The complexity of the foodservice sales environment requires that distributor sales reps, or DSRs, receive a significant amount of training. Much of this is centered on developing product knowledge. But the one thing that separates a professional DSR from a run-of-the-mill DSR is his or her degree of selling skills. Sales training goes well beyond order taking. It enters into the arena of problem solving and the kind of relationship building that allows DSRs to help operators run their businesses more successfully.
A large percentage of sales training programs are now online. There is good reason for the growth of this format. Distance learning is convenient — students can learn 24-7 — and it is usually less expensive than on-site classroom training. However, Rob Keeney, director of training at F.A.B. Inc., or Frosty Acres Brand, believes emphatically that old-fashioned, hands-on, face-to-face training is still needed to produce a professional, effective DSR.
F.A.B. is a member-owned sales, purchasing and marketing co-op based in Alpharetta, Ga. Its 80-plus members have aggregate sales of more than $4 billion. Keeney has been training director for the group for six years. He has more than 30 years experience in foodservice distribution sales, both as a DSR and in sales management. He is very clear about his training philosophy.
Why do you believe that live training is necessary?
One of the problems in the training world is the failure to recognize the role of live, coach-led training in the classroom and especially in the field. For instance, you don’t learn to play golf by using a computer. You have to hit a thousand balls under the guidance of a coach or trainer to master the skill set needed. It’s the same with selling. Selling skills require practice enhanced through feedback.
Do you use distance learning at all?
Sure. There are many topics that can be learned that way. For instance, we have an online module to teach basic foodservice math skills. That’s something that lends itself well to self-paced study and assessment. Distance learning is great for some things, but it shouldn’t be used to replace hands-on training completely.
Give us an example of your hands-on training.
We use a training technique called scenario modeling. DSRs come to Alpharetta for a three-day class. We work on four or five specific skill sets, like making cold calls, identifying customer needs, presenting solutions and closing. DSRs use real-life scenarios to practice their skills. We record them and play back the scenarios and provide constructive feedback.
Can this be done at their own distribution locations?
It can. But it’s more successful having them here. They really like working with DSRs from other companies across the country. Also, the logistics of setting up the scenarios and filming are fairly complex. Plus, to do it right, you need to have a small class, no more than six or seven.
Is this hands-on training for new DSRs only?
No. We have classes for rookies as well as separate classes for veterans.
Has the need for training increased over the past year with the industry facing hard times?
The need for training has always been critical. But things in the operator world have gotten more complicated lately. There are more regulatory issues they have to deal with, more fads and trends — like the trans-fat issue and the green movement.
Also, operators are much more sophisticated about getting product information on their own. DSRs will always need more product knowledge but now, more than ever, they need to learn how to investigate and solve customer problems. That takes a different level of skill.
Why do you think more people don’t use hands-on skill training?
There seem to be few practitioners of hands-on training left. It appears to be much less expensive to do everything online. Again, there are many things that can be learned that way. But I believe that coach-led skill practice is the best way to learn, practice and perfect selling skills. I guess I’m old-fashioned that way.