Guidelines to Planning a Territory Visit
This article is an ERA White Paper that provides recommended guidelines for all manufacturer FACTORY sales managers, manufacturers’ representatives or other visitors when planning and implementing territory visits.*
About the authors
ERA is deeply grateful to the co-authors of this white paper for their time and expertise in developing these guidelines.
Tom Wichert is the vice president of sales of TDK-Lambda Americas. He joined TDK-Lambda in 1998 as the business development manager and was named to his current position in early 2001. He now directs all his company’s sales activities in North and South America, including working with reps, distributors, regional sales managers and key account managers. Prior to his move to TDK-Lambda, Tom was a design engineer and then program manager at Aerospace Avionics, Inc. He earned a BSEE from West Virginia University and an MBA from Hofstra University.
Mark Conley is the president of O’Donnell Associates North in San Jose, Cal. He joined his firm in 1979 as a sales engineer and completed his buyout of the company in 1991. He is a member of six different rep councils and, after serving as the Northern California delegate to the ERA Board, he moved on to the ERA Executive Committee in 2009. He served as association president in 2011-13 and in 2013 was elected ERA chairman. He has been a program speaker at two Global Supply Chain Summits and many ERA Conferences. He is also a long-serving member of ERA’s Conference Committee, which he chaired in 2004. He is a past chair of the Wescon Business Conference and in 2006 was one of the first two recipients of the Ray Hall Spirit of ERA Award. Mark is a graduate of California State University in Chico where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.
‘Passport’ into the territory
Territory visits are a very important element in the working relationship between the field sales firm (representative) and the manufacturer. In today’s environment, customers may be very reluctant to see factory visitors unless there is a specific need or reason.
Done well, with purpose and planning, territory visits from sales management and/or factory personnel can increase sales and market share. Done poorly, with questionable purpose and no planning, a visit can damage not only the relationship between the field sales firm and the manufacturer, but it can harm the customer relationship as well.
While navigating a territory visit, everyone must keep in mind that there are topics that are NEVER to be discussed:
- sex, politics and/or religion;
- problems with other field sales firms;
- salaries; and
- problems within your company.
Planning time line
Six weeks out
Planning notification: Make very clear with the representative the agreed upon length of the visit as well as the territories to be visited (if rep is a multi-territory firm).
Four weeks out
The visit agenda and the target accounts should be outlined, as well as the critical issues to be addressed and the objectives to be accomplished.
Two weeks out
The factory visitor(s) and representative should discuss strategic accounts, key objectives and issues. They should also confirm appointments and agendas for customer visits as well as discussing any “hot” personality issues among the individuals they will be visiting.
One week out
The factory visitor(s) and representative should cover pre-visit information. (See the following section titled Pre-vsit information and planning.)
Planning the Visit
Duration of visit
Considering airfare and travel time, the ideal visit is three days and two nights. Single-day visits should be avoided, unless warranted by special circumstances.
A balanced mix of established accounts and new (qualified) business opportunities should be included, with “hot” or critical issues given priority.
- Flights: Confirm arrival and departure information for all visitors. (It is recommended that flights be timed for arrival and departure in the morning or evening.)
- Hotel reservations: Confirm who is responsible for bookings.
- Entertainment: Confirm requirements with customers for when, where, who, etc.
- Transportation: Is a rental car needed? If so, confirm who is making arrangements.
- Appointments: Using an email “meeting notice” is recommended to confirm all appointments.
Pre-visit information and planning
- Discuss key account strategies for good calls.
- Ensure that everyone traveling with you understands the role of the sales firm in the territory. Also ensure they understand their own role with each account being called upon.
- Determine any training that can be covered during the visit.
- Review any service or product issues with customers in the territory.
- Be prepared. Do your homework on the rep sales organization, problems and issues with customers, sales in the territory, key accounts and potential new business opportunities.
- Analyze the business being done in the territory.
- For strategic accounts, a review between the representative and the factory should be conducted one week prior to ensure that all materials needed for each sales call will be brought in.
