It’s really tough out there for retail. Today’s retail market can feel like it is getting smaller every day. Major players have had double-digit downtrends for multiple years. Inventories are unstable, open to buys are tight and stretch plans are basically non-existent.
So in this market, how do you, your sales team, and your product stand apart and actually see growth? How do you stay relevant so your customer thinks of you first when those opportunities arise? How do you get them to actually take an appointment to tell them about how your product is the next best thing since fidget spinners?!
With Competition, Brings Opportunity
Keeping in mind that your competitors are facing the same challenges as you, there is little room for error, and no time to spare. The relationship between you and your customer is more important than ever and strengthening this relationship is the best way for your company to separate itself from the pack and start getting results.
Following 4 simple tips will build a relationship with your customer where:
You are their "go-to" vendor
You, your sales team, and your product stand apart from your competitor
They are excited to hear from you and about your product
They look to you as a trusted advisor
You are the first vendor your customer thinks of when they discover opportunities
1. Don’t Wait, Communicate!
You need to stay top of mind in the eyes of your customer in order to be first vendor they call when a few dollars are freed up in their open-to-buy. This requires keeping your customer up-to-date on new trends, product, and opportunities, while making sure you don’t overwhelm or annoy them.
Time is money for both of you, so develop an effective and customized communication plan that works for your customer. The plan should include a mix of in-person visits, regular standing phones calls, and emails – the key is knowing when and how to use them.
All-encompassing meetings where you need your customer’s full attention and engagement. This meeting is a great opportunity to discuss strategy, discuss current sales, review new product, and brainstorm new opportunities.
At least 2 times per year at their office, and ideally 2 or more market visits at your office.
Coordinate with your customer at least a month in advance. Occasionally quick trips will come up, but there is no guarantee of acceptance on a short-notice from a busy product manager or buyer.
Call further in advance if you have seasonal product to show. The timing is dependent on the category, the buying timeframe, and when you have samples to show, but make sure you book your appointment as early as possible. Make sure you’re first in line for this face-time with your customer. Your preparedness, product, and commentary will set the tone and become the benchmark for all your competitors – landing you the big, seasonal buys.
Don't Over Schedule:
Nothing can kill your credibility faster than wasting your customer’s time. Budget the appropriate amount of time, and during the meeting be sure watch the clock and stay on schedule.
Regular Standing Phone Calls
Regular Standing Phone Calls are incredibly useful for necessary conversations that are of importance but due to content or timing, don’t warrant an in-person visit. It may be a quick sales review, request for updates to best sellers, or potential quick turn opportunity. One thing to keep in mind is that regular standing calls can be a reflection of how important you are to your vendor/customer (and vice/versa).
Critical Accounts-Weekly to 2x a Month
Smaller Accounts-Monthly to every other Month
Smaller Partners Looking to Grow their Business:
Play it cool. Request to schedule a regular standing call and if your client hesitates, slow down the frequency to where your client is comfortable. This means you’ll need to use your phone-time wisely. Always come prepared with discussion topics and stay focused on the dialogue. The opportunities will begin presenting themselves as you begin building the relationship.
Don't be a Telemarketer
You're better than that. If your customer isn’t returning your calls (and if it isn’t urgent), remain patient. Everyone has swings in their work, getting pulled into hectic projects – which is probably the worst time for you to speak with them. Trust that they will reach out when they are ready.
Non-urgent and smaller topics needing clarification, resolution, or documentation. These should be short & simple questions that only require a short & simple reply.
Supplementing Phone Calls
Do you have some images of new product to review? New trend boards you want to share? Costing sheets to discuss? This is a great use of email but make sure you clearly and concisely organize the information in a way that can be easily referenced (ie - page numbers, style numbers, SKU information, etc.)
As needed, but expect a 48 hour turnaround period. If it is urgent, email and follow up immediately with a phone call.
Don't Publish a Novel:
Nobody has the time to read them, and you probably don’t have the time to write them. If your email is starting to get a little long, think about picking up the phone instead.
Today email is the norm, but don’t use it as a replacement for scheduling visits and conference calls. Your face-time and phone-time with your customer is the best and fastest way to make a personal connection with your customer – separating you from your competitors.
2. Preparation Meets Opportunity
If “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” then what happens when opportunity meets someone who is unprepared?
Any experienced buyer can smell lack of preparation and will assume you are not interested in a partnership, or worthy of their time. In order to properly prepare for and present to your customer, you need to know their business inside and out.
Come to your meetings prepared to discuss business, including both your business and theirs.
How is their company doing? Did they finish last quarter up or down?
How is your business with them? Are you up? Down?
What's performing in their account?
What's performing in other accounts that may translate?
Ask them what’s going on within their total business. They may share, they may not, but if they do you’ll gain insights on new opportunities.
Talk about the retail environment at the macro and micro level. Buyers look to you to provide insight on their specific industry and you are the gatekeeper to what is happening “out there” so the more you know, the better results you’ll have.
3. Check Their Blind-Spots
Now it’s up to you to keep engaging your customer so they start thinking of you first for the next big opportunity. To build this into your relationship, start with organically helping them identify their blind-spots. Over time, your customer will begin associating you with opportunity.
Search for White Space in Their Assortment and on Their Sales Floor
What are they missing?
Is it a product category, key item, color, or something else that is driving sales to their competitors?
Shop their floor and look for a new opportunity to bring to them.
Most buyers will give you the opportunity first to fill in that gap that you identified.
Present Creative Updates to Their Best Sellers
If you have already sold them a best seller and you aren’t presenting updates within a few weeks of double digit sell through, then you are both missing out on sales.
Get samples made (supplement with sketches if needed) and send them immediately. Don’t ask for permission or wait for an invitation.
Share What's Working for Others
Share broad sales trends that your customer may be missing out on or not buying deep enough. (Obviously do not share other client’s trade secrets or strategies).
Give them the best intel so they can build their buys and be successful.
Be Prepared to Offer Options
When your offering is on point, it is so much easier for your customer to say “yes” to their next buy.
Provide a few sales driving silhouettes, margin builders, styles with key item potential, basic replenishment options, and some trendy, fast fashion.
You never know when your next sample is going to be the key item they have been looking for.
4. Why Can't We Be Friends?
Aside from being professional it’s important to build a friendly repertoire with your client. As you start to build your relationship with them, have a little fun too. It could be friendly conversation that evolves to a dinner invitation, or a gift basket during the holidays, but the point is a small gesture that demonstrates your genuine appreciate of their business and your partnership.
The key aspects to getting results are not just building relationships but providing your client with the absolute best customer service, better than all of your competitors. Ultimately, great customer service is huge advantage because it is frequently overlooked and it is simple and inexpensive to implement. In today’s fast moving world filled with more deadlines, responsibilities, and workload, great customer service is appreciated even more and will make you and your company standout. Whether you are head of sales or a new sales team member, these techniques work and will never go out of style.
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