By Jason McMackins
Brewery reps are typically the largest investment in sales support for craft beer suppliers. Most distributors require in-market sales rep support as part of the market plan prior to taking on new suppliers. If executed correctly, sales rep support is one of the most important resources for building brands, but is often under-utilized. How do you sharpen and strengthen this resource along with your supplier partnerships?
Effective strategies and tactics to further tap into your current supplier resources include:
- Define planning, review process, chain activities, and personnel expectations with each supplier
- Include their sales team in your training and education programs
- Strategically define account lists and call frequencies
- Implement a framework to receive communications from your suppliers
Define planning, review process, chain activities, and personnel expectations with each supplier
Not all supplier partners are created equal. The reality is, larger suppliers typically have more resources and request a higher frequency of planning, time in the trade, reviews, and sales team interactions. Typically, the VP of sales is not included in every meeting with every supplier, so high communication frequency with this individual is not expected. At a minimum, each supplier should have an annual plan with defined objectives for the year including realistic volume budgets, distribution targets, and the means to achieve. The smaller the volume on the supplier side, the more likely they will not have the time or personnel to meet monthly to review performance results, plan adjustments, and allocate resources to support the revised plan.
Here is an example of how a distributor could set a framework for meeting schedules, chain activities, and distributor personnel involved in supplier interactions:
- High volume/high resource suppliers
- Annual Plan
- Monthly/Quarterly Reviews
- Joint Key Account Calls
- High Distributor Sales Rep Ride With Frequency
- Distributor personnel includes VP of Sales, Sales Manager, Craft Manager
- Medium volume/medium resource suppliers
- Annual Plan
- Quarterly/Trimester Reviews
- Key Account Plans
- Medium Distributor Sales Rep Ride With Frequency
- Distributor personnel includes Sales Manager, Craft Manager
- Low volume/low resource suppliers
- Annual Plan
- Mid-Year Reviews
- Low Distributor Sales Rep Ride With Frequency
- Distributor personnel includes Craft Manager
Include their sales team in training and education programs
Supplier reps are essentially an extension of the distributor sales team. So why wouldn’t distributors utilize the strength in their training and education programs to sharpen this resource? Training and education of brewery sales reps can help improve productivity and consistency in sales calls. Prior to implementing any structured training, it is important to understand current gaps in knowledge. One common way to address this is an annual or bi-annual test for knowledge in the areas below, at a minimum. This allows a craft-enhanced and targeted approach that can shore up gaps as well as benchmark supplier partners:
- Product/style knowledge
- Retail profitability, margin vs. markup
- Federal and state regulations
Most reps have strengths and weaknesses depending on the area. Evolving your supplier sales team from being a professional visitor or order taker to a valued business partner is an effective primary objective.
In addition to understanding and addressing knowledge gaps, it is also important to establish a structured process to the sales call. Rather than walking into an account and improvising, brewery reps should have a tactical plan for optimization.
PLANS is an easy-to-remember acronym that allows reps to quickly retrieve the critical steps of the sales call:
Prepare the objectives for the call
Listen to the customer’s needs
Address the needs with your proposal
Navigate through objections
This is just one example. Acronyms can be developed to fit the culture of your distributor and supplier partners, while sequentially outlining essential sales call steps.
Strategically define account lists and call frequencies
Most breweries are small businesses that employ fewer than 50 people and frequently haven’t taken the time to define roles and responsibilities for each position. This can create confusion, inefficiencies, and duplicate efforts. As a distributor, you understand the retail landscape and opportunity that exist for your supplier partners to address. Consider the following: if your 50 supplier reps are all focused on the same top 50 accounts, are they doing anything strategic or incremental? They are likely trading in or out amongst each other and not growing their business or yours long term. This can be remedied with a few steps:
- Define and communicate a set list of accounts that each rep is responsible for calling on
- Provide direction on when they should call on the accounts and with what frequency
- Outline an objective for each call. Sales calls should focus on helping move the business forward.
Take a step back and look at how many accounts fall under the responsibility of each rep. Is it 100, 500, 1,000? Hitting all of the assigned accounts evenly and spreading their time like peanut butter isn’t a strategic approach, nor is repeatedly focusing on the same top 50 accounts, usually fighting for the same rotating lines.
What is the best allocation of time across the entire account base to optimize results? We find most reps tend to spend their time in taste-maker craft bars and high volume retailers; this creates a crowded pool in just a few accounts. We have seen some success in visiting these accounts, but achieve more success in a more balanced approach. If the accounts represent 50% of the total volume, then a rep could test out spending about 50% of their time there. Remaining time can be allocated toward developing new business or visiting accounts less frequented by competitors.
Testing out time allotted based on volume is one way to optimize. In addition to this, all of the above are valuable tactics to consider when building out the roles and responsibilities of each brewery rep. Defining their roles and responsibilities is the foundation for improving brewery rep efficiency and effectiveness.
Implement a framework to receive and distribute communications from your suppliers
Having a streamlined process for your supplier sales teams to communicate with your sales team is critical to avoiding issues and realizing upside from their efforts. We have seen many methods employed to address this issue, but one strategy that consistently works well is a dedicated email inbox that each follow-up or sales-related supplier communication should be addressed to. From there, the distributor is easily able to define inbox rules to direct those communications to the right folks on their teams. This can be easily adjusted as your sales team evolves or changes over time. As long as the dedicated inbox is utilized, the potential for human error on the supplier side is minimized, such as forgetting to cc the craft manager or sales manager while the rep is on vacation. Funneling all supplier communications into one inbox and redirecting to the appropriate members of your sales team provides visibility and accountability that otherwise may fall through the cracks.
Implementing the above strategies and tactics is typically an ongoing process that will ebb and flow throughout the evolution of your supplier sales team. Be sure to clearly communicate any new strategy changes to your team and allow them a forum to provide their feedback. This will help them feel involved, and they will likely be excited and energized about the new processes. Optimizing your supplier sales reps as a resource will be critical to your long-term success as a craft distributor.
Jason McMackins is managing consultant at Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP. He has more than 10 years of distributor and supplier beer industry experience, consulting with brewers ranging from concept to 50,000 barrels on effective and responsible growth strategies. Prior to joining Baker Tilly’s Craft Beverage Team, Jason worked for Anheuser Busch in roles spanning sales, distributor management, marketing, pricing, revenue management, data analysis, and key accounts.