Business travel: Road Warriors

Travelling salespeople are the engines of many a company, pounding the tarmac in relentless pursuit of bigger revenues and higher commission. They are free spirits by nature, but the life can be lonely ... Managers should handle with care, says Rhymer Rigby.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Quite often, says one sales rep who, sensibly, asked to remain anonymous, 'I stay in bed until 11 o'clock. Then I have brunch. Around noon, I go out on the road. Often I'm done by four or five. It's a pretty cool deal for a full-time job.'

As a manager, your first thoughts might be along the lines of 'Who is this slacker? How does he get away with it? And how would I get rid of him?' Yet the man in question is a credit to his organisation. He regularly exceeds all the targets set him and wins awards for his performance. And, if his company wanted to get rid of him because of a casual attitude to timekeeping ... well, plenty of its competitors have already been sniffing around.

This rather extreme vignette illustrates the managerial dilemma posed by those who are hardly ever in the office, the travelling sales reps, those who spend their time liaising with suppliers and visiting sites, clocking up thousands of miles a year in their company car - the 'road warriors'.

The travelling salesman is also one of the most recognisable characters in business - and indeed popular culture. Although he and, rather more rarely, she have their roots in the tinkers and pedlars of Europe, it was the US that led the development of the modern sales rep. In his book Birth of a Salesman (Harvard, 2004), Walter A Friedman notes: 'The development of modern sales management is a uniquely American story.' Friedman puts this down to the US being the birthplace of true mass-production, being a geographically vast country and one that subscribed to the notion of equality of opportunity in a way that Europe never quite has. Forged in the 1900s, the salesman soon became a cultural touchstone. By the 1920s, sales management was well established and, some time later, widespread car ownership created the travelling salesman that we recognise today.

Europe had to wait a little longer; here, it was the post-war years that allowed travelling reps to bloom. And, in keeping with the slightly snobbish British attitude to commerce, we've never quite taken them to our hearts: they've always had a whiff of the spiv about them. Nonetheless, from medical sales to air-conditioning via fruit farms (see panels), they form a vital part of our economy - living proof there are still plenty of things that cannot satisfactorily be done online.

For the reps themselves, though, it can be a strange existence. They are both part of the company - its army of footsoldiers on the ground - and not part of it. On the one hand, those we spoke to for this piece love the freedom; many simply have a target to meet and anything more is a bonus, and that's it. They like being able to do as they please, plan their days as they wish and enjoy meeting a broad range of people. Many are also big fans of the commission element of pay - if you perform, you are rewarded; it's as simple as that. But, on the other hand, there can be loneliness, a lot of frustration (traffic jams, for example) and boredom - and the relationship with employers can be an ambivalent one. Notes one rep: 'My manager really doesn't have a clue. I have far more in common with other reps than with the people back in the office. They're my real colleagues.'

But it can be tough, too, for those whose job it is to manage road warriors. For most people, management is still a nice hierarchical pyramid, one that starts a couple of metres away at the nearest subordinate's desk. But how do you run a team you see once a week at most? How do you ensure that they're loyal, that their goals are realistic and that they're performing well? Are they stuck in traffic on the M6, slowly going mad? Are they doing the best job they can? Are they building Captain Kurtz-style empires at the furthest reaches of their territory? Are they even out of bed yet?

Selecta Group, Europe's largest vending machine company, has about 150,000 points of sale in 24 countries. This extreme geographic dispersal, explains the company's CEO Justin Tydeman, means that about 70% of people in the company are out of the office at any given time. 'A significant proportion of management and sales are on the road, so we're very mobile. In fact, for us, the office plays a rather different role here than it does in most companies.'

Tydeman says the trick is not to see being in the field as being out of the office: 'Being in the field is celebrated and valued. A lot of our energy and culture come from getting office people out into the field to see how it works. Everyone needs an understanding of the field, and senior managers can't be credible if they don't.' Selecta's overall view, he says is 'rather than regard the office as a mothership, we push the mothership out into the field. If you create the right culture, the field is the company.'

Even so, there will be times when your road warriors need to return to base. And when they do, it's important to treat them properly. This, after all, is often the only chance you'll get to infuse them with your corporate culture. 'The trick,' says David McCloud, a senior consultant at Towers Perrin (and a former rep himself), 'is to make sure that there's a dialogue. The thing to avoid is sitting them in front of a load of presentations. They need to be in workshop environments, where they can challenge these ideas and listen to each other. That's very important. If they're active in these sessions, rather than passive, that's the way to engage them and make sure they remember.'

They also need to be offered the same development opportunities that everyone else gets - out of sight shouldn't mean out of mind. Or, as Tydeman puts it: 'When they come in, they need to get an intense Selecta experience.'

McCloud adds that if you fail to do this, you can wind up with your mobile workers suffering a kind of salesperson's Stockholm syndrome. Because they spend all their time with clients (who, unlike you, actually listen to them), they take on their views and through osmosis become spokespeople for those they are meant to be selling to. For many, this imbalance of exposure is the reason they cease to feel part of their employer organisation.

But, warns Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, a one-size-fits-all approach rarely works. 'A lot of them do feel isolated. You need to see them regularly and see what they need - and this can't be done over a phone. Don't keep tabs, but do find out how they're coping.' Of course, some 'really do want to be left alone'.

So the right level of reward, recognition and simple person-management is a very delicate balancing act. Many road warriors profess not to want much contact or support - it's part of their cherished self-image of self-reliance. Yet they still want to be recognised and valued. They claim not to care about 'best salesperson' rewards, so how do you show a bit of corporate love to those who say they don't want it? 'That's management,' says Cooper.

