close [X]
December 11, 2019 | Coach’s Corner | Greg Martinelli

What to Do When You Inherit a Dysfunctional Sales Territory

How to deal with the Tom, Dick & Harriets of the world

Agribusiness is a very old and mature industry, with thousands of sales territories out there for us to work in. Most likely you inherited your sales territory. 

Except for a retirement, we don’t typically inherit the best territory in the market. 

Sales managers don’t look around and say, “Hey, let’s put our best customers in the hands of our new salesperson.” 

Usually, we get a marginal territory or maybe a split off of someone else’s territory. 


Now, imagine you are a high performing salesperson. Your sales manager comes to you and says, “Hey, I need you to cut your territory in half so we can give the new salesperson some customers to work with!” 

Guess which types of customers you will get from that high performing salesperson. Top tier customers? Probably not. Often, we are given the keys to what might be considered a jalopy of a territory. 

Here are a few salespeople you might inherit your territory from:

Terrific Tom: Your predecessor was Tom. A wonderful human being, he worked the territory for nearly 30 years, was friends with most of the internal people and well known in the industry. Tom even won several sales awards many years ago. You can’t figure out, however, exactly what Tom did for the last five to 10 years. He had a handful of old-style accounts that he called on routinely. 

While they bought mostly out of loyalty to Tom, the up-and-coming customers in the territory are all buying from your competition. May the legend of Terrific Tom rest in peace as he sails off into the sunset of retirement and you now have to hear about how terrific he was from every customer for the next year.

Dishonest Dick: Maybe your predecessor was dishonest Dick. He was the epitome of salesy. He ran around the territory and did whatever it took to sell, to include some less than ethical practices. He broke most of the internal rules on selling. Credit terms, proper distribution channels, minimum order sizes, minimum delivery orders meant nothing to Dick.

If it meant losing a sale, Dick would break all the rules to get the results. He signed up direct farm accounts, dealer retailers and even sold through several distributors. You are now faced with cleaning up this mess and operating this territory completely different than Dick. I’m sure his customers that were getting all the good deals from Dick are going to enjoy buying from you as you adhere a little closer to ethical and legal selling practices.

Helpful Harriet: Yes, you replaced one of the most helpful salespeople in the industry. Harriet would babysit every customer through every step of the buying process.

She took every order from her customers, personally called them into the office, coordinated the delivery and then confirmed it with the customer. Whenever there was the slightest problem, Harriet’s customers knew they could make one phone call to her and everything was taken care of. While that’s just outstanding customer service, you realize that she only had about 10 accounts.

Never fear, I’m sure her customers will learn how to use your 1-800# to put orders in. If not, they can Snapchat you on a Twitter feed.

Some initial steps to handling your inheritance:

  1. Realize this is not as much about you as it is about change. The current customers bought from Tom, Dick, and Harriet because they liked them. No matter who replaces them, it is a change. Our customers are busy and most likely don’t like nor trust change. Every territory change will result in some customer change. There will be customers that just don’t connect with you and won’t buy from you. On a positive note, however, there will also be customers that you can sell but Tom, Dick, and Harriet could not.
  2. Nobody runs a perfect territory. Try as hard as you can to not point fingers at your predecessor. They may not have been the cause of all that is wrong with the territory. Most likely, they also inherited the territory.
  3. Plan to make changes based on who you are and how impactful the change is. If you are brand new to the industry, to the company or to sales, it’s worth spending some time in your territory before implementing the big changes. If you are in the “D” or “I” DISC profiles, then again, I recommend taking some time to consider how fast you make changes. If you are not familiar, these are the two profiles that love to make changes and implement them quickly. “Let’s build the plane in the air!” is their motto. The one exception to this is Dick’s territory. Special requests are one thing: smaller than minimum orders or run sizes, etc. However, any unethical practices need to come to an abrupt end right away. You need to make it clear to your customers that you simply won’t work that way. They will either understand you, respect you for it and keep buying or they will understand you and go looking for someone else that will sell unethically to them (good riddance).
  4. Meet with your manager, departments and peers. As mentioned, in those first days or weeks, we don’t have all the answers as to why Tom, Dick, and Harriet sold the way they did.  When you feel you have a solid idea of changes you intend to make, my suggestion is to discuss it with a few of your peers that have similar territories to yours. How do they handle these situations? Are they selling just like Tom, Dick or Harriet? Next, meet with some of your key department managers: credit, production, trucking, marketing, etc. Find out the impact of small deliveries, small order sizes, custom products, multiple distribution channels. Lastly, summarize your thoughts and meet with your manager.
    I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that she already knows how bad it is in your territory. While meeting, you might even find out that this is the reason Tom, Dick or Harriet no longer work there.
    In fact, this is the reason you have the territory. Wow, what a relief. Many of your ideas to improve the territory are confirmed and you can now set off with the confidence of having a support team behind you.
  5. The Proof is in your performance. Now, go make the changes. You can certainly go about telling customers what you plan to do. However, I find they are busy with too many other vendors and will believe you when they see it. So, let them see it. If you say you will be different than Tom, by calling on more accounts, being more technically competent and growing your territory, then do it. They will believe you when they see it. Too many poor performing salespeople have walked through their dealership doors or onto their farm and made empty promises of better selling. Customers have learned to smile, nod and think, “Well, we’ll see”.

Lastly, don’t expect the inheritance to be an easy transition. It takes time and a whole bunch of persistence.

Your customers will challenge you to go back to the old way and sell like Tom, Dick or Harriet.

Your internal departments will urge you to make changes right away. It’s your role to balance between keeping customers, making needed changes and growing your territory into your vision.

So, keep your focus on the goals for your territory.

More Articles