It should be clear that companies have to change their approach radically in order to serve rural markets. More so, the HR function, which has to break out of its traditional ways of operating and to get more in tune with villages. All functions, from recruitment to motivation, have to go through radical surgery.
Function # 1. Recruitment:
While recruiting for rural marketing, companies are likely to face a number of challenges. For one, urban-trained HR managers tend to think in terms of tests and other hurdles over which candidates must jump to get recruited. They think in terms of minimum qualifications and efficiency parameters. However, these do not work in rural markets for the simple reason that qualified candidates are often not available.
Second, the skills and qualifications of candidates are fluid, in the sense that a committed candidate with knowledge of local cultures may be more successful than a person who may have higher educational qualifications. Urban recruiting of salespeople is done through advertisements, consultants, or campus recruitment. HR managers habituated to these methods will almost certainly find that for rural recruitment these methods are of little use. Moreover, most rural people who acquire higher education do not want to live in villages and are hence difficult to find. Village recruitment is often done through village communities and SHGs.
Companies have to, therefore, tap into those people who have chosen to stay behind and serve their communities. They may not be qualified or even ideal for sales jobs. The challenge is to find and reach such people. Recruiting from towns and cities and sending people to work in villages is self-defeating, since the task is to get people who are willing to work in villages.
Companies have to find local repairmen, teachers or the educated unemployed who can serve as their representatives. For example, a village ice cream vendor could well be used to sell FMCG products during the off season, and thereby increase his earnings while providing deep penetration in villages.
Such a strategy was used effectively by Hindustan Latex. However, finding committed people calls for physically going to the villages and talking to communities. The advantage is that this strategy will result in less attrition and more motivated workers. It will also stop urban migration to some extent and, as pointed out by Schumacher (1973), the whole level of rural life can be raised, the development of an agro- industrial culture, ‘so that each district, each community, can offer a colourful variety of occupations to its members.’ However, it is not easy, as sales managers have to give up the comfort of their offices and find people by physically identifying them.
Function # 2. Compensation:
The next step is to devise compensation packages for rural areas. It is accepted today that a fixed salary structure does not motivate village workers in the long run. These workers must work without supervision and should be self-motivated. Commissions help to link compensation with output. However, a commission-only compensation structure ignores two things.
First, that the earnings will not be stable and almost nil during the off-season. Salespersons will hence look for alternate employment when work is less and leave the company. Second, since commissions focus on quantity over quality, it may lead to pressure sales, which will harm the company in the long run.
Holmstrom (1999) had shown that a person’s concern for a future career influences his or her incentives to put in effort for a job. That is, a person’s productive performance is based on an ‘implicit contract’ that links today’s performance to future wages. This shows that if a person does not see his future earnings rise, his performance will be good only for the short term. Hence, apart from present compensation plan, a company must chalk out a career plan for the rural salesperson.
A fixed salary is also therefore required, which may be in the form of a retainer so that stability is maintained. The compensation plan has to be such that the earnings have to be sizeable enough to keep alive the interest in sales and service. A performance review system that takes into account profitability must be established.
The compensation plan should not be merely to achieve sales in the short run; what is important is that companies design compensation packages to promote behaviours that support long-term business goals – the system should be designed to achieve specific goals, such as rural market penetration, market share, giving demos to new customers and improving dealer performance. Giving social benefits after certain years of service, like a gratuity, may help retain salespeople for longer in rural areas.
Function # 3. Personality and Skills:
It is normally believed that salesmen should have selling skills, communication skills and presentation skills. These are described in many books on sales management. However, rural sales management is a different cup of tea. Companies looking for textbook skills normally end up having difficulties in getting the right people, and then getting them to stay.
Attitude has a major role to play in sales. The company’s training has to be geared towards inculcating the right approach and attitude. Rural marketing calls for some specific traits on the part of a salesman.
These are described below:
1. Willingness to Work in the Rural Areas:
Only those who feel happy living and working in villages can become good rural salesmen. Since rural areas lack modern amenities compared to the urban areas, few urban dwellers are willing to relocate to rural centres. The answer is to find local people who fit into the village and do not have problems locating there.
2. Cultural Knowledge:
The rural salesman must be well acquainted with the local cultural aspects. A salesman who speaks the local dialect and gels with the local culture will be a greater asset than a town dweller visiting the village for sales. That is why companies prefer to employ local people to help them achieve market penetration in villages.
3. Salesman Attitude:
The rural salesman must have patience, because building relationships and rural sales calls for a lot of time. Urban customers may fix appointments and have limited time, but that strategy in rural areas falls flat. Sales is accomplished after a great deal of conversation. Rural customers are traditional and cautious in their approach.
4. Ability to Handle Several Product Lines:
Rural salesmen usually handle all product lines of their companies. This means that their training has to be more broad-based than their urban counterparts.
Rural selling also involves adaptability and creativity. Making the same sales presentation in different villages and expecting the same responses would not work. The salesman must adapt to situations as and when they arise.
6. Developmental Approach:
The approach of all rural selling has to be to solve local problems and helping people even when such activities are not related to the sale directly. A company that helps make rural lives simpler has a greater chance of establishing long-term loyalty than one that merely attempts to sell.
