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The Procrastinator's Guide to Distributor Planning

Hurtte article

by Frank Hurtte

True confession, I am a legendary procrastinator. Ever since delivering a scrap book carrying the scent of fresh Elmer’s glue to Miss Miller’s English class back in seventh grade, my most developed skill could be defined as last-minute cramming. Working my way through the ivy-covered halls of the University of Illinois, I honed and polished my ability to pull together a decent project one minute and 20 seconds ahead of the deadline. Along the way, I have relished in the thought of working best under massive pressure and it’s both my major strength and my biggest weakness.

Why the true confession? Based on my many candid conversations with distributors in our industry, I am convinced I am not the only procrastinator in the business. Tales of late-night efforts in slamming out a big customer presentation followed by landing a major chunk of business always intrigue me; maybe even inspire me. But I have a question. What does being a procrastinator do for planning?

While it sounds contradictory, I don’t believe being a procrastinator precludes planning. It does create an interesting twist to the way planning must be done.

Early-year planning
You might have some of these already on your calendar and, if so, give yourself a big gold star. If not, there’s still plenty of time for a procrastinator to come out smelling like a rose.

Joint planning with key supply partners is a must for a successful year. Setting up these meetings requires almost no work. But before you start, a good procrastinator works hard to maximize their time and minimize the startup. We can procrastinate getting around to the majority of our suppliers.

All of the people selling us product are not created equally. A limited few are key to our success and, as callused as it may sound, the rest are just carried as a service to your customers or to round out your product portfolio. Feel free to procrastinate getting back to the guy who has 15 other distributors signed up in your market and those whose product is only purchased by a handful of customers. Feels pretty good to hear a consultant actually tell you to procrastinate, doesn’t it?

Getting back to the handful of really important guys, set the wheels of planning in motion by sending an email asking for a mutually good date. Once the date is set, toss to the side your natural tendencies to delay. Beware, there are a few things you need to prepare that require more than your normal Herculean last-minute effort, such as:

  • Where does the current business come from? This is a quick report for companies with smart front ends on their ERP (like Sales Management Plus or MITS). Distributors without the capability may need a few days to gather the numbers. By the way, if you are a procrastinator, the smart front end on your ERP system is a must-have tool.
  • Which customers are the targets for the coming year and why? Schedule a time with the sales person responsible for the account and ask them to provide you with some background.
  • Did the supplier’s policies or processes create any logistical or warehouse issues? Typically, a quick call to the warehouse and purchasing department gets this information.
  • Did you maximize co-op funds? If not, what might be done to make their program easier for both of you to employ? If you are a procrastinator, set a date for reviewing this source of free money with one of your coworkers a couple of times a year.
  • Does this supplier plan on conducting any marketing activities for 2018? How do they plan to involve their distributors in the plan?

Meetings with critically important suppliers should never be a once-a-year event. Beat the procrastination bug by setting a date for the next meeting before you end the first meeting. If you really want to be tricky about it, put the onus of setting the schedule with the supplier’s team.

Marketing activities are easy to put off. Unlike customer emergencies and important expedites, marketing stuff isn’t urgent. Things like plans for mailers, customer presentations, open houses, trade shows and new company brochures lack immediate need for action, but they are of uber importance. You can jump off your procrastination horse and start the ball rolling with very
little effort.

Here’s how to make them happen. Set a date for announcing the new marketing initiatives. Send an email out announcing the new marketing will be rolled out at the next sales meeting or leadership huddle. Now you’ve got a deadline. What should be included?

