The Other Side of the Desk

The purchasing field can help salespeople round out their packages of skills if they are interested in eventually working at senior-level management posts.

When electrical contractors, industrials or other buyers want to hire a purchasing agent or director of purchasing, some now consider experienced distributors' salespeople with stellar reputations in their local electrical markets.

Most successful salespeople spend their entire business careers directly in the sales field. But a select group may want to broaden their overall business skills by adding purchasing to their portfolio. People move around much more in today's workforce than they did in the past. This select group of salespeople might want to move up into higher management by broadening their knowledge base by having sales, marketing and purchasing experience. Moving up into management having this additional experience would give them the opportunity to look at the “big picture” at the upper management level. The more skills you bring to the job, the more valuable you are to your company.

Salespeople with experience in the electrical market have some clear advantages over other job candidates applying for purchasing positions. For one, they already know the “lay of the land” in their local markets. Here are some of their other advantages:

  • Their knowledge of the market's pricing structure will help them buy at a competitive level.

  • Since they know most of the factory reps, they could effectively communicate with them about key areas such as pricing and specification. This will help when they need to obtain quotes for job and stocking requirements.

  • Their familiarity with the reputations of the various factories and factory reps involved in the electrical industry will help them appraise the sales and buying situation better than a purchasing agent who doesn't have any sales experience.

Challenges that could make the move from sales to purchasing more difficult. Top purchasing people must be fair, honest and objective. When making the move from sales to purchasing, salespeople need to earn the reputation of being fair and straightforward in their buying decisions. This means keeping their “good old boy” sales friends at the same level as those salespeople with whom they competed with in their former lives as salespeople. New purchasing agents must earn cooperation from all of their suppliers to be effective in their new positions.

Before a new salesperson moves from sales to purchasing, they may want to consider taking classes in purchasing at a local community college to get instruction on state-of-the-art purchasing skills. The instructors teaching these classes quite often work full time as vice presidents or directors of purchasing. These college classes often cover the legal ramifications of the purchasing process and other executive-level subject matter that's out of the realm of the average purchasing agent who just focuses on everyday purchasing procedures. Exposure to some of the management strategies and concern that shape the purchasing field can round out a salesperson's knowledge of the position when they move to the other side of the desk. On the flip side, these classes may expose a salesperson to some aspects of the purchasing process with which they were unfamiliar, and may not enjoy. But it's always better to learn about a job upfront before making a career change.

Another career option that successful salespeople may want to consider is launching their own sales consulting businesses. Ambitious, talented salespeople who have good people skills, communicate well and are comfortable speaking in front of audiences of 100-plus people can teach other salespeople basic sales skills, and business managers and company owners will gladly pay the fee to send their employees to learn these skills from an experienced industry professional.

The sales profession can be quite rewarding personally and professionally for good salespeople, but they shouldn't be afraid to explore other career options if they want to expand upon their business experience.

Bob Finley is the retired president and CEO of Glasco Electric Co., St. Louis. Glasco is now a part of Rexel.

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