Suppliers and Distributors Can't Afford to Break the Partnership Chain
It’s a simple fact that the supply chain model as we once knew it is dead. Technology, of course, has been a major disruptor, influencing new—and less personal—communication styles over the years. The shift to online shopping hasn’t helped matters either. Suppliers can easily sell direct, distributors can bypass suppliers to import product and end-users can find production facilities with minimal effort.
Just last month, direct-to-consumer printer Vistaprint opened its first brick-and-mortar storefront, Vistaprint Studio, in Toronto. The store, which operates as an extension of the e-commerce platform, enables customers to see customized paper products and printing in a physical setting, much like how promotional products professionals use showrooms for sales ideas. According to The Globe and Mail, clients can even speak with designers and in-store coaches on their marketing products and strategies.
It’s too early to tell how the move will affect the reseller channel, but one thing is clear: Distributors and suppliers need each other. “The traditionally strict supply chain has certainly been muddied,” Josh Robbins, president of Vault Promotions, Hendersonville, Tenn., acknowledged. “If navigated properly, however, it can be a huge benefit to those building relationships. It narrows the field of trust, and those willing to invest in each other can develop stronger business ties.”
And, Robbins should know. Building relationships with distributors is a primary focus of his five-year-old company. You may be thinking, that’s not enough time, and perhaps you’d be correct; but this seemingly new kid on the block has been in the badge game for much longer. Robbins got his start at an undisclosed industry supplier that was eventually acquired and relocated. Rather than wallow in his situation, he used it as an opportunity to form Vault Promotions, hire back his staff and position the manufacturer to be the expert in its niche market.
His goal is to run the most reliable and easy-going company in the industry. But, in order to get to that point, there needs to be a certain level of trust between partners. For Robbins, that begins with transparent dialogue.
“Speaking for myself here, my favorite conversations are the uncomfortable ones ... the conversations that are unapologetic about the challenges and struggles in selling our particular line, or selling within our industry, in general,” he said. “I think only when we have true, unfiltered conversations, can we actually lay the groundwork to change the status quo. ... There is an old-school approach still prevalent in this industry of the distributor and supplier relationship that prefers [there be] a brick wall between the two, instead of dropping the curtain and allowing us to work together to provide better solutions, items and service to the customer.”
In fact, a common distributor pain point is what motivated Vault Promotions to develop an online name badge release and fulfillment system. As Robbins hinted above, selling name badges and individually personalized items can come with frustration in the form of little to no profit.
“It’s great if you land a 3,000-piece badge order, but when your smaller client of 15 employees needs badges, you would likely cringe,” he said. “You would service the client only so you could get to the other products. In many meetings with distributors, [I find] they are shy to speak this truth, so when it comes out of my mouth, they immediately start laughing in relief.”
Enter The Vault. The program allows distributors to place orders in bulk without having to handle the daily tasks of fulfilling clients’ small one- and two-piece ongoing orders, resulting in gains for all parties. They simply prepay for the quantity of badges they need, Vault Promotions produces them all at once without any personalization and extends the bulk discount. The badges are stored in the ... wait for it ... vault, ready to be personalized when needed. “It makes it easy and profitable for the distributor, cheaper and quicker for the client and automates the production stream on our side,” Robbins noted.
In order to fully leverage the capabilities of supplier firms, it also is important for distributors to give up-to-date information about their accounts. When suppliers understand the full vision of what the end-user hopes to accomplish, they can suggest the appropriate solution. For example, if budget is a concern, there may be another imprint method that can get the same result at a better price.
“Often, distributors are tentative about sharing everything they know about their accounts,” James Cirigliano, director of marketing for Diversified Labeling Solutions (DLS), Itasca, Ill., observed. “... We don’t compete with our distributors; we have no sales organization, so there is little to fear by engaging us more fully in discussion. It is a mistake for a distributor to withhold information from us because, without it, we can’t be a complete resource.”
DLS has been a B2B supplier of high-quality, custom-printed, pressure-sensitive labels since 1985, so the company speaks from experience. Cirigliano said that it isn’t uncommon for distributors to keep their customers’ identity a secret from DLS staff during the early stages of the relationship. Some distributors even choose not to send artwork until they are ready to run the job.
Not only does transparency provide efficiency improvements, it can lead to the most impactful moments in business. One particular order stood out to Cirigliano. A distributor needed kits of sheeted labels prepared and shipped to more than 1,500 locations on a tight deadline. The label itself was difficult to produce due to its shape, size and materials. What complicated the job further was the fact that four different versions of the kit were needed.
“We went above and beyond for the distributor because they were organized, had complete information, shared all of the details with us starting at the quoting process and stayed in close contact with us as we developed a plan of action to meet their customer’s needs,” Cirigliano recalled. “Open communication and teamwork allow projects to be successful and encourage us, as a business partner, to ensure the distributor and their customer are well taken care of throughout the entire process.”
Kevin Mullaney, president of PDF Print Communications, Signal Hill, Calif., agreed that everyone shines when parties set realistic expectations early on; but, for him, the best business opportunities happen when the competition either fails to deliver on a commitment or doesn’t show clients it truly cares about them as a partner.
“I have learned to ask questions about [distributors’] previous experiences with my competition,” he said. “I try to find out what they look for in a vendor partner and what we can do for them that the previous vendor could not offer. This gives me the advantage of knowing what issues might come up that will sever the relationship.”
Regardless of how meticulous your purchase orders are or what kind of rating your supplier has, mistakes aren’t always avoidable. It all comes down to how they’re handled, or, suppliers, at least, could be facing a Mullaney steal.
“It’s in these moments that true partnerships can be tested, built or destroyed,” Robbins said. “Although we would all like to be perfect, mistakes do, in fact, happen. Putting together a solution to rectify the mistake can make you a hero when properly handled and only serves to build trust.
“More specifically, when the end-user has an event coming up in a few days and needs a last-minute rush job. They dropped the ball. I know this never happens, but let’s pretend it does,” he joked. “These situations allow the distributor to use their established relationships with their partner vendors to come through for them and wow the client. This allows the supplier that is called to come through for their distributor partner. Or, perhaps the distributor doesn’t catch a typo on a proof that was sent and approved. This allows us, as the supplier, to either catch the mistake for them, or to help out with a reprint at little or no cost. ... Maybe we printed a job and the color wasn’t exactly correct on an item. This allows us to show our true colors (pun intended) by redoing the job at no cost and still on time.”
Robbins offered one final takeaway. “If we view each other as a team, the supply chain becomes hidden in the background, as you are working in tandem on a common goal,” he said. “We are both the chain, delivering to the client.”