Building strong relationships with your vendors is a significant but underappreciated factor in your success and the success of your business. It is a lesson that I learned on a Sunday afternoon in 1991 and one that I have never forgotten.
I was in the first month of my first salaried position – Assistant Country Club Manager. We were about to do a very big wedding for the daughter of a very influential and very particular club member. One of the responsibilities of my new job was ordering beverage. I forgot to order the champagne.
I called my salesman at home and asked if he could get it to me before the wedding. He said “Definitely! Maybe?” As I found out later, he tried to get someone to let him into the warehouse; failing that, he broke in and retrieved my champagne. He arrived just before the wedding, the trunk of his Toyota Tercel full of cold Moet. He stopped for ice on the way.
This story is just one example of the extraordinary service delivered by this salesman over the next 12 years and illustrates the kinds of benefits to be gained by working with exceptional vendors. The key to taking full advantage of these benefits is building relationships with your vendors based on mutual trust, respect and ultimately benefit. As food and beverage professionals we often find ourselves playing the role of seller. If we do it well we act more as consultants or advisors to our customers, creating an atmosphere where marketing, promoting, selling and delivering are mostly about informing your customers about what you have to offer, tailoring those offerings to what you understand they need and then delivering those offerings. You recognize this approach and know it creates loyal customers. It is the kind of approach you should be looking for from your vendors.
For everybody to win, it is imperative that you as customer fulfill the other side of the contract in this relationship. Your vendor needs to know that his good faith service will result in your good faith back – that within reason you will be loyal and that he can trust you, that you will always give him an opportunity to sell and that you will not take advantage. He benefits because his hard work and effort should result in more sales to you. You benefit in so many ways.
What You Should Expect
Support. Vendors are constantly putting their sales forces through training on specific brands and product lines. You can benefit from a salesman who knows your customer and passes knowledge on appropriate product on to you. This can take the form of:
1. Discounts, but only on product that is right for you and in quantities that make sense for your volume of business. Some years ago I came to a new job and, in the course of auditing the beverage, found six cases of anisette stacked in the corner of the liquor room. When I asked, the bar manager answered, “Got a free one!” “I know,” I answered, “It’s still here.” Someone should have known better.
2. New Products. You can’t be an expert in everything. But, a small group of trusted salesman can make it seem like it. They know their product and your market and should be able to alert you to new offerings that make sense for you.
3. Training. Give someone a good portion of your wine list or your beer menu and they are happy to provide your staff with free and professional training focused on service or product or both. Remember, the goal for both of you is to sell more and an informed sales force does just that.
4. Promotions. A good salesman understands your business, what might work and what might not and should be able to suggest regular promotions that not only entice your customers to buy but that incent your staff to sell.
Information. What if you had the time to visit every one of your competitors on a weekly basis? Further, what if you had access to their financial information and knew what was working, what was not, who was looking to move, who was likely to get fired. You don’t have either. Every one of your salesmen has both. You don’t want your salesmen divulging any privileged information – one who will to you about someone else will to someone else about you. But in general terms they can provide tremendous insight into what is happening right now in your market.
Ideas and Trends. At least in their slice of the market, as it relates to their products, these guys and girls know exactly what is about to happen in the industry. They know because someone is telling them. They know what is about to come out and how it is going to be supported from above. If you deem the information to be good, if you trust the source, you should be making strategic decisions going forward based on it.
Service. Your salesman should become your advocate with your vendor, his employer. He should be working his boss on your behalf.
1. Every once in a while, regardless of your size or relative importance, you should be the guest at the golf tournament, you should get the best signage and promotional material, you should be extended a discount reserved for bigger players.
2. Sometimes cash gets tight. Sometimes it’s because of lousy managers are running lousy businesses. But sometimes it’s because you just spent a bunch of cash on a repair or an upgrade or on a new piece of equipment. Sometimes it’s seasonality. Sometimes you can’t pay right away. Your salesman needs to make sure that A/R knows the circumstances and they lay off the finance charges and COD threats.
3. I ran some operations that would be characterized as very large small businesses. I had some leverage with my vendors but not enough to get my deliveries when convenient. I had such a good relationship with my vendors that whenever deliveries arrived, anyone signed for them and put them in the middle of the liquor room or beer cooler. I checked them in when it was convenient for me. If I had a problem, I called and every salesman fixed it, no questions asked. Sometimes bottles were broken, items were wrong or missing. I never took advantage and never failed to get an error corrected.