Sep 1, 2011

I'm detecting a pattern with some of my wholesale business-to-business accounts. It's concerning me because I think the customer is selling themselves short, which may be affecting their sales. There's also potential for misunderstanding. What I thought you said is not what you thought you meant!

So, it's made me wonder am I missing something in my sales pitch? I'm getting the account, 'closing' if you want to get all Glengarry Glen Ross on me. I'm getting the set of steak (cheese) knives. I get the opening order placed, I come in train the staff, consult on merchandising (if it's a retail account), and menu planning (if it's a food service account), yet the same thing crops up a few weeks into the relationship. I'll call it the price grip.

Having won the customer over with the 'value add' of using my business services to order their cheeses and specialty foods, orders start to get fractionated, with no discernable pattern in product choice. I have a hard time seeing the relation between the customer order and the inventory plan I helped put together with them. I get requests for pricing that don't materialize into an order, and re-orders for good products do not materialize. On visiting the account I see that product has sold down, so where are the orders going?

I get caught in a price war, which is exactly what I counsel against when I close the account. Customers focus purely on product price and shop around with distributors. Now I'm not down on distributors. I've oft pitched them to hire my services! I get a lot (not all) of my inventory through them and would be lost without them and the work they do on my behalf. However, the reason I do what I do has a lot to do with frustration over having to work with distributors with disempowered sales reps, sales reps. with a very dim, hostile viewpoint on customers, antiquated information systems (where they exist at all), poor inventory planning, sparse product information (with concomitant interruptions in supply), no product samples or help on site at ones business, and long supply chains. I got so frustrated at the effects this was having on my own retail store and food service, that I jumped in, got educated, and did a lot of their work myself.

I worked for IBM in the '80s and '90s. During the '80s (before the downturn in the company, and its corresponding rise as a global services business), we all still had on our desks an ancient sign. This sign, directed for us to display by the original founder, Thomas J. Watson Sr., said simply, THINK. So I got to thinking. I thunk, and thunk, and thunk. Then I procrastinated a few hours away on Facebook, then I thunk some more. Here's the results of all that navel gazing:

  1. What is my business, my company, about?
  2. What value add do I bring to your business?
1. I retail, wholesale, cater, and consult on high end, artisan and farmstead specialty foods:
  • Product selection, buying, inventory planning and control, merchandising, pricing, brand development and brand management, equipment needs, sales and marketing (physical and online worlds), web site design and management, staff training, customer education, and menu planning. 
  • I work with other businesses to ensure that they do not have to go through the painful learning process I had to. It's very costly to your business for you to have to go through what I went through in the earlier days of mine. The costs, and service interruptions nearly sunk my business, a few times!
  • While my product prices are competitive and fairly priced, I do not compete on product price. I can't. Instead I compete on value add, which in turn, if you take my advice, will increase your sales, all other things being equal - I do not own your business concept, staff, or your location. Some things are beyond my control. Your judgement here is better than mine - it's your business. I make my living on my value add, not my product pricing. If all I'm doing is replicating a price you get elsewhere, then you have no reason to use my services and buy from me.
2. My aim is to consult with you, understand your objectives and your business and make appropriate recommendations for product placement and a coordinated sales and marketing plan which included anything that my be specific to your business. For example, Mediterranean cheeses and North African seasonings for a Mediterranean restaurant, menu planning and staff training. I ask you a blunt question here. I've been in many fine restaurants, very well run establishments, great service, food, and ambience. Usually there is a cheese plate/board on the well designed menu. Yet not one server has ever tried to sell me the cheese course. Ever. Why is this?

Enter Rehoboth Beach Cheese Company, stage left! You may have gotten that cheese at a better price from another vendor, but how much are you saving if it's not selling? Is there a coordinated sales plan for the specialty cheeses? Do you have someone on staff, other than the Chef/Buyer, whom understands the cheese selection, conveys that to the servers, and monitors server interactions to ensure that the training is paying off? It takes a brave, focused customer to overcome the intimidation and order the cheese plate! This is my perception. I've been that intimidated customer, listening to the server recite the specials, while I have one eye on the cheese board on the menu trying to figure out if I should skip the appetizer, or skip dessert and order the cheese course?

So, here's a consulting freebie in the interest of dairy harmony, and not to cover my dairyere! I'm counseling a retail customer right now, driven by a bottom-line focused owner to buy on price. My advice is to work with the boss, he/she is not the enemy. I've been that harrangued boss, worrying about payroll costs, rent, which of my invoices are net 14, 30, 90. Which ones need to get paid this week and how much we need to sell to make the numbers work. I advised the staff member, their cheese buyer, that he/she is asking the boss the wrong questions. In the process the department inventory plan is falling apart, and sales will be affected. Resources are limited and one cannot carry everything. I counsel instead to ask for a budget and to come up with a process that the boss can get the sales and inventory figures he/she needs to be reassured that the inventory plan is working. Maybe I'm biased but I say take a small hit on margin and buy through my company, with the comfort that, if you follow my recommendations, increased sales volume may recover the loss in margin due to my higher product prices over the distributor. Run your department in a proactive way, being able to plan your inventory instead of reacting and always be hurriedly calling around shopping prices, juggling multiple vendor order deadlines, and dealing with supply interruptions. I can't promise you I can solve all your problems - it's your business. However, I can promise you that we will have partnership for the long haul. Your success is mine. That's a guarantee.

Finally some more consulting freebies!

  1. Is your business a member of the American Cheese Society? Mine is. I recommend you join also. You carry a high end product - the availability of which is directly reinforced by this organization. Does your distributor belong to this organization? Do they attend the conferences?
  2. Did you know October is the first ever American Cheese Month? What's your merchandising or menu plan to take advantage of this? How is that call you're making to your distributor Do they carry that cheese you need from that small farm you want to support? How's it working for you calling around all those farms and arranging shipping? Don't worry I'm on it!
In closing, as my own business evolves, I'm realizing some gaps I need to plug in the end product I supply to you. I'm formalizing a package that will be developed within a set of standard procedures that I will apply when consulting with each business. While the process I go through is standard, each business is different and based on my meetings with you and/or your staff, you will be given a report on my recommendations tailored for your business. This is a new product deliverable for my business. It's a formal deliverable you can purchase from me in terms of consulting services. You can choose a consulting package to complement the informal deliverable you get just by ordering specialty food inventory through me. All the advice, and product information I provide to your business when you order inventory through me is built into the price I charge for the product. That's why I cost more than the distributor. I do more than they do!

Call me! The Big Cheese (302) 381-6182. Invite me into your business for a chat! Let's team up and get a custom long range plan in place to grow your sales.


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