Lights, Camera, Branding! Selling Fast Moving Consumer Goods to the Modern Sri Lankan Consumer
Updated: Mar 26
This week on BusinessLoungeLK's journey to bring you the voices of Sri Lankan business professionals we are honoured to have Dr. Dinesh Hamangoda on our Brand Builders segment. Dr. Dinesh is the general manager of sales for Hemas consumer brands, a visiting lecturer, past president of PIMA and vice president of DBAAKU. He completed his MBA at PIM in 2010 and his Doctoral degree from the University of Kelaniya. He is also a member of the Charted Institute of Marketing (CIM) and BSC (hon) degree holder from the University of New Delhi.
1.) Tell us about your journey as a sales professional. How did you start and what excites you about sales?
I started my career in banking when I got the opportunity to join Sampath Bank as a junior executive. Halfway through however, I realised that banking was not my forte as I was keen to work in a more creative space and a place where there was room for innovative new ideas.
Ultimately, I decided to leave the banking sector to pursue work I was more passionate about. I was able to join Unilever as a management trainee and this is something that I would categorically identify as a key turning point in my life because this is where my sales journey began.
In my first year at Unilever, I had to work as a sales rep and sell on a shop-to-shop basis and my first assignment was under a brand called Wall’s. However, the brand wasn’t successful in Sri Lanka, so I was transferred to the general trade division where I continued my sales job under an area sales manager. Around that time, I got the opportunity to work as an assistant key accounts manager to develop the small and medium supermarket section in Unilever. I worked in that position for about a year and in that time frame I was able to help develop the number of outlets from 10 outlets to over 130 outlets.
Due to my performance, I was thrilled to hear that I was selected to go outside the country for a “swap” program. This is when someone from another company would come to work at Unilever Sri Lanka and our candidate will simultaneously “swap” positions with them in their respective company to work there. I was the first Sri Lankan to be swapped to another country as I got the opportunity to work for Unilever in the Philippines. I was there for around six months as a customer development manager and in my time working there, I was exposed to international chains and strategies, so I was able to learn how modern trade worked which was a fantastic learning experience.
After I got back to Sri Lanka, I was given the challenge of handling a chain called “Sathosa” which was facing numerous difficulties. So, the skills I learnt in the Philippines combined with my creative knowledge was poured into Sathosa’s business to make it successful. In the end we were able to raise its turnover fourfold.
After about four years at Unilever focusing primarily on sales, I got the opportunity to join the marketing department as the brand manager for Dove and Comfort to help develop the two brands in Sri Lanka. And after completing that assignment, I also got through a plethora of positions within Unilever such as entrepreneurial business development, heading the demand planning process at Unilever and being the head of marketing at Unilever food solutions.
So, after spending almost 13 years with Unilever developing a vast array of skills and knowledge, I decided it was time to leave and I got the chance to join Holcim Lanka as a customer channel management and influencer marketing head where I worked for three years. So, it was a new learning curve for me after working for 13 years in a FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) company. After working at Holcim Lanka, I got the opportunity to join East West Marketing as the CEO.
It was only after my tenure at East West Marketing that I got the opportunity to head the sales department at Hemas.
2.) What was it like to deal with a sudden shift in the market and consumer behaviour when the pandemic hit and how have brands adopted to Sri Lankan customers with the new normal?
During the past two years we were suffering from the Coronavirus pandemic it posed many challenges to businesses worldwide. However, the first hurdle we had to overcome was the challenges we faced in both supply and demand.
In terms of demand, we simply had no way of predicting it. If you are a salesman, you should know your targets and if you are in a company, you should know your company turnover, but that is extremely difficult to predict when you don’t know what the demand is going to be. Without proper forecasting, it was a nightmare to understand how much products to manufacture or even how to draw up the cashflow plan. So, planning the forecast was a huge challenge due to how unpredictable it was.
This cascaded into another problem which was how to manage the sales teams. Sales is a highly target driven profession and without me giving my sales team a proper target, how can I motivate them? Finding the boundary line between an extremely difficult target and an under evaluated target was challenging without proper demand forecasts.
On the supply chain side, we underwent difficulties when catering to sudden spikes in demand. These sudden spikes in demand would prop up when there was panic buying, or when our competitors went out of stock. Getting that extra production (which was not planned) to meet the demand was difficult. So, planning on a continuous and frequent basis was extremely important as soon as we got updates throughout the day, planning was highly robust on a daily basis.
People retention was also a challenge, but we made sure to keep our staff protected and motivated by offering welfare benefits and constant access to PCR/ Rapid Antigen testing and educating them on best practices to stay safe whilst working.
As to adopting to the customers of the new normal, many FMCG companies started to produce their own products such as antibacterial surface cleaners, gloves, masks etc. So, companies had a hawk’s eye on visualising these opportunities to get an additional sale whilst also looking out for the future needs of the consumer.
3.) What have you done to make the brands become closer to the hearts & minds of the customers?
In general, making your product available is a key priority for any company. In the middle of a pandemic however, product availability becomes even more important. So, it was essential to make sure that the consumers still had access to their favourite brands whether it was through supermarket chains or even through online platforms.
We also made sure to keep the promotional elements in our marketing campaigns. Whether it’s a “buy-two-get-one free” campaign or offering discounts for certain products, we always made sure to maintain consumer trade promotions to a certain extent even whilst we were struggling with the pandemic, because we don’t want people to lose that “value for money” feel.