- Focus on growing factory influence at each account, i.e., by setting up meetings with personnel from various departments, including program managers, the director of engineering and/or commodity managers.
- Discuss short and long-term goals for each customer to be visited as well as the strategy for each call. Roles during the call should be identified and agreed upon at this time.
- Confirm all dates, visitors, target account visits and activities.
Unannounced visits to the territory
A standard best practice for factory personnel is to refrain from visiting a territory unannounced. There are times when emergency visits must occur, but the representative should be notified of such visits as soon they are conceived. Factory visitors should never assume that a representative can “just make time” for them in an unannounced situation. Nor should factory personnel ever visit a territory, for any reason, without the representative being aware of the visit. History and experience have shown that this practice is simply bad form and causes subsequent problems for all concerned.
Standard practice: Expenses while visiting
While factory visitors travel in the territory, it is customary that sales reps and factory personnel share equally in the costs of dining and entertainment with each other. This most often becomes a potential problem when non-sales types travel to the territory. These individuals are not usually frequent visitors and so need to be coached by their management regarding their obligation to share in the cost of dining and entertainment. When multiple factory visitors are traveling together, unless there is company policy directing otherwise, it is best for the senior member among the factory visitors to pay the tab for dining and/or entertainment, making approval of those expenses easier and smoother.
Also for consideration, there are factors that push the responsibility of expenses in the direction of the factory visitor. Specifically, when entertaining a customer, it should always be the responsibility of the factory to pay that expense since the representative bears the burden of paying that expense all year long when a factory person is not present.
The Sales Calls
- Agree in advance who will take the leadership role as the “quarterback” during each sales call, the factory visitor or the representative. Either way, the representative should always handle introductions and the preamble to the meeting.
- Also agree in advance who will take notes. The note taker must capture all agreed-upon action items.
- Be patient if it’s necessary for your representative to handle some other principal’s business while you’re with a customer. Remember that making sure the customer’s needs are met improves the relationship and increases sales for everyone. (Plus, you would expect this same attention if you were the other principal.)
- To grow your influence at the account, focus on adding value for each customer.
- In special circumstances, distributors may be invited to join in on a factory/rep sales call. When this is the case, certain considerations should be made:
a) Don’t rely on the distributor to set up the customer visit.
b) Do not let the distributor salesperson be the “quarterback” on the sales call.
c) Focus on the purpose of this visit with the distributor present.
d) Don’t discuss other product lines with distributors present.
Murphy’s Law: Handling problems and having a back-up plan
The factory visitor(s) and representative should discuss and have a plan to handle any and all problems that may arise, especially when high-level executives are visiting a territory. Circumstances to cover in your plan include:
- Calls that run too long;
- Last-minute changes;
- Scheduling too much;
- Last-minute cancellations; and/or
- Weather issues (e.g., snow, storms).
- Always be ready with alternative accounts to call on if an appointment falls through for whatever reason.
After the sales calls
Factory visitor(s): Follow-up promptly and copy your field sales firm on all correspondence resulting from your visit. Always DO what you tell the customers you are going to do WHEN you tell the customers you are going to do it.
Representative: Within 24 to 48 hours, send call reports to the factory visitor(s) and any others who should be copied.
a) Provide detailed accounting of details of customer visit.
b) Some agenda/action items may be copied to the customer, but both the factory visitor(s) and representative should discuss these first.
c) Provide a specific list of action items with clearly defined ownership of each action item.
d) Urgent action items should be treated separately from the call report.
e) Remember that the representative ultimately owns all action items until they are completed.
a) Within 48 hours of receiving the call reports from the representative, acknowledge receipt of the reports and respond to representative with suggestions of amendments and/or editions to the reports.
b) Visitor is responsible for ensuring that all factory-owned action items are followed up by the due date(s) agreed upon in the call reports.
c) Now it’s time to plan your next successful territory visit!
* This publication is based on a breakout seminar presented by the authors at ERA’s 46th Management and Marketing Conference in October 2013.