A Candy Buyer Speaks Out
April 8, 2008
No one ever said that pitching new products to retailers was easy. Here's a look at the process from the candy buyer's perspective.
Manager, Convenience & Café, Barnes & Noble College Booksellers
I have been a merchandise manager and buyer for a national retailer for nearly nine years. Before this I spent over 20 years in sales and sales management. My first sales job, right out of college, was with Swift & Company, selling Butterball Turkeys and Brown ‘N Serve Sausages. My training with Swift was intensive, calling on actual accounts with my DM as well as spending evenings together on sales materials. Product knowledge was considered of paramount importance, and I was drilled over and over until I knew the contents of that six-inch thick binder inside and out. We also spent hours doing role playing, until I could overcome every conceivable objection he could throw at me. He also assigned outside reading to me, like “How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling” by Frank Betcher - a real classic. The result of all this was that I learned how to sell really well from the beginning of my career.
After Swift, I spent 12 years at Keebler. Keebler, like Swift, did an outstanding job training their salespeople. My new boss was relentless with me. He was more like a drill sergeant than anything else, and my first few weeks at Keebler felt like boot camp. But again, I learned the products inside and out, and I learned how to sell to this group of customers. I never felt more confident in my life about anything. Besides the field training, Keebler also had structured classroom training at the corporate office called KSS (Keebler Selling Skills). They would fly their reps out to Elmhurst, Ill., for a week of training every year. Skills were polished and honed to a high degree. We were among the best-trained reps (or Elves) in the industry, and we knew it. We consistently hit our sales goals, and grew our business by leaps and bounds.
New vantage point
Since going to the other side of the desk almost nine years ago at Barnes & Noble College Booksellers, I have been surprised at how poorly trained most of the sales reps that call on me seem to be. I think I can literally count the truly great salespeople that have called on me on the fingers of one hand. There are a number of good reps, but most are really mediocre at best. (I won’t name names, so nobody has to worry!). I don’t know if it’s because all the really good sales reps simply don’t go into the candy and snack industry these days or if it’s because most of the major manufacturers have cut back or discontinued their training programs to cut costs. But it seems to be getting worse.
Here are some examples of poor salesmanship that I see consistently:
● Failure to do their homework. New reps don’t take the time or interest to go into any of my stores before they call on me. How can you try to tell me that your products are right for me when you don’t even know what my stores look like?
● Failure to understand my company’s goals. Virtually nobody asks me what my goals or my company’s goals are. Again, how do you know if your products align with my strategy if you don’t know what my strategy is?
● Failure to follow up. Time and again, someone calls on me and I don’t hear from him or her again for weeks, months - or sometimes ever again.
● Failure to know the buyer personally. When I was in sales, I knew everything I could about my key customers. I knew their hobbies, their career background, where they went to school, if they were married and had kids (and what their names and ages were), when their birthday was, etc. I took an interest because I cared about the person across the desk from me. I knew that if they were successful, then I would be successful too. I also just happen to be interested in people and like to learn what makes them tick.
My approach seemed to work as I consistently hit my goals. But more importantly, I made some good friends over the years. We enjoyed meeting each other and working together to achieve our mutual goals. I’ll let you in on a little secret: people can sense when you’re interested in them. They can tell when you are concerned about their welfare and success. The key is to be sincere, not phony. People can always tell the difference.
Words of advice
I guess the good news about today’s state of salesmanship is that it is very easy to stand out from the rest of your competitors, by doing a few very simple things as described above. For those reps that have never done so, go get yourself some good books and get educated. Read “How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success” and other great books on the profession of selling. Zig Ziglar is one of my favorite authors in this field, along with Brian Tracy and Harvey MacKay. MacKay even has some profile sheets you can fill out about your customers. Do yourself a favor and run, don’t walk, to your nearest Barnes & Noble store and pick up these books. Then come back and call on me again after you’ve read them. I can guarantee you that we’ll both enjoy the meeting much better.