A change in attitude and improvement in skills is achieved by training. This becomes important since companies may have to hire candidates who are not perfectly ideal for the job, and require training in soft skills as well as selling skills.
Function # 4. Training:
Skills improvement and attitude changes are achieved through constant training. There is thus need for strong in-house training facilities. A product that breaks down and cannot be fixed means that a promise is broken. Kapur et al. (2014) point out that in rural communities, a faulty product which is not repaired, may permanently lose an entire village for the company, since word of mouth carries so much weight.
Companies rely on different strategies to deliver service – some companies train their salesmen, while others are building dedicated service infrastructures. To reduce costs, locals are hired to furnish no-frills support in their villages.
For its part, the company must provide a transparent career growth plan for its rural agents, which will result in their long-term commitment. The growth, supervision and evaluation system must be based on the developmental approach. In the long run, a social business is likely to succeed better than a mere commercial approach. That is why a person’s commitment to stay with the company becomes important. After recruiting, companies must develop and nurture local talent, which is often less-than-perfect.
Selling and communication skills, along with product knowledge are imparted through on-the-job training activities. Companies have to invest in skill building through workshops or courses for rural employees. This is sometimes done with partners like NGOs. Very often, written and verbal communication skills and office processes training must be imparted so that the salesperson can send reports as required by the head office. Dealers and retailers will also have to be trained along with salespeople. For them, accounting, merchandising and inventory management skills have to be imparted as in the case of Dabur.
Function # 5. Retention Strategies:
Training must cover retention strategies as well, since building a team to serve villages is very difficult. For this, a company must provide a positive work environment, flexibility of hours and encouraging employees to maximize their social impact in the village. Performance must be rewarded fairly and a promotion path specified. Opportunities for personal development must be created.
As a person advances, retention becomes all the more important as other companies will always be looking out for trained rural personnel. Companies have to learn to work with highly independent-minded people who can change jobs frequently and may even quit without an alternate job in hand. Social security investments can go a long way in retaining rural people.
Function # 6. Motivation:
The rural marketing task involves travelling over large distances, tackling difficult consumers and traders, and often involves working without facilities. In such a situation, motivating employees is a big challenge.
Intellecap (2012) says that the opportunity to take on leadership roles and a belief in the company’s mission are the most common motivations for joining a social enterprise. Companies must therefore offer candidates greater opportunity to move up the ladder. There is ample opportunity for employees to move up as they work in rural sales, because so many sales activities have to be performed. Employees tend to be drawn towards the idea of combining a reasonable income with the satisfaction of achieving social impact.
Motivation is achieved by simple methods in rural areas. Director of Fruit Bageecha in Kotgarh (Himachal Pradesh), Anuradha Kanwar Budhraja, found that finding workers was a problem in rural areas, so the factory had to adjust to flexible working hours for its workers, most of whom are women. Since they have to travel over large distances in areas where public transport is almost non-existent, such simple measures go a long way in finding and retaining workers. These women had never ventured far from their homes, so a trip to a nearby fair or a shopping trip to nearby Shimla was a great motivator for them. The factory organizes such trips regularly for its workers.
Location disadvantages are overcome by training workers to take on higher responsibilities. Most companies work with junior staff that is locally hired. Sending managers and trainers who periodically travel from bigger towns and cities is not only expensive but in many cases irrelevant in villages. Companies would do well to train local people to take over supervisory and training responsibilities, which would be cost-efficient and motivate workers as well.
Function # 7. Career Planning:
Companies tend to hire local workers to meet their immediate objectives of achieving sales or to have a presence in a village. They find workers too, but once a salesperson is effective, he or she may well leave to sell products of another company offering higher commissions. There is thus a need to retain talent that a company recruits.
A key to retaining talent is to have a career growth path for the workers. For instance, a saleswoman in a village cannot be expected to do just sales for the rest of her life. Unfortunately, companies usually do no career planning for their rural workers. Without seeing a clear growth path, motivation and retention efforts will fail. HR managers thus need to work out clear career-planning goals for their rural recruits.
Since most of them are ‘intrapreneurs’ as described in the case of Aparajitas, their career paths have to be innovatively planned. While some rural workers can be promoted to become trainers or depot coordinators along with their sales activities, others can be encouraged to set up shops in their villages.
Function # 8. Redefining HR:
Standard HR practices do not work while managing a rural sales force. Nor can it be left to sales managers only. Thus, a complete change in the approach and training of HR managers is needed. Most companies do not have adequate HR systems that are appropriate for rural areas.
For one, HR managers need to move out of the comfort of their corporate offices, since no rural management can be done remotely. HR managers must get over their usual recruitment-evaluation-training models to a creative handling of the rural recruits. Companies will initially find it difficult to work with a workforce that is flexible and independent, but can certainly harness these qualities as they go along.
Human resource challenges in rural areas are multifaceted. HR managers will have to learn to live with SHGs. They have to achieve the involvement of local people in the design and planning process while working with local groups and NGOs. Rural sales management requires cooperation between sales, HR, logistics, after-sales service as well with village communities and panchayats. In the final analysis, rural marketing calls for a redefining of many roles, a paradigm shift in thinking and a complete change in the way we manage organizations.