We never cut down on our advertisements either because it’s important to maintain brand awareness. For many companies it was also extremely important to market products ethically especially during the pandemic. For example, using the pandemic as an excuse to sell products at an unnecessarily high price or forcefully is unethical. So, it was important to communicate our ads in a covid-friendly manner to maintain our brand image.
4.) In your view, what are the features of brands that do make it through tough times?
If you are going through a tough time, then your resources are limited, and you need to make sure you use your remaining resources as efficiently as possible. Most of the companies that do make it through the tough times do so by referring to data. Doing a thorough analysis of the data available to you helps you understand where the pain points are. For example, through data analysis you can understand which customers specifically are underbuying or overbuying and you can rectify the issue immediately. So, identifying opportunities through data is extremely important when faced with tough times.
Sticking to your basics is an essential quality when facing hard times as well. For example, even if a particular outlet is not buying at the moment, as a salesperson it is your duty to still visit that outlet to understand why they haven’t bought the products. So even if particular customers are not buying at the moment, it is still important to go there and complete your basic merchandising and availability checking, and by doing that, even though you might not get a sale today, you are creating an opportunity for a sale tomorrow, so it is crucial to keep your fundamentals safe when under pressure.
Additionally, proper communication with your customers and your sales teams are essential to make it through tough times. So don’t pull out on customer marketing driven activities such as offering loyalty schemes because that will only hurt your sales further. Similarly, make sure to keep your sales teams motivated to make those extra sales by offering tailor-made incentive schemes.
5.) Let's talk about the management of sales teams, how do you keep them driven during pressing times such as the pandemic?
Having a motivated sales team is vital when it comes to the proper functioning of a company. We conducted many motivational activities to keep their moral high even during a tough time such as the pandemic. As I mentioned earlier, communication is key, and I know some sales leaders who hold daily meetings and sometimes even talk to sales reps on an individual basis to understand their hardships.
However, motivation alone can’t help you make it through pressuring times such as the peak of the pandemic. We had to take proper precautions and create a covid-free environment to assure our team a sense of security whilst they work. This involved giving allowances and family welfare benefits and making sure that their income levels were not drastically disturbed, so we maintain a level of normality through the difficult times. And we also made sure to reward individuals who went the extra mile by providing additional allowances to commemorate their effort.
So, creating hope and motivating the team is extremely important, because otherwise the damage done to the entire company will be significant.
6.) What role does data play in sales management?
Data is an important tool not just in sales, but in every function of a company. Data helps you to re-enforce your perspectives and justify your decisions when communicating them to your managers or your team. For example, if your managers ask you how the situation regarding sales was, some people will give a vague answer like “it’s okay” or “it’s good”, but a data driven individual will give a very sharp and clear-cut answer which brings thought provoking content to the table.
Diving into the data is also an essential step to understand whether your target achievements are sustainable or if there is a cause for concern. For example, if a sales head has over-achieved their target, your first impression might be “that’s good”, but the story shouldn’t end there. You have to get into the data and understand why that was the case. So, in reality it might have been the case that one customer has drastically overbought due to the fact that your competitor went out of stock, and your other customers have all underbought, which is a huge problem even though it shows a temporary favourable result now.
So, even in your achievements, through data, you have to understand what the composition of these achievements are, in order for you to conclude that they are actually authentic and sustainable accomplishments.
7.) How does a sales professional balance the mix of online sales and in-store sales?
There was an immense spike in online purchases because of the nature of the pandemic and panic buying. The pandemic acted as a temporary catalyst to boost online sales, however you can’t get comfortable and expect the same results of online sales in a non-pandemic situation because consumer behaviour will differ with time.
With respect to online sales, I believe that it is important to have a stretched target, meaning that there should be a gradual improvement in your online reach. So, you have to maintain your online efforts even after the pandemic through consumer promotions and developing your connections with e-tailers.
So, the most important aspect to striking a balance between online sales and in-store sales is to first fine tune your expectations regarding online sales and understand that it will fall as the pandemic tones down and more people get the opportunity to go back to purchasing items in-store. Then, you need to bring your online sales to a healthy sustainable level once again and gradually grow from there.
So in conclusion, after an event like the pandemic which grants an unexpected dependence to online sales, you shouldn’t aim for the sky right away, but don’t aim for a small weed either. Aim for a coconut tree and then maintain that coconut tree level and slowly and sustainably build your way up to the sky.
8.) What is your advice for future marketers/ sales professionals? What should they expect moving forward and what should they be ready for?
My advice for all sales professionals, whether they are young or mature, is to focus on the process, not the result. Make sure to focus on the little bucket of processes which help you get through the day such as going to your shops on a daily basis whether they buy or not and constantly being on the lookout for an additional shop to sell to. When you attend to these small details, nothing will stop you from reaching that month end target. Being a salesperson demands consistency and focusing on the daily process will help you perfect that characteristic.
It's important to continuously keep associating with futuristic ideas and concepts as well, because it’s important to make sure that you are well equipped to handle the new wave of digital innovations and to use them to your advantage.
Finally, I advise our young sales professionals and marketers to not enter the field with a job seeking mindset, but a career seeking one. Always strive to gain experience in a multitude of different sectors in our industry and get that exposure in different companies and different work cultures.
So, remember to always develop your passion and rigour to work as a salesperson and never be afraid to go that extra mile.
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