(Sreeram has written this piece based on the experiences and reflections of an ex-student. She would prefer to be anonymous. Names of people and companies have also been changed.)
Sales equals survival. This is a fundamental and straightforward truth known to all businesses, from single-proprietor roadside stalls to multinational behemoths. Yet, the process of sales itself is anything but simple. It is a complex and dynamic function encompassing human, environmental, and cultural challenges, especially in a country as diverse as India. To succeed in sales here, one needs to be adaptable, resilient, and willing to learn. That is the lesson that Meera Singh understood as a management trainee in sales. This is her story.
After graduating from a premier B-school, Meera joined Medicorp as a management trainee (MT) in Sales. An Indian Pharma OTC company, Medicorp has a pan-India presence. Like most established consumer goods companies, Medicorp has a rigorous on-the-job training programme for its MTs. Trainees experience every role within the company’s sales hierarchy and present their understanding of the function at the end of their training period.
And so Meera found herself in Ahmedabad at the peak of a sweltering summer, shadowing Roopchand Patel, a salesperson, riding pillion on his bike. The territory was supposed to be very challenging, but Roopchand was one of the best salespeople in the team. After two weeks of observing his interactions with retailers and distributors, she took over his role for a month, while Roopchand accompanied her as an observer. Medicorp expected Meera to bring in the same amount of business that Roopchand would have done, if not more.
Braving 48℃ temperatures, Meera made sure to visit even the smallest retailers in back lanes and alleys to convince them to carry Medicorp products. Once she had collected orders for the day, she returned to the distributor point, where someone punched invoices for her orders. All this while, Roopchand accompanied her but did not participate in selling.
At the end of the month, Meera’s sales were tallied against Roopchand’s. The result was less than spectacular. In her own words, “Let’s say I failed miserably. I brought in half the business that he used to.” Meera’s performance was less abysmal than she feared. Seasonal trends accounted for some of the decline in sales, which was one more thing she learned to take into account as her training progressed. Still, the experience taught her the harsh ground realities of a salesperson’s job.
The next phase of Meera’s training involved working as a Territory Sales Incharge (TSI), a role to which salespeople like Roopchand reported. A TSI’s role is to accompany, assist, and train salespersons. Having developed a strong rapport with the sales team in Ahmedabad as a salesperson, she looked forward to a relatively smooth stint. However, she was in for a rude shock when she learnt that she would be working in Kerala.
The vastly different climate and geography of Kerala was a pleasant change for Meera. It offered some relief from the unforgiving heat of Gujarat. However, the comfort was short-lived as the culture was significantly different. Meera had to handle and train a team that spoke a language she did not know and barely spoke hers. The Regional Sales Manager (RSM) put her in charge of two towns – Thrissur and Palakkad. Being “up-country” towns, these were highly challenging areas to handle.
Meera regularly undertook long bus journeys and bike rides stretching 50 kilometres or more for the next month. She could not go outside after 6 PM because she was easily recognisable as an outsider. The unfamiliar territory meant that she could not plan her routes, which meant unnecessarily long hours spent travelling 100+ kilometres every other day. Meera started experiencing intermittent back pains that she ignored in hopes of completing her assignment successfully.
Despite the hardships, this was a period of significant learning for Meera. The contrast between her prior experience and her current one gave her insights into how dissimilar selling was in different geographies and how much a region’s socio-cultural ethos influenced it.
Meera realised that while Gujarat spoke the language of business, Kerala spoke the language of literacy. Chemists were interested in understanding Medicorp’s products and their advantages rather than in margins only. They believed that if the product was superior, they would make more money in the long run despite lower margins.
Just as retailers in Kerala were different, so also were the salespeople. In Meera’s experience, Gujarati salespeople were more focused on work, going the extra mile if it led to profit, which ultimately gave them higher incentive earnings. However, the salespeople in Kerala that she met were more interested in maintaining a work-life balance and thus preferred not working outside of regular hours. At the same time, recognition (even non-monetary) meant a lot more to them than their Gujarati counterparts.
The differences that she noticed made Meera alter her approach to harness the local way of doing business and to motivate her team to put in maximum efforts. Unfortunately, the physical strain took a toll on her, and Meera was hospitalised with back pain. Upon recovering, she was transferred to Mumbai, her base location, where she continued her TSI stint.
Mumbai, she realised, was a whole other ball game. She now had additional responsibilities such as attendance sheets, productivity metrics and monthly claims, understanding distributor ROI (return on investment), lines per call (no. of SKUs ordered) and range selling. Unlike in her previous territories, Meera realised that the numbers on paper didn’t tell the whole story. One salesperson was more productive than the rest but had the lowest attendance. At the same time, there were salespeople with high volumes but a low range of selling. She even suspected that some salespersons travelled longer routes to fill the hours so that she would not enquire about productivity gaps!
For three months, Meera undertook an in-depth look into the sales process and its regional dynamics through the two roles. She learnt how different channels worked and how good relationships were the bedrock for success. Sometimes that meant a personal approach, partaking in casual chats while listening to her Interim Sales Representative (ISR) talk about how they would run the company. She developed critical insights into human behaviour and the importance of flexibility in managing different sales territories. Most significantly, Meera learnt that the sales function could be the most complex and vibrant function of a business and that adapting to its fluidity was critical for success.
Her newfound insights stood her in good stead when she progressed to the role of Area Sales Manager (ASM). She was a 24-year-old-woman telling older and more experienced men how to do their jobs, and not all of them took it well. But her training at the ground level had prepared her. She had a good idea about what people in her team had to do, and she was adept at identifying gaps. She knew where encouragement helped and where a few tough calls had to be taken. She knew how to identify gaps in infrastructure, productivity and manpower and how to fill them. Towards the end of her stint as ASM, she overcame the challenges she faced and proceeded to the next step of her journey at Medicorp.
Sales is a challenging field, especially for women, as Meera found out all too well. Yet, in the end, it was tremendously rewarding and not just monetarily. In Meera’s own words:
It was tedious and challenging, and I wanted to give up more than a few times. I felt more than once that it wasn’t possible that after years of toiling away at studies, this was my fate. And yet, from the Gujarati salesmen who asked their wives to make extra food so that we could sit in a circle in some garden and eat together while sipping chaas. The Keralites who could sometimes not understand a word I said but would stop mid-travel so I could enjoy the view of the sea. The Mumbaikars who would remember taking me to the right tapris that served the best low sugar cutting chai. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.