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Stress-less business travel – what I’ve learned traveling with other industry pros

One aspect of my job that seems to raise curiosity from a lot of people, is spending a week or more traveling closely with business contacts that I do not know very well on a personal level. This is often in a different city, state, or country, each day traveling from retailer office to retailer office, spending 12-18 hours a day together. Having done these trips several times each year for over 20 years, I have learned plenty about people in general, and even more about the people who make their living in our DIY/ Home Improvement Industry.

It usually happens on the second day together of any one of these trips with a supplier… the question… “Have you ever had to travel with someone with a bad attitude?”

The stress of an intense week or so of travel and pioneering new markets, often multiple time changes and jet lag, can understandably burn the patience of almost anyone.

The absolute first thing I am always very happy to explain is that I am very lucky to be working in this industry. Perhaps it’s because people may change jobs but usually stay in the industry and maintain relationships. For whatever reason, the overwhelming majority of people in Home Improvement are not afraid of working hard and they are usually polite, prompt and professional. Now, I’ve certainly had traveling companions that embody the “exception that proves the rule” but for the most part I’ve met great people, many of whom I can now call friends.

It’s not all by chance though. I’ve learned that the best tools to ensure a productive trip (even more so when you are in a different hotel every night) are experience and diligent planning to foresee and minimize or eliminate as many stressors as possible prior to departure.

Choosing hotels nearest to the next morning’s meeting is a big one. If we must get stuck in traffic or turned around, it’s best the night before while finding the hotel, not getting to the meetings. It’s also key to leave extra time for flights so that there is no need to rush a meeting with potential business in order to make a too tight flight schedule.

Another stressor is uncertainty. Letting people know our agenda, long before we depart – where we will be and when, and talking through any questions, can be very helpful here. I arrange all the hotels, flights, car rentals and I handle the driving so the supplier can focus on business.

It is also very important to be ready for the travel world to throw you a couple of curve balls and be able to laugh about them. While things like lost luggage are an inconvenience, it’s something that everyone can relate to… including buyers. If you have to show up in workout clothes to a meeting because it’s all you have that’s clean, it’s ok. Buyers will empathize. It’s a good ice breaker and a great excuse to be very comfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I do pack an extra dress shirt in my carry-on for good measure, but sometimes it can take a few days to get your bag, especially when you’re on the move every day.

Securing orders also helps a lot. On that topic, we are fortunate and proud to have had over 75% of these suppliers secure new accounts as a result of these adventures over the last couple decades.

Of course, I’ve had a couple of traveling companions that stand out as, for the sake of political correctness, we’ll call them “less than ideal” to travel with. I’ve seen people blow up at restaurant wait staff, have an emotional breakdown in a sales meeting, refuse to help look for street signs in a car, try to go home mid-trip because they’re stressed, refuse to get on an airport shuttle (still don’t understand that one) and many more… but the reason these examples are memorable is because they are rare.

Whether it’s trying to catch an Uber in Chile, sorting out bad GPS directions in Ontario, getting stuck in traffic in Chicago, trying to find an open gas station after midnight in Germany or repacking a bag of samples for the 3rd time to make weight at the airport, my traveling companions have been great and I always look forward to the next adventure – helping the another supplier secure new business through our retail relationships.

This is the point where I get the second question… “So how am I doing so far”? See? Great people!

Best regards,
Steve Powell
President & CEO
Presidents Council

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How do I follow up without being a pest?

I’ve recently been asked some interesting questions regarding follow up with buyers by some of the approximately 75 new and innovative suppliers with us in Appleton, WI to meet their buyers from Fleet Farm. The initial feedback from both buyers and suppliers was very positive. A large number have taken the first step to becoming a valuable vendor to Fleet Farm by taking advantage of our Buying Day program to get face-to-face time with their responsible buyer. Now the suppliers and the buyers are heading back to daily routines and the urgent emails and phone calls begin to take your focus away from these new opportunities. Diligent follow up is critical to turn these interesting new meetings into important new customers and these suppliers need to find a way to stay top-of-mind with the buyer while keeping things moving in a positive direction.

This is an issue that most of us face after events where new opportunities present themselves. With that in mind, here are a few tips for navigating that line between persistence and being a pest in follow-up communications.

Give the buyer a couple days before the first email. The buyer is meeting a number of potential new suppliers during this day and the emails and voice mails are still coming in from his current suppliers. It might seem like a good idea to send off a quick email right away but you’ll have a better chance that he/she will give it due attention in a day or two once they have had a chance to catch up a bit.

Don’t be shy. Buyers are busy with their current suppliers and assortments. While every buyer is different, for the most part, it’s perfectly ok to follow up a couple times a week if done correctly. The vast majority of buyers appreciate follow-up and are not irritated by this… just don’t demand and don’t follow up every day.

Lead with what is important to the buyer. Know what motivates the buyer and communicate how you are providing a tool/solution to this rather than just asking for what you want. You should leave your initial meeting knowing what about your product or offer is intriguing to the buyer. Give some thought to why this is important to buyer the buyer and how you can help with his/her job. In addition to finding new and innovative products to offer their customers, most buyers are evaluated on the margin, turns and sales per sq. ft. of their assortment. Put yourself in the buyer’s place and speak to what you can do for him/her.

Be polite. Ask if they have everything they need and offer to help rather than just pushing for an answer. This seems like a given but it’s easy to get frustrated if/when communications go silent or another sort of log jam arises. Tone in email can be in the ear of the reader and therefore tricky to convey. Just make sure you re-read every email a couple times before sending and make sure you are communicating a tone that will encourage a thoughtful and positive response.

Recap the current status of the project without pointing fingers when inquiring about next steps. This gives the buyer a chance to own the process and request anything they might need to progress to the next step. This reminder will help the buyer remember the status without having to sift back through all your communications and is a gentle reminder of what you have already provided and your interest in continuing to move forward.

Keep the message part of your emails short and to 1 max 2 points. People tend to feel the need to respond or ignore email messages quickly and many skim if the message is wordy. Use attachments to communicate more involved information, they tend to lend themselves to more time intensive tasks.

• If you are not getting a reply to emails, use that telephone thing on your phone. Buyers get loads of emails every day. You have their direct line from their business card for a reason. While email is more appropriate for the initial follow-ups, you shouldn’t be shy about contacting him/her the way our ancestors did with an actual human voice.

Steve Powell, President & CEO, Presidents Council