  • Training is the new marketing. What training would attract customers to your facility? Based on a 2017 survey by Plant Engineering magazine, customers are desperate for real training and have money to spend.
  • Related to training, customers seem to have an almost insatiable appetite for distributor-centric information presented in video format. With a camera costing less than $250, a product specialist, salesperson or visiting supplier salesperson can create a three- to five-minute demo of new products. The question is who wants to run with the project? Pick a person and set a review date.
  • A new capabilities brochure designed for a specific customer segment works wonders. Progressive distributors have learned such materials open the customer’s eyes to the products and expertise you have developed specifically for their business. A string of deadlines for a half-dozen industry groups speeds the process.
  • Customers have come to expect real and meaningful newsletters from their top suppliers. Is yours going out regularly? Do you track the clicks and opens? Do you have a mechanism for capturing leads if someone expresses an interest?
  • Should you have an open house or mini trade show? Set a date and start laying the groundwork. Based on experience, planning such an event requires four months of planning. It’s really not that complicated but some of the details must be worked out ahead. For instance, vendors need a three- to four-month notice to make their plans and creating promotional materials requires a two-month head start.

Reengineering sales meetings to make them procrastinator-friendly is a great strategy as well. Most managers make the mistake of thinking about their sales meetings as stand-alone events rather than an ongoing continuum. The best way to create a flow and build super-deluxe sales meetings comes by planning all of the sales meetings for the year. Ask yourself what skills do my team members need to develop and lay them out over the course of the coming months.

Here are some examples:

  • Product training for new people. Why not line up vendors for several meetings at a time? This allows one set of calls/emails with available dates and times.
  • Internal systems and process training. Companies with a solid process outperform their competitors. For example, research done years ago by CSO Insights indicates companies with a solidly documented sales process are much more likely to outperform organizations with informal processes. By prioritizing and building on previous meetings, you can use internal resources to handle much of the training. Start with simple blocking and tackling, things like expediting orders, pricing deviation or appointment setting, then move forward. A few quick emails and you move to superstardom.

Improved product launches are shown to impact financial performance. Now more than ever, distributors need to excel in punching the right new products into the market. In days gone by these launches were largely a sales-driven machine, and a poorly run machine at that. Manufacturers lament the 18 months required to ramp up new products through distribution. Distributor purchasing teams relate issues with new product inventory languishing for a year, being returned to the supplier after 12 months only to be ordered again the next month. A little planning could go a long way.

Most of our suggestions have begun with a single reach-out (typically email). Product launches involve a few more people/departments so we will actually need a series of calls or emails. Let’s look at the list: 

  • The supplier’s local team needs to be involved because they typically provide much of the product training and various key portions of the sales collateral.
  • Your marketing group should cover issues like web announcements, email newsletters, special brochures and, stretching a bit, things such as signs, banners and branding.
  • The purchasing folks need an email to alert them to the coming launch and anticipation of potential inventory.
  • When pricing process is employed within the ERP system and analytics run on a meaningful basis, the pricing leader should be given a heads up to assure system prices (not costs) are established and loaded into the ERP system.
  • An email to create the necessary reporting and project dropdowns or categories in the CRM system. For distributors on the vanguard of technology, there might be a connection between early sales and the CRM package; thus allowing connection between sales activities and orders generated.

Armed with this list and strategy, you can improve the process tied to the launch, improve communications and accelerate the early growth of new products. Looking back at the list, there are several mentions of technology-oriented activities.

Technology-based initiatives are easy to put off. Unless you are a computer geek by nature, selecting the right system is confusing. The price tags associated with technology always looms in the tens of thousands of dollars and up range. When you ask your friends about their technology, everyone has a different opinion. If there were a poster child for distributor procrastination, this is it.

Now the good news and the bad news: if you’ve procrastinated you probably saved money and if you continue to procrastinate you will lose your competitive edge.

Your last chance to procrastinate
In my mind, every distributor needs instant information and quick analytics. Further, these skills need to be disseminated throughout the distributor organization. I will give you one last opportunity to procrastinate. Send me an email and I will send you the list of the absolute minimum data/analytics and a bullet list plan to avoid procrastination.

Frank HurtteFrank Hurtte speaks and consults on the new reality facing distribution and blogs at http://thedistributorchannel.blogspot.com. Contact River Heights Consulting at frank@riverheightsconsulting.com or via phone at (563) 514-1104.

This article originally appeared in the Jan./Feb. 2018 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2018, Direct Business Media.

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