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More On The Distributor’s Dilemma: Balancing Brand Management

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Your Brand Management Team is at the Nexus of Supplier and Sales

If the distributor’s dilemma is that they are destined to serve two masters - the supplier and the customer, then the brand management team is at the very center of the distribution equation. Like the fulcrum of a seesaw, brand management must balance the needs of both suppliers and sales teams. They are likewise, obligated to serve both constituencies.

This may sound like heresy to those managers who like to build silos around their departments, but if ever there was a need for collaboration, it is among this group within the distributor.

Like it or not, your brand management team has two customers: your suppliers and your sales team.

On the supplier side, brand management should be facilitating access to your organization and downstream, to your market (customers). Most importantly, brand management should be turning supplier objectives into sales strategies. This must be done in coordination with the sales team in order to insure “buy in” by the team on goals and objectives.

On the sales side, brand management should be feeding information to the sales team on inventory and supply chain issues as well as future availability and looming price changes. Most importantly, brand management should act as “sales support” for the sales team, providing them the tools they need to execute the sales strategies set up to fulfill their supplier objectives.


Look at the Forest and the Trees…

While you may not want to admit it, if you are like most wholesale distributors, 80% of your business is derived from the top 20% of your suppliers. These are the guys on whom you are going to spend the most time and attention. That doesn’t mean you can neglect the other 80%, since many of these brands are what makes your portfolio interesting and attractive to your customers.

Every one of these brands was chosen by you and your team and you probably have a personal relationship with the owner. You can’t honestly say you’ll give the same amount of time and attention to everyone, but, you can make an effort to give time and attention in more subtle ways.

Every brand wants to feel valued and important, so take the time to speak to even your tiniest supplier when they call. Don’t hand them off to an assistant as a matter of course. Send them success stories, no matter how modest, when you achieve small victories in your market. Listen to what they have to say, good or bad, and offer something from your sales and marketing toolbox to help them succeed. Be aware that success for some suppliers is simply getting their product into a handful of accounts who will handle their depletion needs without market-wide distribution. A few “brand champions” among your sale staff is sometimes all it takes to accomplish their goals.


Action Plans versus Reaction Plans

When I was young, I would buy a car, and because I didn’t have much money, I thought I could cut corners and do without the expensive maintenance provided by the dealership. It took my father, who spent his life in and around airplanes, to point out to me that airplanes are subject to the most rigorous maintenance schedules, with parts and sometimes whole engines being replaced at specific intervals. Not maintaining an airplane is never an option, where a breakdown means near certain loss of life.

Believe it or not, many sales organizations try to cut corners in the same way, by not planning out their business for the year. Rather than action plans, they wind up with reaction plans, usually foisted on them in the fourth quarter by an angry supplier whose annual goal is now deeply in doubt. These are the companies who are constantly calling in their sales managers and staff for a last-minute meeting, to hand out impossible goals with impossible deadlines. Threats are made and imprudent incentives are promised to those who can “come through” by the deadline. Frustration, anger and resentment abounds in these organizations and suppliers eventually leave, causing monetary losses that are not easily replaced.

It's up to the brand management and sales teams to work with suppliers in crafting a marketing plan for the year. Too many times, I’ve seen otherwise competent managers, ignore this most important “maintenance feature”, and rough out a “seat of the pants” plan, which assumes more than it produces.




No Need to Reinvent the Wheel

There was a time when suppliers would hand me programs and incentives for their brands. Each one was slightly different, have different begin and end dates and different payouts. Oh yes, and they were all on different sheets of paper!

At one point, I handed out binders to each sales rep so that they could keep them all organized. Or so I thought. I considered this progress and a great organizational tool! Then the binders began to overflow and keeping track of all of these individual programs became a nightmare.

By this time, I had seen enough types of programs, identified which ones were successful and which aspects were most influential in generating sales. Many were very similar, with only subtle differences. So rather than reinvent the wheel, we took the process into our own hands and created our own programs, each with a standard time period, a standard payout and a standard format. These were then incorporated into a sales and marketing calendar, posted on the company website for everyone to see, with begin and end dates, as well as goals and incentives. In one place, a sales rep could see the company’s top priorities and programs, from top to bottom, for every month and quarter.

Now, the best companies feed these kinds of programs into their operating system and display progress on a daily dashboard. Gone are the days when the head of sales had to run the updates every morning and pass them down the chain. Current business intelligence platforms like MS 365, GoalQuest and Xactly can handle the daily tabulation and update every member of the sales team on their personal tablets and PC’s. Staff and management know where to apply effort on a daily basis and coaching can be focused on those needing the most help.

William Sciambi