Corporate health expert Clive Pinder argues that companies need to understand the little travails and problems that affect those who are out on the road. Problems such as the stress of driving and the lack of exercise are obvious. But there's also poor diet based on service-station snacks, and dehydration - people often fail to drink enough water because they're worried about where the next loo is. Some organisations, Pinder says, hand out maps to reps showing them where usable toilets are, sending out a signal that companies understand what day-to-day life on the road is like.

Electronic tools have also undoubtedly gone some way to providing a corporate umbilical cord and reducing the sense of isolation. Tools like BlackBerries and organisations like HP provide impressive 'mobile solutions' that allow road warriors to feed data back to base. But, for many on the road, a mobile phone remains the tool of choice. If you're by yourself most of the time, talking is a far more intimate form of human contact than an e-mail.

The other side of management is rewards and targets - when you can't see what people are doing, these are some of the only means of aligning your people's goals with the company's. There should be both financial and recognition rewards - and there need to be positive consequences for good behaviour and negative consequences for bad behaviour. One should be reasonable about flexibility too - within bounds, it's a perk of the job. Says Tydeman: 'If being on the road means you can pick the kids up from school, then great, as long as you get the work done.' People, he says, have clear incentives, so you don't need to sit on their shoulders. As Kate Floyd at Daikin Airconditioning (see p45) says: 'You have a sales target you have to hit and that's it, which I really like.'

McCloud adds that you have to remember your road warriors are human, not the automatons the early American devotees of scientific management once desired. He recalls an incident where a manager asked a rep rather testily what he was doing back at the office when it clearly wasn't on his way from A to B. An older rep took him aside and said: 'What are you doing? At B, he's got to tell the customer that prices are going up. That's going to feel pretty intimidating. He diverted to us so that he could feel the strength and support of our organisation.'

KATE FLOYD, SENIOR SALES ENGINEER, DAIKIN AIR CONDITIONING

Kate Floyd reckons she does 200 to 300 miles a week, five to seven hours a days in the car. Her territory covers a semi-circle of south-east England, stretching west from Windsor up to Hertfordshire, Cambridge and Suffolk and then out east to Essex, as well as London itself.

The best part of her job, she says, is 'the complete freedom to organise my own working life. Even though it's a big company, you feel almost like a one-man band. You have a sales target you have to hit and that's it, which I really like.'

Some of the nicest perks, says Floyd, are simply that you get to see the country you live in. 'During the day, you can be somewhere and then somebody calls and you have to be 100 miles away, and that's great. You develop a good knowledge of locations. After a while, you never need maps. You also enjoy the seasons in a way that you don't if you're in an office. If the weather's good, I try and go somewhere nice for lunch like Regent's Park.'

But there are downsides. 'Your reaction to bad driving becomes extreme. I'm a very polite driver and if anyone doesn't thank me for letting them out I find myself swearing. I also find myself eating the most disgusting, unhealthy food. My heart leaps when I see a service station with an M&S or a BP with a Wild Bean Cafe.

'The lack of loos is also terrible. In London, cars aren't allowed to stop anywhere and there's this attitude that cars are evil - for instance, there's a loo in St John's Wood but you can't park anywhere near it; it's all residents. I thank God for supermarkets. They save your life.'

MICHAEL DUNSIRE, SOURCING DIRECTOR, GSK NUTRITIONAL HEALTHCARE

Michael Dunsire has a job any child would love. He travels around the 40 farms that supply blackcurrants to Ribena to ensure that the fruit is of the right quality. Although he's based in Norfolk, his patch covers most of the UK, from Perthshire to Somerset. He also works with international growers in countries like New Zealand. Dunsire reckons he spends 'at least three days a week out of the office', travelling 400 to 600 miles. It's mostly driving, with trains down to London and planes further afield.

As a result, he's away two or three nights a week and a regular at Britain's network of service-station dormitories, Travelodges and the like. 'At most of these places, you can walk into a bedroom and know exactly where everything is. They're totally soulless and sometimes you eat in the room. But you also build up a network of frequent travellers who you bump into time and again, and you might take suppliers - whom you may have known for years - out to dinner. There's the odd nice hotel too, where you get to know the proprietors so well that you always wind up in the same room.'

The big plus is the fact that he is visiting farms - so rather than cruising around ring roads and trading estates, he spends much of his time in beautiful countryside, far away from industrial conurbations. 'I visit the farms and I see and feel the fruit for myself. There's no other way to do it. You can't replace that with technology.'

He also sees the same people year after year and builds up good lasting relationships. 'I negotiate with people round their kitchen tables. I've watched their families grow up. When I arrive at a farm in the middle of nowhere at 8am and I'm having coffee with the grower, that's when I think I could never work in an office.'

JULIE ADAMS, REGIONAL INTEGRATED HEALTHCARE MANAGER, ASTRAZENECA

Julie Adams has been working for AstraZeneca for 17 years. She became a medical rep in 2002 and now manages a team. Her area is Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. She is, she says, out of the office for four or five days a week and clocks up about 300 miles a week.

'I guess the challenge around this role is just the amount of time you spend on your own,' she says. 'It can be a bit lonely, but technology like teleconferencing and WebEx means this is much less of an issue than it used to be. And the thing about travelling so much is that it gives me time to think - especially as I'm a mother of three. You're on your own without phone calls. It turns you into a big radio listener and makes you a bit of an expert on current affairs.'

She also likes the diversity of people she meets - everyone from the CEOs of big primary-care trusts to the manager of small practices. 'I do sometimes work in an office, but I would struggle with a full-time desk job.'

One big change over the years has been the volume of traffic. 'Next week I'm going on a drive-and-survive course,' she says. The main effect of increased traffic, though, has been to make her plan better. 'Now you have to organise your day to take traffic jams into account.'

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