Most Important Qualities in Distributor-Supplier Relationship

The supplier-distributor relationship makes the promotional world go ‘round. But what matters most to distributors?

From the industry’s earliest days, it has relied on the symbiotic relationships between suppliers and distributors to thrive. The relationship has strengthened, changed, sped up and (most important) survived. It has evolved at its own pace.

So, too, has the consumer world, but at a faster, breakneck pace. Consumers have come to expect immediate, transparent service from companies, and swift delivery of goods – sometimes the same day. As just the latest example, app-based delivery service Postmates serves metropolitan areas in 24 states and Washington, D.C., dropping off everything from pub sandwiches to Post-it notes to T-shirts and tanks from Lululemon and American Apparel in less than an hour. The “I needed it yesterday” mindset is putting undeniable pressure on the supplier-distributor relationship.

“The whole world is shifting,” says Larry Cohen, CEO of Top 40 distributor Axis Promotions (asi/128263). “Uber has changed how we hire rides, Airbnb how we travel, Amazon how we shop at retail. The world’s gotten faster, and now there’s immediacy to everything. Suppliers and distributors have to continue communicating, evolving and supporting each other. The system has worked well for a long time, and our relationships are valuable.”

Of course, things can always be improved. So we asked a cadre of veteran distributors: what are the most important qualities in the distributor-supplier relationship? Here are their answers.

1. Be Responsive to Their Needs
In a time-dependent industry, distributors appreciate quick information. The best way, they say, is through a dedicated sales rep who takes the time to develop a relationship with the distributor and is familiar with their specific client base. “When a supplier provides me with one dedicated sales rep, I know if I have a question about an order, that’s someone I can talk to directly who will address any concerns I have,” says Debbie Yearwood, promotional consultant at Perry Office Plus (asi/522444), which did regular business with 10 suppliers in the past year. “I believe suppliers benefit when they build meaningful relationships with their distributors, and the easiest way to do that is to provide me with one contact that stays with me for as long as possible.”

Vicki Clayman, president of Partners N Promotion (asi/350153), which did business with more than 1,000 suppliers in the past year, says her favorite ones focus on hiring a quality sales staff that knows the product line and become designated inside contacts. “The best ones are responsive, informative and help us if we have any issues,” she says. “There will always be a time when something goes wrong; it’s how willing the vendor is to rectify the issue and how quickly they accomplish it that counts the most.”

Blake Hardin, partner/marketing strategist at Proforma Springboard Promotions, which did business with almost 60 suppliers in the past year, says he wants to receive responses within one hour, and he’d like to receive complete answers that are “to-the-point and comprehensive.” He adds, “They should also make sure the response contains accurate information when it comes to pricing and inventory. Don’t take shortcuts. Take the time to send complete and accurate POs, and be clear in emails.” Clayman agrees, adding that suppliers have to ensure customer service reps make responding to questions a priority. “My staff will reach out to suppliers for information on an order and it sometimes takes a few days before they hear back,” she says. “That’s very frustrating.”

Responsiveness can be more than having a rep on speed dial. Yearwood believes suppliers should have more self-service information options readily available. “I constantly multitask, so having to stop everything to call a supplier for additional information, like checking inventory or getting freight estimates, is a real hassle,” she explains. “Some suppliers win my business just by having this information already available on their website or offering a ‘Chat with a Rep’ feature where I can get an answer quickly.”

2. Offer Quality Products
Distributors appreciate suppliers that focus on offering a diverse number of products to choose from. In fact, in an exclusive survey conducted by ASI, distributors felt that was the trait suppliers most excel at (see chart on page 70). The area that could be most improved? Compliance. “We appreciate great products and fair pricing,” says Craig Nadel, president of Top 40 distributor Jack Nadel International (asi/475001), which did business with more than 3,000 suppliers in the past year. “For an important percentage of our clients, we do require suppliers’ compliance information.”

Cohen, whose company, Axis Promotions, did business with several hundred suppliers in the past year, says his team puts a huge emphasis on compliance and prefers to work with those vendors that do the same. “We choose to work with them based on their product mix, customer service and compliance record,” he says. “We have two full-time people who focus solely on compliance. It’s a really big deal, and it’s not going away. This industry is starting to get it, and more people are talking about it. It may mean big changes in the industry and an added cost for vendors, but we feel more comfortable going to them if they’re compliant.”

3. Show a Willingness to Collaborate
Distributors appreciate suppliers that are preemptive in maintaining relationships with their clients and focus on bringing creative ideas to the table. “Proactivity is the differentiator,” says Cohen. “We call with a project, and the vendor should have ideas. When our clients come to us, we bring a creative perspective and refer to what we’ve learned from our partners. I don’t want to send what everyone else is sending. I want to differentiate our client and us. It’s all about communication. If you understand the audience at a company, a targeted, direct email with ideas actually means something.”

Clayman says collaboration and relationship building shouldn’t only be in the designated sales rep’s hands; she appreciates it when the sales rep brings his or her sales manager along on a call to meet Partners N Promotion’s clients. “This way, our suppliers learn who our customers are and make product suggestions on a regular basis,” she says. “We’re in a relationship business. Part of the joy of promotional products is building relationships with vendors and sales reps, listening to their ideas and input and working on projects with them. The vendors that we consider true partners receive the most business from us.”

4. Pay Attention to Detail
There are countless important details attached to each order, but it’s how a supplier keeps track of the minutiae that makes the difference. In fact, it’s pivotal to the supply chain. “Our livelihood depends on how supplier partners behave,” says Cohen. “If they don’t offer a proof and fail to deliver on time, that becomes challenging. The address and the shipping method need to be correct. If it says 2-Day, it shouldn’t be shipped Ground. If the PO says ‘Ship to Event,’ the order shouldn’t come to us. There are so many details to keep track of, but that’s how they become preferred partners.”

One very important detail? Inventory. Cohen recognizes it is “challenging” for suppliers, and stresses communication to keep distributors hyper-aware. “If we send in a PO for 2,000 pieces, we’re assuming suppliers have the inventory and they’re holding it for us,” he says. “It’s frustrating when we get a call the day before the items are supposed to ship to us and we’re told there’s not enough. It’s better to overcommunicate.” By calling with time to spare, Cohen adds, solutions and alternatives can be found. Good supplier partners can fix the problem and increase their worth.

Before an order leaves for a distributor or an end-buyer, suppliers should put each item through a quality assurance process. “Look for defective or badly decorated products before they go out the door,” says Clayman. “Failure to take that extra step costs everyone, supplier and distributor, time and money to fix issues.”

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