Trends & Features

Why retailers should build good relationships with their suppliers

Customers come first, everyone else comes nowhere. I was told that piece of wisdom many years ago on a training course (from a well respected organisation, too). I didn’t buy it at the time and I’ve never changed my mind.

As you can imagine, the trainer was being highly contentious, aiming to get a response and he succeeded. Incidentally, I don’t understand why trainers felt the need to stir up a roomful of people in this way. Hopefully it’s gone out of fashion.

That said, customers should indeed come first, which doesn’t always happen. But you ought to have a pecking order for other people – staff, family, friends spring to mind. In particular, you should aim to have good relationships with your suppliers. The retailer who works on this aspect of trade enhances his business in many ways.

This is of course a two-way street. The supplier should be mustard keen to have good relationships with you. In particular, that means the reps who visit you, but it should also mean others in their head office.

They should start by working exclusively to pre-arranged appointments. The rep who comes bouncing in, justifying his or her presence with “I was in the area so…” should be history. No retailer should put up with this unprofessional approach.

Realistically, reps can be disappointed by having meetings cancelled belatedly, their well planned day can be upset by retailers not giving them enough time or less commonly taking too much of their time. But in such circumstances they should phone first. In this world of near 100 per cent mobile phone ownership there is no excuse for just arriving unannounced.

Note too that this behaviour is just plain rude. It says pretty clearly “I don’t regard you with due respect; it is your role to drop everything and give me at least half an hour of your day, any time I pitch up.” Clearly this is a truly hopeless way to build good relations with a customer.

But, as I say, this is a two-way street. If the rep is doing his job properly, has fixed an appointment, is on time and has something of relevance to tell you, you should play fair and give him the time he asked for. If you don’t you could well be missing out on something important (and harming your reputation into the bargain).

Some retailers are very restrictive about what subjects they will give a rep time to talk about. OK, I understand why, – a rep’s definition of important and relevant can be a country mile away from yours. But some retailers take the attitude that if he hasn’t got a new product to introduce they don’t want a visit and that is far too restrictive.

Even if there’s no new product on the chocks, there may well be lots of new information available to you. Be ready to ask because some reps just don’t tell you. What is old information to them may be as fresh as paint to you.

So try these prompts:

1. What market research have they got that you may not have seen?
2. Have they enhanced their range with new sizes and colours?
3. What’s their best seller – has that changed?
4. What’s their fastest growing product?
5. Where do they advertise and how much do they spend?
6. Who do they sponsor and how much do they spend?
7. Are there any local/regional strengths or weaknesses in their range?

Ask those questions (and others you think important) of all your key suppliers and you will have a high quality piece of research. A good rep should be telling you all this anyway but they aren’t all good.

Don’t stop at the rep. Via him, get in touch with members of their head office staff. You may experience some resistance here from the rep and the head office bod, along the lines of, “why do you want that?”

Here’s why. “I want to talk to the expert rather than have his knowledge distilled down to me via the rep. I’m looking for half an hour of his time.” You may well want to talk to the marketing manager or similar because he’s got an in-depth skill which you may lack.

Or you may be looking for advice on sales training, which could come from HR or the sales manager or both. It’s possible (although I wouldn’t bet on it) that senior marketing people would give you access to their agencies – advertising, PR and promotions.

At the least you could ask them to pass on to a relevant agency expert your questions. This could be ‘how do I choose a local paper’ , ‘please critique my website’, ‘what’s the next big thing in your opinion’ etc ad infinitum.

In all the above you are seeking expertise and hoping to get it for free. Why not? You’re paying their salaries when you place orders. So when you actively seek a closer relationship with the company they should be weeping with joy, no?

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