Embracing Digital Solutions in Last Mile Distribution: Six Steps for Introducing New Tools to Sales Agents
COVID-19 has accelerated the shift towards greater digitalisation that was already well underway in the last mile distribution sector. Last mile distribution companies (which we’ll refer to as “distributors” in this article) were already adopting digital solutions to track and manage sales. But since the pandemic started, they are increasingly using software in other areas, such as marketing, ordering and payments. And two of the five winners of the Global Distributors Collective (GDC) Innovation Challenge 2020 have tested digital tools for sales agent management.
In response to this growing demand, more third-party services are coming onto the market to help distributors increase sales efficiency, improve agent compliance and streamline operations in an increasingly digital world. In light of this variety of options, a distributor’s first priority is to choose the right suite of digital solutions for their unique needs. The GDC’s new Digital Service Catalogue faciliates this by showcasing over 70 digital services suitable for distributors, used and reviewed by GDC members, to help them learn from each other’s experiences and make informed decisions.
Once they’ve chosen a suitable digital service, one key to sustained success is embedding the service across the company and ensuring that sales agents – who may be change-averse or new to using mobile apps – are bought-in, trained-up and comfortable using the new approach in their daily work. Regardless of how compelling the benefits of digital tools are, if agents don’t embrace them the business impacts will not be realised.
In recognition of this need, the GDC has drawn on the experiences of two winning partnerships from our Innovation Challenge that each developed a digital tool to help distributors manage remote sales teams. In this article, we’ll consider what it takes to successfully embed digital ways of working in last mile sales teams that are often geographically dispersed and operating autonomously.
The opportunities for digital sales agent management tools
Members of the Global Distributors Collective use mixed distribution channels, including independent retail outlets, but 81% of these distributors sell through agent networks.
With support from the Global Distributors Collective, GDC members Vitalite Senegal and upOwa worked with digital service providers Maad and Optimetriks to develop digital sales agent management tools to help them oversee their sales teams remotely. The tools enable these distributors to on-board their sales agents, deliver agent training, help agents plan their routes, manage day-to-day tasks and more. Both Maad and Optimetriks are selling these services to distributors, including mobile apps which agents can use offline.
The benefits of embracing such tools are compelling. Specifically, digital solutions can help to:
- Increase supervisors’ visibility into agents’ daily work;
- Improve feedback loops within the company, through more frequent communication between agents and supervisors;
- Increase supervisors’ awareness of the location of clients and enable greater oversight of the registration of new clients; and
- Improve efficiency across operations and enable organisation-wide data synchronisation, including in the sales process.
To drive the effective adoption of such digital tools, however, we need a deep understanding of what motivates users’ behaviour. If distributors can design a user journey that takes into account sales agents’ priorities, constraints and capacities, then adoption will be easier and agents will find the software more useful.
To that end, Maad and Vitalite Senegal developed a six-step approach to rolling the new digital service out to sales agents of Vitalite Senegal. This approach can be leveraged by other distributors looking to introduce a new digital tool – or even adapted to help those looking to revamp or embed other novel working practices within their workforce. We’ll explore these six steps in detail below.
Step 1: Align on the digital solution’s purpose
If you’re a distributor, you should start by asking yourself two basic questions: What are your expectations for introducing a new digital service? And what existing inefficiencies do you want to solve? The answers to these questions will be important to building a shared understanding across the organisation of the purpose of introducing a new digital tool, the objectives you are trying to achieve, and how progress will be measured (including setting key performance indicators upfront).
Step 2: Identify the users of the solution
Another basic question for distributors involves who will be using these digital tools. If you are budget-constrained, focus first on agents in the field who are digitally literate and have access to smartphones – as well as their supervisors in HQ who will use the web-based version of the tool. This group is most likely to see the purpose of the new digital service and champion it to others in the organisation (see also step 5, below).
The software’s pricing model may influence this decision, as a pay-per-user pricing model can become very expensive if you have hundreds or thousands of agents. Likewise, if not all your users will require access to enhanced functionality or “super user accounts,” explore the options for tiered user pricing, to ensure you are only paying for the functionality that your teams require.
Finally, make sure your approach does not exclude particular agent groups. For example, if women sales agents tend not to have their own smartphones, could you provide employer-backed financing to enable them to purchase one? Is there any training you could offer, to help them develop the necessary digital skills?
