Changing Role of Sales

David Gordon

Oct 8, 2020

By David Gordon

It’s been almost seven months (March) since COVID exploded into the electrical industry. It’s been a roller coaster road for many with everyone expecting the business to fall off the side of the earth in April. And the role of sales has been the most disrupted.

In the first 30-45 days many companies instituted workforce changes (furloughs and layoffs). While the business has improved significantly since then, the employment picture remained cloudy. Some returned from furlough, some have been rehired at their previous employer or somewhere else, and some companies have instituted other layoffs either due to COVID or for other reasons.

Specifically, the role of sales has been impacted. Between social distancing, customers preferring online interaction (Zoom/Teams) or phone as well as migrating to eCommerce and other technical sales tools.

At the same time, some companies are hiring opportunistically as they are in a strong financial position and are positioning to take share.

And other companies have identified talent that they can use in their business (in various roles).

Recently we spoke with John Salvadore, President of GRN Coastal Recruiters. John has spent over 30 years in the electrical industry having worked for a manufacturer, a distributor, a marketing group, and a national accounts organization. He started GRN Coastal to support companies in the electrical industry, and has since expanded into complementary industries. Our conversation was about the employment outlook for those who have been laid off earlier this year and how the employment market is changing and specifically what companies are seeking in the new sales role.

John share his thoughts. According to John, the pandemic is changing the role of sales.

The pandemic has caused a major shift in the way distributors and manufacturers are being forced to sell and go to market. It has accelerated the role of inside sales and telesales. Outside sales reps are now facing the biggest challenge that this traditional position has ever experienced, that of not being able to be face to face with customers as frequently. The pandemic has essentially phased out the days of the traditional old school “route salesman” because that rep isn’t allowed to make their traditional buddy calls.

From a recruiter’s view, we have seen a spike in demand now for technically savvy inside sales reps. Candidates with solid product knowledge, good communication skills, tech savvy and less actual sales experience. We are seeing sales teams getting leaner, younger and more tech savvy. The pandemic has shifted focus from in-person sales calls to video and simple phone calls. This presents a big challenge for sales reps that are accustomed to a set pattern and opens the door for a whole new generation of sales reps and sales and marketing methods. If candidates have business system experience coupled with some product experience, “location” also is becoming less important as the role of the remote employee has also accelerated from being someone you have to keep tight tabs on to being someone that is trusted to get the job done with little supervision. Technology is therefore also driving this paradigm shift. 

Instead of the in-person product demo, customers get an email with a product demonstration link embedded in the email and then a follow-up phone call for tech questions.
Manufacturers launching new products in an online forum with customer Q&A, followed by a digital customer launch will become more prevalent. Quick on the run phone video calls will replace the need for in person calls. Marketing methods also are changing. 

Hiring specs change

Companies are already shifting their hiring requirements and our incoming inquiries from potential candidates has gone up dramatically. Most of these calls are from traditional sales reps or managers that have been furloughed, laid off or are uncomfortable with their current role and most of these folks are over 50 years old. The harsh reality has begun. If you are not able to adapt to this new normal of selling, your effectiveness in the eyes of your employer is rapidly diminishing, thus creating the need for change. The pandemic is creating a veil to cover up the challenge of the aging workforce. 

The profile of the “new” sales rep we are told to find now is early in their career, highly motivated, tech savvy with some feel for the industry that can be trained on the products quickly and has great communication skills. And this employee is plain and simply cheaper, and it allows the employer to potentially hire two new profiles versus one more experienced, older, less technology driven rep. We are hearing a lot of, “We need to get younger.” Over the long run this new type of employee could be working remotely thus allowing companies to shrink their commercial real estate footprint as they will need less desk space. Companies will have the choice of less of a square foot required to conduct business or invest in more square footage to accommodate social distancing…. an easy decision if you have the right type of workforce. 

The harsh truth is that in the past the older you got, the more vulnerable you became to your longevity in a role. That “age” card is now being accelerated even more. In the past you hit your 60s and you became expendable; the pandemic has shifted that back to your 50s. Thus, your tech skill set needs to be upgraded quickly. The days of not logging sales calls into a CRM package are over. Data analytics are starting to play a much larger role as sales managers are doing less “ride along “calls and relying on metrics and data to judge performance. Sales and marketing change is here… right now.

John Salvadore is president of GRN Coastal Recruiters. GRN Coastal specializes in recruiting for electrical distributors and manufacturers and have over 30 years experience in the electrical industry. Their motto is “From the industry, for the industry.”

While this sounds harsh, and you may say “not happening in my company,” but consider that this could be a leading trend, could be the perspective of larger companies;,may be more tailored to industrially-oriented companies, or… maybe not you because you are not looking. John’s seeing this from multiple clients in the electrical and automation industries.

What we do know is that the role of sales is changing and that salespeople will need to adapt. The longer COVID continues (and the end is not in site), the more ingrained the changes will become and the days of the “milk run” will further diminish. Relationships still matter but, hopefully they have been built and can be reinforced with performance, support, and visibility. Some customers are willing to see their local salesperson, but this is the exception, not the rule and the days of “drop-ins” are more scarce.

Further, for any salesperson to not “run” to learn and quickly be supportive of technology is short-sighted. In the words of one manufacturer, “COVID has accelerated technology change and adoption by three years.”

The other point… for companies that have fared better than feared this year, stocking up on talent to expand your customer reach and/or accelerate some initiatives can help in taking market share. Some companies are more focused on right-sizing to meet budgets; some have commented, “We saved X and we’re good financially,” some have commented, “I can reduce outside sales since they are not doing much,”but these are the companies that could be the most vulnerable to an aggressive competitor who takes advantage of a talent pool in a recovering market (which 2021 is projected to be).

So, success, as an employed salesperson, an unemployed salesperson or a distributor/manufacturer seeking to succeed is to “tech up” and be willing to innovate.

David Gordon is President of Channel Marketing Group. Channel Marketing Group develops market share and growth strategies for manufacturers and distributors and develops market research. CMG’s specialty is the electrical industry. He also authors an electrical industry blog, www.electricaltrends.com. Channel Marketing Group does not engage with clients on detailed pricing strategies, however, given that pricing is a critical element of sales, marketing and growth planning, we do get asked about the topic and can share opinions and refer to those who focus on the area as well as share anecdotes. David Gordon can be reached at 919-488-8635 or dgordon@channelmkt.com.

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