Replacement sales force in supermarkets: relevant for your brand?

Substitute sales force in supermarkets: benefits and winning recipes for brands

Alexis Lecomte
February 6, 2024 - 10 min reading

Maintaining or developing market share and sales in supermarkets always comes at a cost for brands. Whether it's a question of extending their network, getting their merchandising right or selling promotions, companies have no choice but to invest in their field sales force to achieve their objectives. However, there is an alternative to internal recruitment of field sales staff: the auxiliary or outsourced sales force.

If you're hesitating to take the plunge, you'll find in this mini guide the cases in which it's most common to call on a back-up sales force, the associated risks, and, for those determined to go ahead, a few tips to ensure a successful deployment.

Substitute sales force: definition

An auxiliary sales force is a sedentary or itinerant sales team that complements the sales force of the company employing it. Their role is to reinforce, expand or temporarily replace an existing workforce.

An outsourced sales force replaces the company's own sales force. This is a long-term service, as opposed to a back-up sales force, which usually provides one-off support for the in-house sales organization. The term "semi-internalized sales force" is sometimes used, due to the long-term nature of the service. We also need to distinguish between external sales forces, independent agents and other sales representatives. In this case, the customer calls on a company with which a service contract has been signed. 

There are two main types of organization: mobilized sales staff can be assigned to a specific brand, or manage a portfolio of brands, thus carrying out shared sales rounds.

Last but not least, while the use of an external sales force exists in many industries, it takes on a particular dimension in the retail sector. Appointments in supermarkets involve a wide range of objectives, from sales to animation to shelf-space surveys. That's why some agencies have specialized in this field. They stand out for their knowledge and expertise of the market, and for their privileged relationships with the brands and the sales outlets themselves.

When should you use a contingent sales force?

There are many situations that may lead you to consider outsourcing your field sales strategy. If your ambition is to develop your presence or defend your shelf space over the long term, outsourcing may be the right choice. But, as we shall see, there are a number of situations in which it's more appropriate to choose a back-up sales force.

1) Seasonality of sales

The use of a back-up sales force is closely linked to the notion of reinforcement, often associated with seasonal issues. Indeed, many industries experience peaks of activity at certain times of the year, such as the toy or chocolate industries during the holiday season, or the ready-to-wear sector during the sales season. In this configuration, the sales department may be overstaffed in off-peak periods, and completely overwhelmed by targets in peak periods. Controlled cost management may therefore recommend keeping the sales structure to a minimum, and increasing the number of staff to cope with peak periods.

2) Events and one-off operations

The life of your company is marked by changes of all kinds, and many events may lead you to consider commercial reinforcement, such as : 

  • New product launches;
  • Deploying pirate operations;
  • Countering competing operations ;
  • Encourage the descent of a new assortment;
  • Launch special operations, such as clearance sales;
  • Etc.

All these operations, described as "commando", "coup de poing" or "one shot", are not intended to last. Here again, the financial strategy can be geared towards the auxiliary sales force. This flexibility makes it possible to absorb the workload, and above all, tomove quickly in execution, all without hiring in-house sales teams.

The back-up sales force also makes it possible to react quickly to market opportunities, enabling us to accelerate in emerging markets.

3) Territorial deployment or distribution network extension

Using a service provider specialized in the retail sector can also make you more efficient when it comes to strategic changes. For example, if you have historically worked exclusively with one brand, and you decide to expand your network, the lack of contacts can slow you down considerably. In this case, why not call in a company with a track record of working with customers?

The same applies to territorial deployment, and the expansion of the sales front. In short, a team of external field sales representatives can make all the difference when you want to expand your network and your area managers are already saturated, or to reach regions or markets in which you have a limited presence.

4) Brand launch and activation

Another example is new companies, whose strong growth is often synonymous with risk: in a market that is not yet fully mastered, a back-up sales force can accelerate sales at lower cost. But savings are not the only advantage: the agency's experience can also be an asset. In fact, start-up companies are not always cut out for sales performance, and a collaboration of this kind can help the management team gain maturity in their sales approach and discourse.

What's more, in a start-up company, the management team often benefits from concentrating on strategic issues that cannot be delegated. The back-up sales force then relieves them of a time-consuming and energy-intensive sales mission.

5) Reorganize the sales cycle to increase profitability

Many companies prefer their experienced area managers to concentrate on key accounts. The additional sales force can then work on accounts of lesser importance in terms of sales, or stores too far from the company's catchment area. This distribution of roles optimizes the cost per appointment.

6) Inspection visits

In the same vein, entrust inspection visits to a service provider. In the world of mass retailing, field visits are more than just a way of canvassing sales: 

  • Check that products are present and in the right place, reassemble the digital detention ;
  • Check merchandising and point-of-sale displays;
  • Competitive intelligence and practice analysis ;
  • Etc.

Leave visits with greater added value (selling a promotion, selling a new product, improving commercial relations...) to your in-house sector managers. 

This solution contributes to the analysis of results in the field, to the increase in digital holdings, and therefore to the increase in order volume at the level of central offices or sales outlets themselves.

To do this, equip external sales staff with an application designed for line-scanning, so as to encourage instant and automatic feedback of the right data from the field, including photos of the shelves.

7) Challenge your results

Another advantage of the contingent sales force: challenging your methods and beliefs. Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself: 

  • How would you assess the quality of the sales pitch you've built up over time? 
  • Are you sure you've identified all your sales arguments and techniques? 
  • What if your prospects had changed since you were a sector manager thirty years ago?