Step 3: Engage users on expectations and benefits
Consider how you will facilitate the necessary shift in agents’ behaviour. What are their concerns about using a new tool – and how can you alleviate these ahead of time, to ensure a smooth roll-out? Involve your sales agents early in the process, listen to their worries, and work with them and their supervisors to ensure that expectations are aligned. Agents may be particularly concerned about losing autonomy, so highlight the positive impacts that the new digital tool will have on their day-to-day work; for example, time saved by automating customer data collection.
Step 4: Craft a change management plan
Think in particular about how to enable, motivate and trigger successful adoption of the tool:
Enable: Consider the factors that will enable effective and consistent use. For example, ensure that the tool works on the devices your sales agents use, that their internet connection is sufficient to install and use the tool, and that they are digitally literate. And make sure that other key personnel who will be expected to interact with the tool are included, and that all personnel understand who will be responsible for what – a key part of introducing accountability. If using an off-the-shelf tool, consider ways it could be adapted to become as user-friendly as possible: for instance, by replacing words on buttons with pictures. Finally, facilitate integration between apps, to enable sales agents to continue using other preferred apps alongside the new tool. For example, if your agents already use WhatsApp to communicate, work with your service provider to integrate WhatsApp with the new tool, rather than asking the agents to change this approach.
Motivate: Confirm that sales agents understand the benefits and are self-motivated to use the tool, since adoption that is driven purely by supervisors’ demands will not be sustained. Take a balanced, “carrot and stick” approach to staff motivation, by providing small incentives and rewards for consistent use of the tool (the carrot), while taking a hard line when necessary (the stick). For example, as a prerequisite for joining weekly team meetings – which provide a valued opportunity to recognise individual agents’ successes – Vitalite Senegal requires agents to first upload their recent sales activities in the app.
Trigger: Find ways to regularly remind sales agents to use the tool, particularly in the first few months of roll-out. This could include nominating champions (likely your early adopters) to encourage uptake among their peers, sending push SMS notifications, prompting agents verbally during team meetings or calling them directly to find out why their engagement is low. This may feel like a lot of effort, but it is important to establish the new, positive behaviour early on.
Step 5: Pilot with a small group
It does not make sense to roll out a new tool with all your sales agents on day one. It is normal to experience some bugs when introducing a new software, which could lead sales agents to become demotivated and less inclined to adopt the tool – especially if the company is also still getting used to using it. Trial the tool with a group of early adopters first – those who are particularly keen, motivated or tech-savvy. They are likely to be the most forgiving of initial problems, and can later be leveraged to nudge other agents to use the tool. Similarly, in order not to overwhelm sales agents and supervisors while they are coming to grips with a new way of working, start by introducing a limited number of new systems or processes, and build from there. Lastly, check in regularly with your team to understand their experiences using the tool –and identify what may need iterating – before you roll it out at scale.
Step 6: Full roll-out
To ensure an effective roll-out, train everyone who will use the tool. Your service provider may be able to supply training materials, but it is important to take ownership of these resources and deliver training to staff yourselves. The train-the-trainer approach, which enlists existing staff to cascade learning to others, is one way to ensure sustainability: Maad opted for this approach, providing training manuals and user guides to help their partners like Vitalite Senegal to roll out the services with agents. Throughout the roll-out period, seek agents’ feedback on an ongoing basis, address frequently asked questions, encourage peer support and build a community of practice, to ensure that the adoption of the new tool is a success.
Partnering to implement digital tools for last mile distribution
Change can be scary, especially for sales agents who are used to working fairly independently. However, through a comprehensive and considered organisational approach, the introduction of a new digital tool can benefit everyone.
While this change must be driven from within, service providers that partner with last mile distributors have a crucial role to play in ensuring the process is smooth and sustained over the long term. From listening to feedback and enabling small adaptations and integrations with other apps or software, to providing training materials and ongoing troubleshooting support to the distributor, a strong partnership between the two parties can make or break the successful adoption of any new digital service. Be prepared to invest time in this relationship from the start, to ensure that both parties understand one another’s aims, priorities and limitations.
For more tips on the role of service providers and other industry players in driving digitalisation in last mile distribution, see the GDC and Energy Catalyst’s report: “Digital transformation to support last mile distribution: overcoming barriers together.”
The GDC would like to thank the Innovation Challenge pilot teams, particularly Maad and Optimetriks, for sharing their valuable insights and lessons learned, which helped to inform this article.
Photo courtesy of Bopinc.