I spoke with a young woman today who was curious about CPG sales jobs at plant-based CPG startups. She had a lot of great questions about how the CPG sales industry works. I’m writing up some of those questions and answers here as an FAQ.
Note that this post will be most helpful to people who are considering sales roles — or want to learn more about their options for growth or change within the industry. That said, this post may also help CPG founders think about how to structure their sales teams, too.
Q: What is sales?
CPG sales jobs can vary a lot. Your day-to-day experience will depend on the size of the organization and the product or service you’re selling. It will also depend upon on how the sales team is structured. Despite these differences, the job of the CPG sales person is to connect the business’s product(s) or service(s) to buyers in order to drive revenues at the business.
Sales is a crucially important job, as no business can grow or survive without revenues (i.e., sales). This can translate to job security and optionality down the line.
Q: What does a day in the life of a salesperson look like?
Again, this can be highly variable depending on the size of organization, product you’re selling, and how the team is structured. But generally speaking, sales people spend their time with customers. That means looking for new customers (“prospecting”), managing a pipeline of prospective customers in various deal stages, working through objections that prospective customers might have, and finalizing (“closing”) deals (or orders or contracts).
Once you’ve closed a deal or received the order, some sales people also work to ensure the order gets fulfilled.
Some sales people, after the sale, may also work to maintain the account. This means solving solving customer problems and finding opportunities to grow the account. (Growing an account might include “upselling” customers to more expensive or premium products, or “cross-selling” additional products to grow the account value.)
Salespeople typically spend a lot of time on the phone and on email. They typically communicate with partners that help fulfill orders (think: distributors, brokers, third-party logistics companies, etc.), and in technology-related tools that help with these processes. Technology tools typically include but are not necessarily limited to CRMs (Customer Relationship Management systems, like Salesforce or Hubspot).
Depending on the size of the team, salespeople may also spend time on internal meetings, usually with teammates, a manager, and other internal departments that are helping to produce or improve the product that the sales team is selling. Sales roles can also demand time on the road, requiring salespeople to travel in order to attend tradeshows and to visit in person with customers and partners.
Q: How do CPG sales jobs change depending on the size of the organization?
Sales roles change a lot depending on the size of the organization.
Early-Stage Salespeople Tend to Wear Lots of Hats
Very young and/or small organizations will require their employees to wear a lot of hats. One individual may find themselves responsible for sales and marketing — or sales, marketing, and operations. Depending on your interest level in being very involved in the day-to-day operations of the business versus having a discreet and clear role with a set of established responsibilities, early-stage startups may or may not be your jam.
Young organizations that have started to establish some division between roles at the company will often have one or more persons assigned to sales, and those salespeople won’t need to work on marketing or ops.
Often times, these individuals end up being responsible for the entire sales pipeline – meaning they own everything related to the customer, starting with prospecting and ending with the closed deal. Think: cold calls, cold emails, follow ups, sample requests, site visits, price negotiations, contract negotiations, and eventually, a closed deal or order received. Early organizations may have salespeople own the relationship after the the sale is closed, too.
Larger organizations tend to break up the pipeline into several roles. Below are some ways of thinking about how to break up the sales process into more than one role.
Q: What kinds of CPG Sales Jobs are there?
Hunters versus Farmers
One way of thinking of sales skills and responsibilities is in terms of hunting versus farming (industry jargon). Put differently, hunters are responsible for landing new deals. Farmers are responsible for account management, or serving the customers that a business already have.
Some organizations break hunter versus farmer type roles into different titles, for instance, Account Executives are usually responsible for hunting and closing new deals, while Account Managers typically focus on relationship management for existing customers.
Generating Leads versus Closing
Another way that sales teams end up being split is around generating versus closing leads.
Technology companies like Salesforce hire and employ (usually less experienced and more junior) people to serve as Business Development Representatives (“BDRs”), whose job it is to prospect and qualify leads. (BDRs are also sometimes called SDRs, or Sales Development Representatives.) Once qualified, warm leads are turned over to more seasoned Account Executives, whose role it is to demo the product, handle objections, and close the deals.
Another way that an organization may establish this type of lead-gen versus closing split is with titles like Inside Sales (lead generation) versus Outside Sales (deal closing). Outside Sales people tend to spend a lot more time on the road (i.e., “outside”) while Inside Sales people tend to spend their time on the phone and in the office. This inside versus outside distinction is becoming less popular as technology changes that way that salespeople are able to connect with their customers, meaning that less time on the road is needed to serve the customer well.
