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What’s Keeping You Awake at Night?

One of my clients recently told me the following story:

“We’ve been working with [a certain national distributor] for many years, and I’ve personally had at least a dozen meetings with their leadership team over the past three or four years. Reflecting back, those meetings have covered a lot of topics, from positive discussions on new initiatives to less positive ones when we were having problems with deliveries or some other element of the relationship. But the best discussion I ever had occurred when [an executive in the distributor organization] was driving me back to the airport after a recent meeting.

“Making conversation, I asked ‘So, what’s keeping you awake at night these days’. You wouldn’t have believed the insights I got from his response to that question. It was a gold mine in terms of possible action items that our firm could implement, not only to cement the relationship, but to grow our business together.”

One of the illustrations this client shared with me was that the distributor executive told him of some recent analysis that they had done on the cost of sales. They had done some sharp-penciled analysis, and concluded that sales in one equipment category required an average of nearly four touches with the customer before the deal was done. When they totaled up the cost of those touches, they concluded that on a full-cost basis, they were losing money on those sales. Among the things keeping the distributor executive who shared that insight up at night was coming up with a strategy to turn this important line of business into a legitimate money-maker.

Our client was among the important suppliers of equipment in this category carried by this distributor, so this story was attention getting. Our client returned to his office, and convened a meeting with his own team at which he shared this story, ending with a charge that “We have to help this executive get some sleep, or in the end, we will find their attention to selling our product will quickly wane”.

Fortunately, the team was up to the challenge. After going back to the distributor, they learned the nature of the touches between the distributor’s sales team and the prospects. The first touch was almost exclusively oriented to learning what the prospect was interested in buying. Our client refocused its web site and some of its advertising program towards gathering such information as part of the process that lead to referrals to this distributor. While the distributor sourced leads in a variety of ways, the initiative that this firm implemented armed the sales team with enough information to make that first touch much more productive for those leads that came from Internet or advertising done by this equipment supplier.

A second contribution occurred when the equipment supplier learned that another source of delay in the sales process resulted from out-of-date information in the hands of the distributor, an unfortunate legacy of the catalogs and paper spec sheets that were used to transmit such information. Our client commented that “We’ve known for some time that we weren’t fully into the information age, and the heritage of paper in our industry, with our distributors, and even with our end customers was strong. But this was a motivation to change. If the paper world was causing an extra touch by our sales partners in this organization and with our other distributors, it wasn’t doing the job. We used this motivation to make the transition to the modern electronic era, clearly far later than we should have done, but at least we got it done. Now, our sales partners can get on our site and print out the most recent product spec’s and other information in a matter of minutes, with their prospect sitting by their side.”

My experience suggests that far too many supplier-distributor discussions focus either on recent problems (e.g., the late deliveries) or new initiatives (e.g., product launches). But often there is a payoff from learning what is getting in the way of making sales and doing business more efficiently. Asking “What is keeping you awake at night?” is a great way to uncover those opportunities to strengthen key CoDestiny relationships with distributors and other key sales channel partners.

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