Developing a good In-Market Distributor Sales Operation -  A Case Study 

Throughout my international experience I have worked for companies who believed in a close working involvement with their distributors. In other words, we did not just negotiate a deal with a distributor, supply our product and then say ‘you get on with it; if you fail we will appoint another’.

To ensure we gained the maximum commercial benefit from the relationship we would bring our worldwide experience to the ‘party’. This could mean retraining a long established distributor to capably handle our products.

In broad terms this involvement arose from the performance criteria we set and the need to provide counsel and advice on how these results could be achieved.

Take typical performance criteria which were based on any good sales operation. Naturally sales targets were the principal criteria but they were not based on shipments only. We believed it was far more important to measure in-market sales performance, namely the sales out from the distributor to his customers throughout the target market. In measuring in-market sales, we are moving closer to a traditional sales management role.

Additionally we would set sales productivity requirements such as orders to call, average order size, range selling, repeat orders, call frequency, product distribution by outlet category and geographical location.

As already stated many distributors would find such targets daunting even though through our worldwide experience we knew these were key success criteria for our products. Frankly one can set as many targets as you like but if people do not know how to achieve them, then it is a commercial waste of time.

To assist, we needed to get close to the distributor’s sales operation to advise on best practice. This was a period of consultation which we were fully prepared to invest in. There were two broad areas to consider – territory management followed by in-call sales productivity.

The first steps were to agree territory coverage plans and set a template for salesmen calls. The main purpose in setting regular call patterns were to maximise selling time and reduce unnecessary travelling time together with improving in-call activities such as improved control of stock and order, account collection, merchandising and customer relations.

We would then develop a territory plan by:

  • Analysing each customer
  • Defining call objectives by customer
  • Allocating territory time
  • Planning the calls
  • Scheduling the calls
  • Planning the route
  • Evaluating the Territory Plan
  • Route planning –

Time can be saved on planning a day’s calls in a logical manner. We found that there are three general approaches to planning a route, whether for a full day or a morning/afternoon.

  • “Work out and drive” – basically means continuously travelling from customer to customer with short travelling distances between.
  • “Drive out and work back” – drive directly to the farthest point from the warehouse and work back.
  • “Work out and drive back” – the reverse of the above by working out to the farthest point then drive back.

We would grade each type of customer or outlet into categories and allocate a call rate for example; major customers or key accounts would visited at least two times a week, other customers once a week, some fortnightly and prospecting for new customers monthly.

From the target coverage, we would now plan routes and daily routines for each salesman’s territory. Naturally this can be quite a complex and time-consuming operation particularly to ensure total customer numbers and geographical spread was equitable between salesmen. I hasten to add that the majority of distributors already operated a route planning system and we just ‘tweaked’ the arrangements to achieve better productivity. We would review



  • Size and shape of territory
  • Total number of calls
  • Number of planned call days
  • Type of calls

Each type of call requires a different amount of time to be handled properly. We considered each type of customer visited and estimate the time to successfully handle each call.

For example:

  • Supermarkets
  • Wholesalers
  • Retail shops
  • Market stalls
  • Street hawkers
  • Hotels/restaurants/cafes
  • Petrol Stations
  •  Tax/Duty Free outlets

The most important element was to ensure that the distributor fully accepted the rationale for these plans and had systems in place to check and monitor performance. This is where the criteria noted earlier came into play. We would demonstrate the link between a performance target and the quality of the route being followed. For example, assume a salesman’s order to call rate was dropping. We would jointly analyse the possible reasons for the matter.

The common cause for this is low sales skills though other reasons need to be considered. There literally maybe too many calls with the salesman having to rush and spend too little quality sales time in every call.  They may be the wrong type of calls or being visited at the wrong time, With my consumer products many small outlets paid in cash, there was a right time in the week to call to get payment.

Let’s take another productivity measurement, average order size. Dependent upon the distributor’s method of operation this may be expressed in order value or in units sold. For my business it was essential local salesmen sold volume to ensure a minimum in-stock until their next call. Another critical measurement was range selling – we needed the salesmen not only to sell the ‘bread and butter’ products but to ensure the agreed product range was sold in every appropriate outlet.  Orders to call do not measure the depth of a sales visit so it must be supported by assessment of range sold.

There are other in-call measurements such as in-store merchandising activity but I trust the foregoing illustrate the point.

I have been fortunate in that I have worked literally in-markets for a number of years and seeing first-hand the sales operations of distributors. One thing I have learned is that regardless of how large or small or more or less sophisticated they are, the majority of their sales operations will benefit from international experience, It is for each exporter to decide whether to offer this expertise or leave their distributor to their own devices.


Written 31st Ocotber 2013 by Dick Brentnall S&H LLP Associate/ Trainer

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