Putting Relationships at the Heart of Your Sales Strategy

Having just returned from a round of paper craft-related trade shows where I was a buyer for once, I must say, vendors of the world, we need to talk. Ah, there they are, the four most dreaded words in the dating dictionary. Drop that phrase on a spouse or a loved one today and watch them cringe in response. Maybe it’s too soon in our Giggle Guide relationship for such a heavy conversation, but given that we’re on the brink of another show season, the time has to be now for some straight talk aimed at vendors.

As you’re readying your final samples, organizing your marketing collateral and packing up to head to the shows, remember your sales success is largely based on you — and those you choose to represent your company. At the end of the day, sales is about people, which means it’s as emotional as it is practical. Sure your line has to be attractive, trend-right and sharply priced, but even all of that isn’t enough.

Think of that suitor who looks good on paper. Ivy League education? Check. Self-Sufficient? Check. Outgoing? Check. Sounds great, right? But if he spends all evening checking the ballgame scores on his phone instead of making eye contact, he’s more likely to get a kiss off at the end of the night rather than a smooch. Similarly, if you or your sales team never returns a phone call or fails to alert retailers to production snafus, how long will it be before shop owners decide they’re just not that into you?

Embrace the Moment

So before you meet new potential customers or rekindle relationships with existing partners, make sure the face of your company is as appealing as your line. Like any relationship, both parties in a sales transaction want to feel respected and valued. And it starts on the sales floor where buyers can literally find love — or loathing — at first sight.

Take my show experience. At first the shear number of stickers, stamps and stencils on display was overwhelming, but I quickly realized that there were really only about six main products on offer and every vendor had a variation of at least three of them. So the question became, how does one select one glue gun over another? Sure some were unwieldy in size or design, while others were astronomically priced, but by and large, the field was pretty homogeneous.

Ultimately for me, it came down to chemistry — or lack thereof — with the sales person on hand. One way or another, the workers in the booth all managed to make an impression. For instance, month’s later, I still refer to the glue-dot vendor at one show as “sandwich guy” thanks to his sloppy manner, vise grip on his hoagie and willingness to kiss and tell about a previous shady business transaction. Needless to say, he and I didn’t click, and he didn’t get my business.

It’s like a single friend of mine always says, she hates when people try to set her up with someone just because “we both have two eyes, a nose and a mouth.” In sales lingo, that would be like me expecting you to buy from me simply because you have a store and I have product. Whether or not you were ever a proponent of “The Rules” — that dating handbook that outlined an alarmingly exhaustive list of hoops a woman should have a man jump through in order to judge his worthiness — there’s no denying that we all have higher standards than that.

Think about the store you avoid because the sales help is so frosty or the restaurant you bypass where the service is glacial. Then take a moment to reflect on how you treat your customers, and ask yourself, would you date you? Are your booth, displays, demeanor and wardrobe wooing new customers or shooing them away?

Share the Love

With aisles and aisles of hair accessories, shoes, hosiery, and sportswear, retailers always have options. They are the pretty girls at the dance. Sure every brand has its heyday when it sells no matter what because the company has hit upon the “it” look of the moment. But times change and buyers who might have felt trapped into a marriage of convenience will surely bolt for the door the moment the sun sets on that particular aesthetic, revealing that rather than a love match, you were always only fair-weather friends.

Even if you think you’ve got the trade show dance down, the real work of forging lasting bonds starts after that first order is taken. To paraphrase another friend, on the first date (i.e. the trade show meeting) you send your representative, or the best version of yourself. You know her. She smiles, is agreeable, attentive and nice. Ah, but what about the morning after? Who are you — and your company — on a day-to-day basis? Are you suddenly evasive and argumentative? As the saying goes, company culture starts from the top down. Your employees will take their cues from you.

Of course controlling how your brand is presented could be more difficult if you have an independent sales force. While great reps are the Cyrano de Bergeracs to your retail matchmaking success, sometimes they have difficulty mimicking your company’s values. A vendor recently told me her customers in one region have begun calling her for reorders and to discuss issues though she has a rep there. Obviously these buyers like her goods but for some reason their relationship with the rep has soured. No one knows whether he or she has stopped returning phone calls, has become unpleasant to work with or fails to place orders promptly. In this case, buyers found a workaround for their problem, but in how many others might they simply decide to drop the line in favor of another company — one they find easier to work with?

Commit to Change

As a vendor, you’re in a particularly delicate position given that you’re in bed with customers who often pride themselves on providing excellent service to their own consumers. They know them by name. They know what they like. They place individual phone calls to alert them about new products. They hold their babies while they shop. They facilitate curbside purchases. They place special orders. And they resolve problems quickly. The list goes on and on, so it only stands to reason that if they treat others that well, retailers expect the same consideration — and when they get it, their affection is genuine.

Case in point, throughout my years of covering this market, I’ve had ample opportunity to chat with retailers about what prompts them to fall in love with a brand, and the industry as a whole seems particularly besotted with one company in particular. While buyers readily concede that they like the brand’s style, what they consistently rave about is the service. Like smitten schoolgirls, retailers happily rattle off the traits that make this vendor a good match: They’re responsive, supportive, honest and trustworthy. Of course, this vendor isn’t perfect. They’re susceptible to falling victim to the same production and distribution issues that others face, but unlike many others, they handle issues quickly and they keep stores in the loop. As any long-time marrieds will tell you, the key to making a relationship work is communication. And it’s no different when the partnership is business instead of romantic.

Unlike most marriages though, your courtships are often long distance, which everyone knows is the most difficult of mating dances. Just as you wouldn’t expect to only talk to your beloved when you find yourselves in the same city, it’s unrealistic to think your business relationship will thrive if trade show appointments are your only source of contact. Oh, but you send out eblasts on a regular basis touting your upcoming deliveries, specials and immediates, right?

While programs like Constant Contact and MailChimp make talking at people very efficient, the one-way nature of those missives doesn’t help form bonds. Too often in today’s plugged-in world, we confuse connected with connections. So next time you’re going to shoot a customer an email, consider picking up the phone or dropping a handwritten note into an outgoing shipment. Remember, it’s the little things that keep love — of your company, your brand and your products — alive.

About Caletha Crawford
Caletha Crawford is a children’s apparel consultant who has spent more than eight years covering the industry, most recently as editor in chief of Earnshaw’s magazine. Caletha has a unique perspective on the concepts, designs and companies that resonate with retailers and consumers. Consulting with both established brands as well as start-up companies in this market allows her to use her passion for helping designers bolster the business side of their labels. Her services include public relations, marketing, branding and social networking. In an effort to usher in the next generation of design talent, she also teaches and produces special events at Parsons The New School for Design. For more information, visit www.calethacrawford.com or email

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