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Roundtable highlights importance of communication

Welcome to the September-October issue of Gourmet Insider featuring coverage of our Retailer Roundtable Series, which most recently focused on retail buying practices. While most of the recent discussion centered on issues such as trend identification, product selection, merchandising and negotiation (see story page 14) the event also revealed an interesting aspect of the retailer-vendor relationship; one that offers illustrative insights on the value of communication.
For many independent gourmet housewares retailers their primary interaction with vendor partners is through manufacturer’s representatives. Many independents rely on manufacturer’s reps as a critical source of new product information, a conduit for resolving issues with key vendors and, in many cases, an invaluable source of product training and information.
The importance of this relationship was highlighted by Cooks’Wares’ Steve Fricke, who noted that his most trusted reps can often get a product on his shelves even if he otherwise might not have considered it. Other panelists noted the value of good reps in helping maintain a steady flow of product and new product information to their stores as well as the important role that good reps can play in helping retailers move products off store shelves.
There was also, as might be expected of any relationship discussion, animated talk of the things independents find frustrating when dealing with their less effective reps. And while it might be easy to focus on the points of contention between retailers and reps— and I’m sure most reps have a complaint list of retail foibles as long as any retailer’s list of rep misdeeds— the discussion highlighted a very important aspect of customer service that is as applicable to the retailer-consumer relationship as it is to the retailer-rep relationship: communication.
Almost all of the discussion regarding the relationship between independent retailers and their manufacturers representatives boiled down to some element of communication. Put most simply, good reps communicate well, poor ones don’t. That said, there a number of elements that go into “good communication” that are applicable to any business relationship.
Less Is Not More
There is no substitute for regular communication. Maintaining a regular dialogue is critical to building and maintaining healthy business relationships. It can prevent little problems from becoming big ones, enabling them to be identified and resolved quickly. It keeps both parties top of mind with one another and makes each feel that they are important to the other.
This is no less true for the way retailers should be reaching out to their shoppers. Newsletters, e-blasts, social media posts; all these interactions help keep stores top of mind with their shoppers. For those who really want to go the extra mile, a personal note to a regular customer conveying birthday wishes or a personal alert that a new accessory is available for the coffee maker they purchased last month, all these things say, “you are important to me.”
No News Is Not Good News
It is human nature to avoid communicating bad news. Nobody wants to make the call to say a product shipment is delayed, a payment is going to be delayed, a product is out of stock or back ordered. Good communicators fight through the tendency to avoid a potentially uncomfortable conversation and proactively reach out before someone calls to ask what went wrong.
A long-time colleague has a simple yet effective strategy for dealing with these kinds of conversations. When there is a difficult call that needs to be made, rather than put it off he makes it his first phone call of the day. Moving the uncomfortable situation to the top of the priority list not only ensures its resolution is underway, psychologically it makes the rest of the day feel like a downhill cruise.
Follow-Through Is Not Just For Golf Swings
There are few things more frustrating than having someone say they will get back to you only to find you’ve been forgotten or moved to the back burner. Actions speak louder than words, and inaction speaks louder still. Whether you’re a retailer dealing with a consumer or a vendor dealing with a retailer your actions should be consistent with your words. Put simply, don’t say you will if you won’t; don’t say you can if you can’t. Having a positive outlook is one thing, creating false expectations is something else entirely. It’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver than the reverse. And finally, once you’ve committed that you will do something, take a page from Nike and “Just Do It.”

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