Whether you're aware of a lack of sales skills or are convinced that you're a master of the art, entrusting part of your customer or prospect base to an external service provider can also help you assess your level of sales competence. This collaboration provides you with a fresh, objective view of the sales strategies you need to adopt, as well as innovative ideas that may not be available in-house.

8) Outsourcing strategy

In the context of financial strategy, outsourcing (the outsourcing of services or products by a company) is a way of keeping fixed costs under control, and of dealing with unforeseen events. For example, many French companies are wary of staffing up: a recruitment failure can be costly, either because the resource stagnates at too low a performance level, or because the need for support exhausts the company's training or management capacity. The process of selecting and meeting candidates is itself time-consuming and complex.

Finally, let's not forget contract terminations, which can sometimes get out of hand. In the final analysis, human resources management can sometimes get companies into trouble, and if HR is your weak point, having an external service provider will undoubtedly help you avoid many of the pitfalls associated with business life. For example, calling in a back-up sales force means less management, and problems that are no longer your own (motivation, sick leave, follow-up interviews, etc.).

9) Contribution of expertise

Substitute sales force agencies often bring specific expertise and market knowledge, useful for penetrating new segments or optimizing sales strategies. Their customer references in your industry are a valuable asset. What's more, their multi-sector reach gives them a broader distribution culture that you can benefit from too!

Disadvantages of sales force outsourcing

After all that's been said, outsourcing your sales department might seem like the obvious choice for every company. But it's not that simple! 

There are many problems inherent in this type of collaboration. The most obvious is the loss of monitoring and visibility in the field. Many managers are keen to stay in touch with the field, and fear losing control of the business. Indeed, some consider sales to be an integral part of corporate culture. In such cases, the company's workforce - starting with salespeople - is likely to be on the defensive.

What's more, adding another intermediary between you and your customers inevitably lengthens the transmission process, in both directions. 

The structure of your distribution network is another factor to consider. Relationships play an important role in the retail sector. For department heads, buyers and managers of independent networks, a change of salesperson can undermine established relationships and trust. Your company's image could suffer as a result! Are you sure a change of contact is strategic at this time?

Finally, it's important to take into account the technical nature of your products, which can be a major challenge. In the case of certain industries or specific products, the level of knowledge and experience required can be difficult for the service provider to master. A lack of relevance in the sales approach, due to a lack of understanding of the product, could then cause you to lose sales. Indeed, it's often the agencies themselves that are reluctant to collaborate on products that are too technical, or require lengthy training for their teams. Their commercial and financial performance depends on mastery of processes, and having to commit a long time to training can be costly.

However, proving their effectiveness to their customers is one of the objectives of agencies, which is why they may refuse to do so if they fear the difficulty. Nonetheless, some agencies have adopted the principle of test periods. They evaluate performance from the start of the collaboration with the brand (P0). The test period therefore includes an assessment at the end of which the agency identifies - or not - prospects for improvement and profitability.

So, when you're marketing complex or highly technical products, beware of the agency that signs a contract without anticipating the consequences for its business model. And if, on the other hand, you've found the service provider of your dreams, but he's afraid of losing some of his feathers, take the time to work out a virtuous collaboration for both parties. What's more, if you need long-term support, you'll tend to look for a long-term service provider to boost your sales force over time, rather than a temporary (and therefore supplementary) service linked to a one-off operation or overload.

Now let's delve into the best practices for setting up a back-up sales force.

10 tips for successful sales force outsourcing in supermarkets

  1. Onboarding & useful resources: take the time to create a library of useful training resources. Document the company's sales know-how: many decision-makers have excellent sales techniques, but these are not formalized in a sales kit. This is an opportunity to consolidate the co kit, which can also be used internally. Allocate time to training your teams - Rome wasn't built in a day! 
  2. Business objectives: define clear objectives, such as the number of new points of sale, the conversion rate, the number of promotions sold, and so on. You can prioritize them and make all or part of the service provider's remuneration conditional on achieving these objectives. 
  3. Gradual investment: determine a test scope: whether it's a territory or a type of outlet, start with a trial, and gradually increase the number of salespeople;
  4. Follow-up and milestones: in some cases, the mission may last over time. Set KPIs so that you're not left in the fog until the end of the sprint. Determine the frequency and means of exchanges and reporting; 
  5. Preparing customers: most of you will avoid entrusting key accounts to an external service provider. But if this does happen, take the time to warn your strategic customers in advance, to avoid any negative human impact; 
  6. Sales profile: define a typical sales profile. Your service provider must listen to your expectations and take into account your human expertise. Ask your partner how they recruit and train their salespeople? What experience do they have in your business sector? Are their cases verifiable through customer references? 
  7. Include IT in the tool planning process: what parts of your CRM will the service provider have access to? Can its CRM connect to yours via EDI or API? What about RGPD?
  8. Animation: include external FDVs in your steering meetings: remember that they contribute to the effort, and must therefore be recognized;
  9. Mobilize internal resources: involve your internal sales staff in setting up the system: you know that this change is likely to destabilize them, so use it as a motivational lever, and remember that too much compartmentalization will tend to create fear and tension;
  10. Remuneration and responsibilities: challenge the service provider's contractual proposal. Anticipate a remuneration plan that includes a variable component based on results. Don't hesitate to draw up specifications listing your expectations and the specific features of your market. This document - which can be accompanied by a confidentiality agreement (NDA) - can be used to request quotes from different agencies, for comparison purposes.

In conclusion, there are many reasons why you should look for a temporary or long-term outsourced sales service provider. The strategic and financial advantages are many, but it's important to be aware of the limitations. If your brand is about to take the plunge, our list of important points should help get the project off the ground.

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