When developing and growing relationships with category managers, communication is a very important piece to the puzzle. You need to ensure their perception of you and your business is as accurate and positive as possible.
The first thing you need to accept is that every category manager is different. You might have a preferred method of communication but to be effective, you need to understand their preferred method. You can determine this a number of ways; you can ask them, ask other suppliers who work with them, try different methods and track the success. Regardless of how you do it, the first thing you need to do is decide which is the best method of communicating. It is very possible that a category manager at one retailer prefers the phone and the person in the same role across the street prefers email. To be effective you need to communicate with each of them differently.
In today’s world there are many options, perhaps too many!
Email is a great method because you are almost certain they get it and you have a record if you need it. A caution about email is that you do not over use it. A quick email is great but when you consider category managers have 150 vendors all sending ‘a quick email’ it does add up. They also get considerable internal and industry correspondence. Our experience lately is that as the volume of emails continues to increase and your email disappears from the screen it can be gone for a long time.
The phone is very important and is probably most effective for shorter time line issues or if there is a conversation required. They might not always be the conversations you want to have, but they need to happen. Have you experienced a few emails back and forth with a category manager and you just know it is going in the wrong direction? You need to pick up the phone and talk. Even if you leave a message the perception of you calling is that you need to get to the bottom of a situation as opposed to back and forth on email. If you do leave a message, note that in the email response. You can slide it in, “the answer to your question is…and I just left you a message if you want to discuss it more”.
Short time line issues such as inventory for ads, food safety or negotiation can be more effective on the phone. You need to talk to them to ensure the issue is being addressed. I understand you do not want to call to tell them you will be short but it is better they know and you take your lumps up front. Delaying the inevitable just makes it worse. They might not tell you in the heat of the moment, but they do appreciate you taking the initiative and dealing with a problem. A food safety issue always needs to be addressed as quickly as possible so you need to talk to a person.
It is interesting to see suppliers and retailers texting back and forth. It is true this is the most immediate form of communication and if you can get the relationship to the point where you can text back and forth that is a win. Do not assume on this one, you might want to ask the question, can I send you a text? If the answer is yes that is a positive opening and you now have a more effective form of communication. 10 years ago email was relatively quick and many prided themselves by having an empty in box, now the text is the immediate form of communication.
Using the mail can be effective to stand out from the crowd. This can be a great tool to send information or other relationship building pieces. A number of years ago there was a mail campaign from Gatorade to industry people. Throughout the year they sent a package prior to key sports events through the year. There was something for Super Bowl, golf balls prior to the Masters etc. You might not have that in your budget but a well thought out direct mail campaign with 3-4 pieces can be very effective to build the relationship.
One of the biggest frustrations when communicating with retailers is the response or lack there of. You have to rate the communication you send and get a response where needed because you will not get it from every thing you send. Be sensitive to the amount they receive and the time they have to respond. Get an answer when you need it but don’t pester them if you are simply providing information or being proactive for something with a deadline two weeks away. You will be able to gauge the relationship you have with the response you get.
If you don’t get much you have work to do. Perhaps the method you are using is not the right one. You should also try different times through the day. Some category managers are in the office early and work on email prior to 9 when all the meetings start; others work late after the kids go to bed. Find the patterns that are most effective. Another consideration is the tone of your communication. Some category managers prefer a very pointed conversation; others want to talk sports, movies or family. Use some trial and error to find the most effective methods for each one.
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