After one of the most entertaining NFL seasons (and playoffs) in recent memory, I thought it would be fun to examine several practices that distributors can take away from top-flight NFL programs. After all, distributors compete for market share in their own “playoff” bracket.
If you think about it, the playbooks for your sales team and distribution operations are similar to the playbooks and strategies of professional sports teams, specifically when it comes to studying game film. In the NFL, success relies heavily on pre-game preparation. Playoff teams know their plays inside and out. They have studied enough to make educated guesses regarding what to expect from their opponents. They know their strategies so well that they can make spontaneous decisions and execute game-changing plays at critical moments.
Top distributors do the same thing. They relentlessly study their granular business performance. They analyze drill-down dashboards to understand their customers and suppliers and identify process improvements. And they develop the winning strategies for sales teams when they’re engaging customers on the fly.
Adopt the winning strategies of NFL Playoff Teams:
Game Film, Playbooks, Practice and Adjustments
1. Study your game film. Studying your game film from the previous week is a “look in the mirror” routine that should never waver. As a distributor, your game film is your performance review. At the start of every week at a scheduled time, assess your performance by comparing key metrics against benchmarks and analyzing trends over time to identify and fix deficiencies.
2. Study your opponents’ game film. NFL teams spend as much time (if not more) analyzing their opponents’ game film as they do their own film. They want to know what to expect when they line up for a play without being blind-sided. Distributors don’t need to analyze their direct competitors’ game film, but they do need to study game film from customers and suppliers. Knowing your suppliers and customers (their strengths, weaknesses, and how things are trending) is critical for understanding where your relationship is headed and the potential impact on your top- and bottom-line. Best-practice game film study for distributors comes through formal customer stratification and supplier stratification, but as you’ll see, success can vary widely depending on proper execution.
3. Make game film study a routine. NFL teams review film at all levels, in separate meetings, on a regular cadence. Distributors would be wise to follow suit with similar, multi-layer reviews – among management, as a broader team, in specific units, with individual front-line reps, and even with select core customers and strategic suppliers.
Reviews don’t have to be weekly, but they can foster a results-driven culture if you do them regularly. Front-line “players” will take performance measurement only as seriously as management.
Abandoning or deprioritizing performance reviews or ignoring specific performance metrics at a time of crisis (which we’ve seen some distributors do amidst the ongoing supply chain crisis) can create a slippery slope into apathy. The irony is that a crisis will be worse if you don’t establish performance assessments in the first place. While external factors always play a role in performance, whether they overwhelm you depends on how well you consistently measure performance against “best practices,” which is what playoff-caliber NFL teams do through regular game film study.
4. Hold individuals accountable with engagement. NFL teams put individuals on the spot when they review game film as a team. It’s similarly important for distributors to engage individual performers in group meetings.
One of our clients has had great success with direct engagement by setting up a rotating schedule in which a salesperson presents to the broader sales team for five minutes in their weekly sales meeting. The salesperson highlights a specific opportunity or risk they’ve identified by using customer stratification performance dashboards. The salesperson then describes the strategies they intend to use for growth or risk mitigation based on ideas they pull from “drill-down” dashboards. A routine like this makes salespeople accountable for doing their own “film study,” in which they actively seek opportunities to drive proactive conversations with customers rather than trying to play catch-up in the middle of a game.
5. Make game film study easy and intuitive to drive adoption at the front lines. What makes game film study easy in the NFL is the maturation of the practice and its underlying tools. NFL teams have the luxury of using standardized, high-functionality software. This is not old school, “reel-to-reel” film projected on a screen. They need the flexibility to emphasize critical insights with the ability to annotate, bookmark, replay, slow down and zoom in.
Similarly, distributors need modern analytics platforms with appropriate dashboards that are easy to review. Too many distributors are effectively still stuck in reel-to-reel film study, making it hard to digest and discern insights. Some continue to use outdated performance reports in spreadsheets and pivot tables and distribute the reports via emails that rarely get opened. Others rely on pre-canned performance reports in their ERPs and CRMs that look like spreadsheet tables and are similarly hard to read, interpret and act upon. Others try to build their own custom reports for their salesforce that all too frequently end up looking like – you guessed it – spreadsheet tables.
It’s no wonder that front-line salespeople don’t embrace film study when it generates more noise than insights and fails to provide requisite benchmarking capabilities, intuitive trend analyses, and granular drill-down root-cause analysis.
6. Know the fundamentals and run drills. Film study also identifies areas in which specific units and individuals need additional practice to hone techniques and fundamentals. This requires an in-depth understanding of best practices, conveyed by an educated coaching staff and, in the case of distribution, supplemented by continuous education on playbooks and analytics at both the company and business unit level. It’s challenging for distributors to interpret game film, let alone fix deficiencies, unless they understand what best practices look like and how to integrate them into everyday business. You cannot coach players to perform at peak levels without a base knowledge.
