Sales Territory Management:

Become a Big Fish in a Small Pond

The Problem:  You struggle to sell your branded products because…

Your reason #1:  You’re not the brand leader:  In most markets, there is one company that has spent more time, resources, and money to become the brand leader.  They rightfully deserve brand recognition.  However, it’s tough to sell into this market because few customers even know who you are.  Previously, I shared my own story about competing against a company that had a 100-year head start on marketing to our customers.  They had seven salespeople in the same geography that I was assigned to cover by myself.  Not only did everyone in the Ag world know the brand, but everyone in the country knew their brand.  It was like they were Coke and there was no Pepsi. 

In many examples, the market leaders’ brand is synonymous with the product.  Great examples are Xerox, Kleenex, and Dog Chow.  “I need to make a Xerox of this paper,” was a common phrase for decades.  Xerox copiers dominated the brand so much that people referred to their name as the actual product.  Same thing for Kleenex or Chow.  “I fed Rusty some dog chow.”  Again, Purina had such a head start on pet food that their branded product Dog Chow became the common name for most dog foods.  In the case of Google, it has now become a common verb that the whole world knows.  If you don’t believe me, Google it.

Your reason #2:  Generic marketing material from corporate:  The next issue occurs with corporate branding.  As salespeople, we tend to leave all that up to the marketing team in the main headquarters office.  We let them deal with developing brochures, color patterns for our logos, social media posting, and all the advertising.  That’s not totally wrong but let’s think about one important point.  If your company is nationwide or worldwide, then the marketing material has to fit all of that diverse geography.  That’s a tall order to fill.  Customers in your territory (pond) might not feel like they are represented in your generic marketing material.  You make the brand come to life in your pond.  It’s nice to have good marketing material, but customers determine your actual brand by what you do in your territory (pond). 

Your reason #3:  Credibility and other noise in the marketplace:  There is a business phrase, “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”.  It’s in reference to who you buy from.  If you were buying computers for your company, your boss would not fault you for buying from IBM.  They were the most trusted brand in the market.   However, you are an unknown brand in your market.  Customers will doubt you and your product’s credibility.  Realize the risk they are taking by buying from you, an unknown brand.  If you sell to a retailer, they may tell you that customers aren’t asking for it.  People like to buy from people and companies they trust.  This is when salespeople will tell me that their marketing department needs to step up their efforts.  They need more advertising, more marketing material, or a better product design that accommodates everything a producer wants. Customers might play a wait-and-see game.  In agribusiness, there has been plenty of flash in the pan products.  Time is one piece of building credibility and so are you.

A Solution:  If you face this dilemma in your market, below is one method for managing your territory to overcome it.  Obviously, there are many other ways, but I followed and saw many salespeople follow these steps to become the market leader in their territory.

Step 1:  Fix your attitude and your view first:  This has to begin the process or you will be frustrated for many years.  Don’t lose sleep over what your company should have done.  Likewise, don’t lose sleep over what your large competitor is doing in the marketplace.  It doesn’t matter where you are in the brand strength in a market.  They all have advantages and disadvantages. 

  • Big brands are great to sell initially as everyone knows the name, customers ask for the products and retail availability is great as many dealers carry them.  On the downside, every retailer wants to carry it.  So, the big brand may have over-saturated the market with dealers.  That means they may not have the sales support to take care of that many dealers.   Also, in the last 2 years of the pandemic, they may not have the inventory to keep that many dealers supplied with product.  When it comes to pricing, there are many problems that can occur with a product going through multiple channels: direct to the farm, through a dealer network, an off-the-farm dealer channel, or distributor route.  Lastly, the online market has shaken up all channels to some extent.  Pricing, products, and promotions have to remain consistent in that scenario or chaos will soon break out.
  • Small or unknown brands are tougher to sell during the early years as no one has heard of you, trusts you, or wants to take a chance.  However, your strength is in your flexibility.  With a smaller distribution network, you can do things with products and promotions that would be difficult for your big competitor to copy.  All of this depends on your company’s desire to grow the business.  Obviously, start with your sales manager.  Then get to know the admin, production, and trucking department really well.  All three of these departments will be critical to accomplishing your goals.   

Step 2:  Build a smaller pond:  While your big competitor has built themselves into the big fish in the big pond, you can now slice off your own small pond and begin your strategy.  They have conquered the US or North America or maybe even the world.  Typically, that means they can’t be as focused on a local market.  Think about the variety of producers from the Washington produce industry to West Texas cotton to row crops in the Midwest to dairy producers in New York to multi-crop farms in Kentucky.  And if your competitor has dominated the market in your region, you can still narrow down the size of your pond further.  Let’s use the Wisconsin dairy market as an example.  The customer base and their needs change drastically from the large farms in the Green Bay and Madison area to the smaller farms in the Southwest and West area.  Narrow your pond down until you can take the next step and build your empire.

Step 3:  Building your empire:   I have been around many top-performing salespeople.  Getting to know them and how they got there, it always feels like they are sitting on top of an empire.  They worked really hard and built themself into a powerhouse.  They did all this within a narrow segment (small pond) of customers.  When I ask about how they did all this, the story is similar.  They started out trying to be everything to everyone in their market.  They tried to chase the big competitor in their area.  Soon, they developed a method of isolating down to what was needed for this specific segment.  Then they poured all their focus into that segment. 

            Author and speaker Joe Calloway wrote about this concept in his book, “Becoming a Category of One”.  It’s all about narrowing down your niche until you have no competition.  That niche might be in geography, products, or service.  In my own personal example, it was all of the above.  Every competing salesperson was trying to be the smartest expert on animal nutrition in the feed business. 

To compete in that category was pointless as the dealers and customers didn’t need it. 

  • They needed product availability:  distribution (route trucks, stocked products, smaller order sizes). 
  • They needed someone that would be available, knowledgeable, and help them get customers in their store: Service (answered my phone, knew the admin and production side of the business, hyper-responsiveness). 
  • They needed a company that was flexible:  Small Pond Strategy.  Create the products services and promotions that fit that particular market. 

When you think about your role and your brand strength, it comes down to starting from where you are and where you want to go.  If you are selling for the big brand in a market, great.  Take it from there and you can still provide all the other pieces to really dominate the market.  If you are in that small unknown brand category, trust me.  The effort and the journey are worth it.  It will seem like a long road, but very rewarding.

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