The regulations binding in Poland regarding the distribution and sale of tobacco products mean that company representatives visiting wholesalers and individual outlets play a much greater role than in other market segments.
B2B sales in the tobacco industry have been mainly based on face-to-face meetings. Only minor issues were discussed by phone. Everything that was important was agreed during meetings also aimed at building personal relations with clients. This mode of operation had been in operation for decades; no one saw a need to change it.
In the case of Imperial Tobacco in Poland, each one of the 200 sales reps has over 200 stores under their care which should be visited at least once a month. The main tasks include expansion of the product portfolio at a specific point, ensuring the continuity of product availability, as well as ensuring adequate exposure. Until now, the fulfilment of all those tasks required the physical presence of a company representative at the point of sale.
Day 1 - Day 4
For Imperial Tobacco, all of its long-held assumptions changed on Friday, 13 March. At that time, a decision was made that due to the concern for the health and safety of its sales force and their closest relatives, all sales representatives were to perform work in a home-office mode starting from the next Monday.
This gave dozens of hours for introducing far-reaching changes in the present sales model and implementing an action plan adapted to the new reality.
Work on the implementation of appropriate procedures began at the beginning of the pandemic. For this purpose, a special team was appointed, consisting of experienced sales representatives and specialists from the telesales department. We assumed various scenarios, but in mid-March it turned out that it would be necessary to introduce the most pessimistic of them - the ‘lockdown sales force’.
In consequence, during the weekend, we concentrated on perfecting the so-called ‘tele-visit’ scenario. It adapted the specificity of traditional visits at points of sale to the new reality. An example may be a much shorter visiting time resulting from the inability to simultaneously call and serve customers by salespeople.
At the very end, we organised training for all sales representatives. As a result, within less than 72 hours of the decision, the sales force could start working in the ‘coronavirus mode’.
Day 5 - Day 58
Ensuring the availability of the products from the the Imperial Tobacco portfolio at retail outlets became an absolute priority during the following weeks, after the lockdown covering practically the whole country was announced.
While selling products is the natural purpose of all businesses, in the age of coronavirus, empathy became the basis for action. Gentleness and the ability to talk to business partners started to play a greater role than ever before. The pandemic particularly affected businesses operated by our clients. For example - literally overnight - a thriving store in the city centre, due to the fact that people no longer travelled to work and there were no tourists, experienced a dramatic decline in their turnover.
This required a fully individual approach to our partners. Sales representatives had to anticipate and adapt the way of communication, based on their knowledge and experience, before starting the conversation. It is quite a different conversation to be had with the owner of a local store which increases its turnover than to a person operating a store near a tourist attraction, where almost nobody is shopping.
This was not the only challenge our salespeople faced. Difficulties began with finding a quiet place where one could have a peaceful conversation, uninterrupted by the sounds of remote school of children or video-conferencing of their partner. Performing business activities also became one of the many tasks carried out during the business hours. At the initial stage, it was quite a challenge, but with the passage of time, combining all these activities became quite normal.
We also decided to take advantage of the lockdown time to the development of our employees. The training department prepared a specialist pool of workshops which were conducted as part of our employees’ home-office work. In this way, we had the opportunity to diversify the work of our sales representatives, protecting them from falling into monotony.
Day 59 - present
Based on the analysis of the epidemiological situation, actions taken by the state authorities and – above all – based on conversations with our employees, we decided to allow sales representatives to return to work ‘in the field’ from 11 May.
Each sales force representative has complete freedom in choosing a model for performing their duties. Our observations indicate, however, that the vast majority of people decided to resume direct visits at points of sale. Safety has always been a priority. Everyone received appropriate protective means - visors, masks, gloves and disinfecting gels.
An analysis of sales data indicates that during the lockdown we noted an increase in two key parameters – the number and volume of orders in relation to the tele-visits.
A need to change the formula of contacts with business partners also positively affected the sales skills of our employees. The telephone conversation formula implemented for weeks translated into a need for efficient transmission and condensation of information.
The efficiency of using modern technologies has also increased significantly. This applies primarily to internal communication and the training process. Increased ability to use applications such as Microsoft Teams will undoubtedly be an added value in the development of an organisation after the pandemic.
The times of crisis highlight all good and bad qualities. In this extremely difficult moment of the forced transformation of the work model, flexibility, commitment and dedication of our employees have been a key element of the whole process. We could not have succeeded at this without those aspects.
As a result, we - as an organisation - can look at the last weeks from a perspective of profits, and not losses.