Anji Adams: Success of field sales is down to good HR

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Field sales is a relatively unsung sector, but it is in fact a multi-million pound industry made up of agencies that help big brands sell more products through big retailers. In the highly complex product life cycle, field sales people are often the last pair of hands to touch a product before you pick it off the shelves.

I am head of marketing for Tactical Solutions, part of the giant St Ives plc, which works for clients such as Heinz, Innocent, Kettle Chips, PZ Cussons and Burton’s Biscuits.

Success in Tactical’s world is quantified quite simply in hard cash: for every pound a brand spends with Tactical, they need to see more back in sales. In Tactical’s case, sometimes these ROI figures run to over a thousand per cent. But exactly how do they do it? The answer is largely down to HR.

Most of the competitors in the sector talk about the battleground being a highly scientific mix of technology, data, analytics and buyer psychology – and all of those are of course in play. But Tactical argues that those factors should be a given. Watching them at work visiting shops and supermarkets up and down the country, it is clear that the biggest point of difference is people.

I spoke with Tactical’s head of HR, Nerys Price-Jones about how she finds, recruits, trains and retains the right kind of people.

“The job of a field sales person is a tough one,” she explained. “Success in this industry depends on building good relationships with shop staff, so constancy and continuity are vital. Also, these shop staff are busy people who don’t like to feel like they’re being sold to, so certain attributes are essential to earn their respect.

“Our people need to be tenacious – because you very seldom get a result on the first visit; persistent enough to keep coming back; and down-to-earth enough to roll up their sleeves and make themselves useful on the shop floor with tasks such as shelf-stacking and arranging merchandise.”

So how did Tactical build a team of over 250 people just like this individual? Price-Jones continued:

“First we have to find them. We do our own recruitment in-house because those hard-to-define human attributes are the things we are best placed to spot. Strong field sales people recognise these attributes in others, and for that reason we also incentivise all our people to recruit and refer people, with those incentives linked to the performance of the ones we hire.”

The next area is the training process. As in many industries, there is a steep learning curve: candidates have to become immersed in the brands and products they are representing, as well as to understand the highly complex nuances of the shop floor.

“We operate a 26-week induction programme and an eight-stage sign-off process for every new employee,” explains Price-Jones. “Each individual is fully supported through courses such as customer relations, what a successful call looks like, and client expectations. Even once inducted, they are accompanied by one of our senior management team at regular intervals, which the overwhelming majority of them welcome for two reasons.

“First of all, it allows them to take pride in their success, and to let their managers see with their own eyes how effective they are. Secondly, in situations where they don’t succeed, they benefit from a second opinion from a more experienced colleague, who can help them solve those challenges in a practical way.”

The final piece of the puzzle, of course, is retaining the best people.

“We encourage ambition. If someone is a superstar on the shop floor, there are many rewarding paths open to them. Of course we incentivise people who want to stay in a certain role if they are good at it – our Make A Difference (MAD) programme offers reward points linked to length of service, performance, initiative and other indicators.

“But if someone has the excellence and the desire to fast-track away from the shop floor and into management, that suits all parties too. We can then involve them in recruitment, coaching and mentoring – and that’s how we know our team will be just as strong for generations to come.”

Anji Adams, Head of Marketing, Tactical Solutions

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