"Many Hands Make Light Work" - The Art & Science of Broker Management

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by Clark Driftmier

Teams and teamwork make food companies great. Leadership teams; operations and supply chain team; sales & marketing teams; all kinds of teams. For emerging food entrepreneurs, most of whom must grow using finite resources, it’s beneficial to leverage limited company resources by adding a motivated team of outside partners who can extend the reach of the company to the broader market. In this effort sales brokers are key, and the successful management of brokers combines both art and science.

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The “science” component of broker management involves creating a good strategy, communicating with clear direction and implementing with top-notch execution and daily broker management. The “art” component relates to the nuances of personal interaction, motivation, feedback, recommendations for improvement, etc. which are used when managing partners such as brokers. Below are 8 key insights that we have gained leading and managing brokers:

1.       Manage brokers actively, meaning “early & often:”

·       In broker management, it’s important to engage with your broker team actively and repeatedly. Brokers have dozens or hundreds of clients. They work diligently to serve all of them, but your brand and your sales plan is just one of many in their client portfolio. To help your brokers, you should meet with them at every opportunity, schedule frequent calls, send emails notifying them of any and all changes, and provide regular updates on your brand’s progress.

2.       Clarity & Documentation:

·       The working environment for you and your brokers with retailers and distributors is driven by documentation, forms, new item paperwork (NIP), online databases, firm deadlines and long lead times for changes. There are also rather severe repercussions for missing deadlines or failing to provide an important piece of documentation. The key to success in this environment is to pre-plan everything, document everything, write it down, codify due dates and deadlines and take every deliverable seriously. There is no forgiveness or a “mulligan” for missing a key date or being sloppy with any aspect. If you say to your retailer: “Gosh, I’m sorry, I’m a little late with that paperwork” the retailer is likely to respond: “Gosh, we’re sorry, but you missed the deadline for this year. Please come back next year.” Yikes! Your broker can help manage these key commitments, but they work for you, and it’s up to you, the brand, to assume full responsibility and ownership of the process.

3.       Follow-up & Accountability:

·       Good sales managers have a regular, formal process to manage broker reps using 4 steps:

#1 – establish goals, accountabilities and next steps for each program for retailer

#2 – set a day & time for the next review

#3 – summarize and memorialize the deliverables, next steps and timelines in writing

#4 – During the next review, go through each deliverable one-by-one to check progress

We see good sales managers keeping multiple written progress lists for each broker rep, checking and re-checking each deliverable.

4.       Request to attend all meetings set up by your broker with retailers:

·       We recommend that you try to attend all meetings that your broker books with retailers, rather than delegate those meetings to the brokers alone. No one can tell your brand’s story like you can, and the “One-Two” combination of the client and broker together in a meeting sends a strong positive signal to the retailer. Some retailers won’t allow the brand to attend certain meetings, but you should push to attend retailer meetings whenever possible.

5.       Meet brokers in their home territories, not in your company office:

·       We also recommend that you put the “field” in field sales by meeting your broker teams in their home markets, rather than rely on emails, phone calls or to ask the broker to travel to your office. You will benefit from the “ride-alongs” with the broker rep to learn about the market, and the broker will share important insights into markets, retailers and consumers in her or his home market which will give you a more granular, tangible sense of the market.

6.       Listen:

·       Sales managers are supposed to be good listeners, but we notice many salespeople doing mostly talking to and directing their brokers vs. listening to them. Remember that your brokers have multiple clients and years or decades with other brands, working through and solving every issue that your brand might experience. Brokers have a wealth of knowledge and experience which can guide your success, provide valuable counsel and prevent missteps.

7.       Manage with “Honey” not “Vinegar:”

·       Brokers, like all people, respond best to encouragement, positive direction and a sense of partnership. That said, we regret that we hear of clients who scream and yell at their brokers, display hostility or disrespect, off-load responsibility (“it’s the broker’s fault not mine”) and create an atmosphere of negativity. Gosh - - isn’t it self-evident that a positive, encouraging relationship leads to better results? Enough said.

8.       Take advantage of expanded services offered by brokers:

·       Many brokers have expanded their services beyond sales representation to offer a fuller range of sales and marketing services. These services include graphics, point-of-purchase materials, off-shelf display design, marketing messaging, assistance with PR and social media and the like. Broker resources can also improve presentations with better formatting, language, graphs, videos, brand messaging and other enhancements to make the retailer meetings more impactful.

With a good broker team and effective management, brands can significantly extend their reach beyond the brand’s limited team to implement sales programs in multiple geographies and sales channels. The broker team becomes the advocates for the brand, representing you in the market and sharing their guidance and insights.

Not to get too “Kumbaya” about all of this, but when you are an emerging and possibly still-small natural products company, it’s very reassuring to have a strong broker team at your side, fighting for you and helping your brand to wedge its way into the hearts and minds of distributors, retailers and consumers.

Let’s hear it for the team!

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CLARK DRIFTMIER is Managing Director of Strobus Consulting (www.strobusconsulting.com) which provides clients with new product development and go-to-market business development strategies. He has been a food entrepreneur and start-up specialist for nearly 3 decades. Clark’s new product and management initiatives include hundreds of new products in several dozen food categories, with combined annual sales of nearly $2 billion. A published author of articles on natural and organic foods, Clark has also spoken at numerous conferences and has served on several national and regional not-for-profit boards. He and his family live in Northern California.