Maximizing Your Distributor Relationships


The importance of the relationships you develop with your distributors cannot be overemphasized. You’ve likely heard and read that these relationships are less businesslike than they are like a marriage. At the very least, they’re akin to serious dating. Whether you’re working with a huge distributor or a local purveyor, the best partnerships are mutually beneficial, help you keep up with customer demands, and allow you to service evolving dining occasions.

Bearing that in mind, here is some advice for making the most of these relationships.

Be Clear

Just as you’re probably familiar with the relationship metaphor, odds are that you’re familiar with one of the core tenets of making any partnership work: communication. You have to communicate clearly for any relationship to work, including those between your restaurants and the distributors. You and your managers are not psychic and neither are the distributor’s reps.

Let your reps know how often you expect to see them in your stores. Settle on pricing and delivery schedules. Know each distributor’s transportation methods. Ask your reps if the distributor they work for classifies their clients and, if so, how you can make into the top tier. Doing so can mean benefits for you, like better pricing and service.

Communication is obviously a two-way street. Are there big changes in the works? Do you have a big campaign planned? Are you participating in Restaurant Week or a similar promotion? Do you require special items? Keep your reps in the know so they can service your stores better and have what you need in stock. This also allows them to help you execute promotions through signage, table talkers, promotional items, contests, branded materials, etc. They have the resources to help you – communicate clearly and let them know what you need.

Speaking of stock and special items, understand that your distributors will probably have to substitute some products from time to time. This can be the result of damaged or late shipments, among other factors. In the interest of clear, open communication and maintaining a healthy relationship, let your reps know ahead of time which substitutions are acceptable to you. The technology available to our industry and our distributors makes it possible for reps to know about any changes to your orders. Give them the information they need to service you better and keep all parties happy. This also means that you need to be accurate with your inventory so your rep and their company can plan accordingly.

You need to understand your distributors’ businesses and goals, just as they need to know and understand yours. Distributors need to make it clear that they want to help you succeed, and vice versa. Does your staff need to be trained on new brands and items? Let your distributors know so they can send brand ambassadors and trainers into your restaurants and get your employees up to speed.

Be Fair

A mutually beneficial relationship is a successful, healthy relationship. Your goal – and that of your distributors – should be a long-term partnership. The best way to build a sustainable relationship with your distributors is through treating them fairly.

Don’t jump around from distributor to distributor looking for the best pricing. All that does is tell distributors that you don’t care about their business and you’re only interested in a short-term relationship. Why would they put forth the time, money and effort to service you regularly if you’re not treating them fairly? On the same note, why would they offer you benefits like top tier pricing if your business is unreliable at best? Their resources are better utilized where things are fair and consistent.

The same goes for accepting deliveries and paying invoices on time. It’s safe to assume that your reps are working on commission, and what company doesn’t want to be paid what they’re owed on time? Do you like having outstanding invoices floating around? Do you like being owed money and not receiving it? No, because it isn’t fair, and in the business world it isn’t professional. Again, this goes both ways. One example is, again, substitutions. It isn’t unfair to protect yourself from reps subbing things for financial gain by stipulating in an agreement that substitutions are to be provided at cost.

Be Loyal

Loyalty is an integral part of being fair. Distributors tend to reward loyalty, and that most often comes in the form of better pricing and service. Until you’ve illustrated your intention to be loyal, don’t expect preferred pricing right away – that’s something that has to be earned in the vast majority of cases.

Another reward for loyalty is being among the first clients to know about specials, new products, and seasonal items. Another client backed out of an order that may work for your restaurant? Proving that you’re loyal and reliable could mean you get offered items from that order at an attractive discount. And wouldn’t you like to be the first to receive access to new portfolio brands and items? What about being the first to get your hands on fresh ingredients? Loyalty is very likely the most important factor in building a healthy relationship with distributors and making the most of it.

Be Present

You or at least your managers need to get to know the reps – that much should be clear. But it’s also important that you and other key members of your organization connect with multiple people at multiple levels among your distributors. Take the time to visit their offices. Check out their loading docks. Put in time with warehouse personnel. A relationship really isn’t a relationship without a connection.

Is your rep doing a fantastic job? Gotten to know their manager and learned that they’re an excellent leader? Is the driver professional and reliable, ensuring your orders arrive on time and undamaged? A verbal thank you and a handshake, thank you card, or appropriate holiday gift all go a long way in letting people know that their efforts are appreciated. There will be reps that don’t act with your best interests in mind. Developing other relationships within the company for which they work can help you to be assigned a new rep without blowback. If you aren’t able to be present in these relationships, perhaps it’s time to consider joining a purchasing co-op.

It will take some time and effort but developing these relationships is paramount to your success.

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