Make it a priority to learn and study the 46 best practices outlined in Optimizing Distributor Profitability.
7. Transition from game film study to game planning and execution. Studying game film is a means to an end. Winning NFL teams take the knowledge gleaned from film study in terms of their strengths and their opponent’s weaknesses and turn it into an action plan. Distributors need to identify their own strengths and weaknesses in addition to customer purchasing patterns, trends and tendencies to form their own action plans. They can leverage their game film, which takes the form of drill-down dashboards from customer and supplier stratification analyses, to identify and prioritize which customers or suppliers to target and what “plays” to call to capitalize on opportunities.
8. Ruthlessly script, document, and practice your plays. NFL teams carefully script their plays, assign detailed roles and responsibilities, and then practice relentlessly until perfected. This requires countless hours of watching game film and constantly tweaking the process until it becomes fool-proof. In one of my favorite quotes from this year, Josh McDaniels (offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots) explained how the Patriots have had so much success with getting their players comfortable running trick plays. He said, “I say to our players, ‘if your heartbeat goes up when we call this, we haven’t run it enough in practice.’ “Similarly, if your sales team stumbles over applying dashboards and drilling down to valuable insights to make a pitch or answer a customer question, then they haven’t practiced enough.
When I was CEO of a pet supply distributor, I recall the headaches we faced with managing custom orders that fell outside our normal sales process. What should have been a value-added service for customers became a headache and a source of discontent for both them and us. We ultimately assigned the person most affected by the challenge to script a better solution, assign responsibilities, document and distribute the standard operating procedure to all stakeholders for input, and test and tweak the process until it was flawless. As a result, custom orders became a differentiator instead of a liability – simply by scripting and documenting a more effective play and testing it until it our heartbeats no longer went up when a custom order came through our sales team.
9. Balance art and science. AI and data science are already widely prevalent in the NFL, and they are starting to make inroads in distribution. NFL teams realize, however, that AI is not a substitute for studying game film. It is used most effectively in specific, targeted situations to complement game film study and provide additional context when making final decisions. For example, NFL teams can use AI as a starting point to help decide whether it’s statistically better to “go for it” on fourth down or punt. However, the ultimate decision needs to account for factors you may not have tested in the AI model (e.g., Is your defense tired? Have you been able to stop them on the last three drives?). And once a decision is made (with the aid of AI or not), you still must call the right play without being too predictable. In addition, your players need to make necessary adjustments based on the initial looks of the defense, and you need to execute the play successfully as scripted.
When it comes to distribution, AI can be a valuable tactical starting point to provide specific alerts or recommendations. However, just as with NFL decisions, there’s an art that should accompany the science. When it comes to an AI-driven sales pitch, salespeople need to know both the data and the art of how to frame the pitch. There’s an art to pulling in additional customer-specific or product-specific context to help an idea resonate with a customer at a more personal level. You don’t want the flavor of an automated and impersonal “people-who-bought-this-also liked-this” product recommendation. It’s better to include artfully personalized context that you can glean from film study in the form of customer stratification and drill-down reports.
10. Make educated, in-game adjustments. When things go wrong in the first half of games, the best NFL teams can digest the strategic and tactical mistakes at half-time and come out in the second half with a different strategy and a new set of plays and formations. I’m sure the Chiefs would have some thoughts on this based on the very different Bengals team they saw in the first half compared to the second half of their AFC Championship game.
Even mid-game, we’ve seen elite quarterbacks like Tom Brady audible out of a called play and into a better one based on what he sees from his opponents at the line of scrimmage. Reacting quickly and responding in the moment with successful results ultimately comes down to recognizing patterns. Players gradually pick up on these cues over years of direct experience and watching game film, coupled with intimate knowledge of opponents and their tendencies.
Distributors and their front-line teams will inevitably have situations in which they must adjust quickly – whether to salvage a sale, avoid agreeing prematurely to a requested discount, or negotiate a spot concession from a vendor. Like with NFL teams, success will boil down to how much homework you have done. By studying your performance reports, you will be able to identify tendencies and patterns of a given account or supplier and apply best practices. This also helps your team consider which specific negotiating levers to use in the moment to match the situation (even if they haven’t seen that particular situation before).
Quite a few elite professional athletes talk about how at some point, the game “slowed down for them” as far as being able to recognize patterns and adjust quickly enough to make the right decisions at the right moments. In the NFL, pattern recognition ultimately comes down to a relentless focus on studying the game (game film and fundamentals) as the foundation for formulating game plans, executing plays, and adapting. The directive for distributors is similar.
When distributors take the time to build a strong foundation, business strategies and execution plans become apparent. The game will slow down for you and your team, and your next move will be crystal clear. Keep studying best practices and leveraging your game film in the form of performance reviews, customer reviews (customer stratification) and supplier reviews (supplier stratification). You will be amazed at the success it brings you.