seems obvious, but this is the bigger struggle as I coach salespeople. They know what they need to do, but either don’t want to or can’t make themselves do it. This eventually leads to burn out and turnover (customer and salesperson).

Take a few minutes today and think about yourself. What stage are you at? What are the indicators? How can you prepare for the next stage? It’s always a rewarding moment when coaching someone and the light comes on. That moment when they realize it’s not a unique problem. They aren’t the only ones going through these stages. Most importantly, when they discover there are ways to improve and get better, more efficient and don’t have to leave their territory and company.

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