Foodservice versus Retail
Food and beverage companies typically split their sales team in terms of foodservice versus retail sales. Very young and small organizations may have one individual handle both — but as soon as a business grows, it’s not only natural, but also a good idea, to split these functions. Why?
Foodservice and retail buyers behave very differently and require different distributors, brokers, pricing, and fulfillment partners. Foodservice and retail are truly two different industries. (Read more on landing new retail accounts and working with retail buyers in these RealFoodMBA.com guest posts.)
When a team has grown large enough to justify hiring more than one salesperson, it’s both common and a good idea to split those roles in a way that provides clear ownership and division of labor.
A common way split responsibilities is around geographic territory (i.e., east versus west, or northwest versus southwest). Not only does a geographic split make it immediately clear which prospective customers should be assigned to which rep, but in the case that travel is needed, having a sales rep in territory can help cut down on cost. Relationship building becomes easier over time, too, as a sales representative starts to build a network within a geographic territory.
Size of Deal
Just as CPG sales jobs can be structured around type of client (for instance, foodservice versus retail), they can also be structured around the size of deal.
For instance, a foodservice sales team may have a National Accounts Manager who is focused on serving national restaurant chains while there are several members of the team focused on serving regional chains that fall within their respective geographic territories. National and regional chains behave differently. Deal sizes, sales cycles, and procurement methods are also different, justifying the need for dedicated individuals to manage each process.
Q: What is the difference between business development and sales?
Sales tends to focus on growing a customer base using a sales and pipeline process – in other words, taking a customer from prospect to close. As indicated above, roles can be differentiated by stage of pipeline, geography, and existing versus new customers, but at the end of the day, sales is focused on selling products to customers.
Business development, by contrast, can include sales – but it tends to focus on growing the business through partnerships. Partners often include channel partners, who help you sell your product through another avenue or channel. For instance, when I started my career at Calibrate, a small biotechnology services company in RTP, NC, I grew our business by finding similar businesses that didn’t offer pipette calibration services but offered similar products and services.
We partnered in order to promote each other’s business solutions to our respective customers. By offering each other’s solutions without having to build a new product or business ourselves, we were offering addition value to our existing and prospective customer base. Doing so grew our business by 10% — and was a clever way to drive revenue outside of seeking direct relationships with customers in a way that the sales team was already doing.
Q: Who is the customer?
Who the customer is depends very much upon what product you are selling, but can be thought about in several different ways.
Business-to-Business versus Business-to-Consumer
Business-to-business (B2B) organizations sell products, services, or solutions to other businesses. B2B Sales cycles typically take longer than business-to-consumer cycles. Deals are usually larger, and there may be more people involved in making and closing a deal, which can mean that sales are also more complicated.
Business-to-consumer (B2C) businesses, by contrast, sell directly to individuals; in this case, the individual is the end user. Deals tend to be smaller and sales cycles shorter.
Some products require a distribution partner (or several) to enable delivery to the end user, whether that user ends up being a business or a consumer. Depending on how distribution works, you may first have to sell your product to the distribution partner, which may effectively make the distribution partner your customer.
To give a real example, when I worked as part of the early team at Sir Kensington’s, in order to get our ketchup into restaurants, we first had to sell our cases of ketchup to foodservice distributors. Those distributors often refused to tell me exactly who the end user was (i.e., which restaurant). I could go into why they kept this information hidden in a different post, but in this case, it was really the distributor who was my customer. It was the distributor that I needed to serve and make happy if I wanted my ketchup to end up in a restaurant where it could be served to consumers.
Sir Kensington’s eventually started working with a centralized distribution company called D.O.T.. D.O.T. sells foodservice items to regional and national distributors through their centralized warehouses all over the country. At the moment that we started working with D.O.T., they also became our customer in a sense. The distributor was also a customer; as was the restaurant; as was, eventually, the consumer who eventually put ketchup on their french fry.
In order to identify who the customer is, think about all of the touch points in the value chain. The role of the salesperson is to make sure that each customer along the value chain is being served well. If there is any confusion about who the real customer is, think about where money is being exchanged. Who puts money directly into your pocket? That’s the customer you want to make happy.
Q: How easy or hard is it to switch roles once you’re in sales?
