(In Oct 2021, Sreeram was approached by an ex-student for advice on a sales-related issue. The student and Sreeram have written this piece based on her experience. She would prefer to be anonymous.)
A recent B-school graduate, my current job is with an e-commerce firm as a Management Trainee. My role involves managing a few brands operating on our platform. For a brand, I have to improve the sales of their products on my platform. This, I am hoping, would improve the brand’s profitability and market share, which would eventually lead to greater earnings for my firm.
This increase in sales can happen only through smart marketing spending and I am expected to persuade my customers (the brands) to put more resources in our platform. This takes the form of periodic promotions on our platform.
Like any relationship manager, I have to achieve targets within specified timeframes. My targets are directly linked to the marketing resources deployed into our platform by the brands I manage. While I was holding my own with most of the brands in my portfolio, there was one brand that posed grave difficulties. The brand representatives were ignoring my calls and even hung up on me a few times. My polite and carefully crafted messages on both email and Whatsapp went unanswered.
Needless to say, I was not meeting my targets for this particular brand. This was an important brand and its long-term growth potential was apparent. Their non-responsiveness was impacting the performance of the overall category for us. I was under severe pressure from my supervisor and desperately needed to get the brand on board with our plans and contribute meaningfully to our topline.
I tried everything that I could think of including reaching out to my colleagues for advice. They agreed with me on how the role was challenging in the beginning and that it took time for things to settle down. I got no other practical advice from them.
As my stress levels increased, I reached out to the professor who had taught me sales management in college. He heard me out patiently and then posed several questions.
He asked me questions about how I would rate my equation with the brands I was handling and the level of comfort with each brand. It dawned on me that my relationship with most of the brand representatives was strictly professional and lacked any personal touch. Moreover, the pitch used by most of us relationship managers centred around how the brands needed us more than we needed them. This hubris, if you can call it that, sprang from the pandemic, which had heightened brands' reliance on e-commerce platforms.
My professor asked me to work on two aspects. One was to make sure that brands were aware of what my company was offering them - to try and answer the question uppermost in most buyers’ minds (what is in it for me). And the other was to build trust. This meant that I had to build rapport and assure the brands that I had their best interests at heart.
“Clients would invest their time and money in you only if they believed in you” I remember him saying.
This implied, it made better sense to sell my story, build good equations with the brand reps & belief would eventually follow. But trust is not built overnight. It is a gradual process and falling prey to the pressure (from colleagues and managers) is usually counterproductive.
One way to tackle this internal pressure, he advised, was to have candid conversations with managers on how it takes time to build trusted relationships from which all good things flow.
Building trust is a process and cannot be rushed. My professor used the analogy of how smart parents take their babies to their paediatrician for a few visits when no (painful) vaccine shots are administered. The objective is for the babies to get comfortable with a stranger. Thus, when the vaccine shot (and the necessary pain) is administered, it does not cause chaos.
Similarly, the interactions with a customer should begin in a non-threatening manner. In my case, since I was almost repairing a relationship, his advice was that I should start off by simply conversing with them. Perhaps by seeking feedback about my platform to begin with. Then transition to their business objectives and how we could help them. Trying to pitch something to customers all the time makes them defensive, a mindset hardly conducive for sales.
Thus, communications, especially when building relationships, should focus on general matters at first, more so on positive conversations and wait for that one opportune moment to make the sales pitch.
That was when I started thinking from the brand’s shoes – ideally, it made no sense for them to avoid a Brand Manager who was managing their operations and contributing to their growth on a top shopping website. However, their behavior made me realize that I wasn’t able to instill that faith in them. Undoubtedly, I did what was required – communicating and sometimes, persuading them to align them to my firm’s goals. But, I limited myself to that; and in the process, failed to look at the bigger picture for my customer - would this really be profitable for them and not just my firm? Is this initiative scalable for them in the long run?
After some introspection, I realized I needed them to make me a part of their plans. This necessitated a shift from a “goals-focused” approach to a “brand-focused” approach.
I knew this couldn’t be done overnight, more so because the virtual environment had limited the in-person opportunities which could have helped create a better impact. But I had to make a beginning and my first challenge was getting them to answer my calls. I started off by sending them a note for an ad hoc meeting request in which I cited the agenda as “A casual chat on brand’s current standing”, instead of my typical subject line that would read “Quick discussion on advertising revenues”.
My first win was the brand immediately confirming their availability for the discussion. The next few meetings were spent discussing the vision of their firm rather than their immediate deliverables. We discussed what they had been looking to achieve from their retail business. After a few of these meetings, I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t really understood their priorities and why they were rejecting my calls. We worked out a common charter on how we could better collaborate for the brand’s effective association with our firm – this time in a way that didn’t hamper their objectives.
This new approach proved fruitful sooner than I expected. The brand began to respond to me, reached out to me for their plans in the upcoming quarter and started taking my inputs on the same. It's been just over a month since reaching out to them with the new approach, and when they sent me an invitation for the launch of their new store, I knew I had finally broken through. I had built that all-important connection with my customer.