In general, it’s not that easy to switch industries or roles. That’s a large reason I ended up going to business school. B-school is one of the ways that you can switch careers without taking a pay cut. (Another is to start your own business or side hustle in the space you’re interested in.) Here are some ways to think about switching roles in CPG sales jobs.
Foodservice versus Retail
Unless you’re at a young organization where you need to wear both hats, as mentioned above, foodservice and retail sales roles are split, and for good reasons. It’s nearly impossible to switch from one role into the other, simply because anyone hiring for the role would expect that you’d bring experience and knowledge about the process as well as existing relationships to start landing deals right away.
If you truly want to make the leap from foodservice into retail or vice versa, you’d probably have to go downstream to a younger organization that wants one person to serve both functions — or you’d need to bring a lot of product experience (for instance, RTD sparking functional beverage) so that you’re ready to hit the ground running and have one less thing to learn to get started.
Marketing versus Sales
Similarly, unless you’re at a young organization where you’re expected to wear both hats — or unless you have a serious side hustle as a digital marketing blogger or consultant and/or food influencer — it’s extremely unlikely that you’d be able to switch from a dedicated sales role into a marketing role. While both roles have a focus on reaching and connecting with customers, the skills and experience needed to excel in each role are simply too different.
Hunting versus Farming
While hunters tend to be programmed a little differently from farmers, both roles require relationship skills. Both need to be able to connect with and solve problems for the customer. As a hunter-type, I actually like cold calling. (Weird, right?) Other people are completely turned off by it.
It’s absolutely possible to switch from a hunter role to a farm role, or vice versa. It’s also entirely possible to move between jobs that require both skills versus jobs that require one or other. That said, it’s a good idea to get to know your skill sets and which type of role you prefer.
A Note on Switching Industries
Once you have demonstrated sales skills, you could, in theory, do any sales job. (Meeting your quota is crucial!) That said, most organizations will want to hire people who have industry and/or product experience.
As a CPG salesperson, I’d have a hard time transitioning into tech sales. That’s because most organizations want to hire someone who has experiencing doing demos, selling a SaaS product, etc.
A Note on Product and Category Experience
Within the CPG industry, you’ll encounter a similar type of bias towards product experience. Beverage sales is a different game from grocery sales, which is a different game from frozen. These types of product differences that affect sales process are generally more important than other factors such as price point, recipe, geography, etc.
And there are tradeoffs — if you bring a lot of useful relationships, a difference in shelf-stable versus refrigerated is less likely to matter. For instance, when I was at Sir Kensington’s, I easily interviewed with a pickle company because the same people that buy ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise tend to also buy pickles (think: burgers). The pickle company assumed I’d be able to bring a lot of relationships into the new role, meaning I’d be able to immediately start landing key pickle accounts.
Q: What does a career path look like for a salesperson?
Now that we’ve established it’s pretty hard to move sideways in an organization from salesperson, where can you go? Most career paths for salespeople are upwards in the organization.
Once you’ve gained experience as an individual contributor, you might be ready for your next step. After succeeding in sales, Sales Manager roles are within reach.
Sales Managers ensure salespeople hit their numbers — and report team performance back to upper management. (Note that organizations can tend to want to promote their best salespeople. Be cautious here: The skills that make someone good at sales aren’t the same skills that for good managers.)
Think carefully about whether you want to be in management before accepting a promotion to Sales Manager. (Note that Sales Managers are also often responsible for continuing to sell while they also manage a team.)
VP of Sales
Larger organizations will have a VP of Sales in addition to one or more sales managers. The role of the VP of Sales, similar to the Sales Manager, is to oversee a team of sales people. They also serve as a liaison to upper management. In this case, upper management is usually the C-suite (i.e., CEO, CFO, etc.).
As a VP of Sales, your job is likely to include decision-making alongside other internal departments. Expect to have input on supply chain, fulfillment, and manufacturing. In addition to overseeing sales team performance, the VP of Sales ensures the business is growing profitably.
The one thing every founder needs is sales chops. Why? The founder is the first salesperson for the company. Any founder must be able to sell any product or service they spin up in order to find product-market fit.
CPG Sales Jobs: Wrap Up
This is a quick primer on sales roles in the CPG industry. If you’d like to learn more about sales in general, checkout this list of 26 free resources for salespeople.
What did we miss? What other questions do you have? Are you a salesperson? Has your experience been different? If so, get in touch or write in below in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!
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