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Don't Get Lost in the Shuffle: Create a Win/Win with Your Foodservice Broker

Now that you know what a foodservice broker does, and perhaps have attracted a broker’s attention and hired her, you want to make the most of that relationship, even if you’re a smaller brand. Particularly if you’ve partnered with a bigger broker or with one who’s representing larger, more established brands, you might feel like a small fish in a big pond. Or, maybe since you’ve found a broker, you’d hoped just to hand over your sales and marketing, and to focus on other aspects of your business. The truth is, though, top paying clients will always demand a significant portion of a broker’s time. So how can a mid-size or earlier-stage brand insure they don’t get lost in the shuffle?

Your broker will likely have a top tier of stable, dependable clients whose products consistently sell well, and your new product, even if it’s on-trend and destined to take the world by storm, won’t displace those top tier clients. Instead, you’ll start out as a second-tier client – a group of emerging categories or brands that might lead the industry into the future. Your broker will combine stability (top tier) with growth (second tier) by offering newer products to distributors and operators alongside her consistently selling first-tier items.

Here are four strategies for distinguishing yourself from the competition, keeping your broker’s attention, and getting the kind of representation you need in the second tier so you can grow into a top-tier brand.

Be Ready: Make a plan, plan your work, and work your plan.

First, know your customer. Having a strong set of profiles for your customers will help both you and your broker focus your energies and work efficiently and effectively. Showing your broker you understand the consumer will make it easier for her to market your products and easier for you to work together with a clear direction and consistent message.

You also need to know your target operator, because hey, this is foodservice, and appealing to operators will give you and your broker the pull you need to make sales happen. Make sure you know, for instance, something about the customer who might ask for a plant-based option, and also something about why an operator should choose your brand as the option. How will your product get more people through the door, reduce costs, or increase efficiency in your operator’s kitchen? How can your broker show operators your product will solve the problems that matter most?

Second, know your broker. You hire not only a broker, but all the networks and relationships she brings with her. If you ignore or don’t know about those relationships, you’re only going to realize a fraction of the potential benefit of your partnership. Know her clients, both the big fish in her first tier and the smaller fish swimming around in the second tier with you, and learn about her relationships with distributors, as well. Doing your homework about your broker and her other clients allows you to make sure you’re a snug fit with the big brands she represents – which will insure you get mentioned on sales calls.

Then, take the insights you have about your customers and your broker, and plan the ways you want to spend your broker resources. Take control of your destiny. If your primary go to market strategy is broker representation, then plan your secondary and tertiary strategies so they complement and augment the whole process.

Having a plan allows you to use the multiplier effect to your advantage. That way, you might build a partnership with another brand, either inside or outside the broker’s portfolio, to get yourself more presentations. Maybe while your broker presents to one set of buyers, you can present to another group, so you can say, “Okay, I know, the brokers got those, so I'm gonna go pursue these other opportunities.” Multiply the effectiveness of both parties’ efforts – yours and your broker’s.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you need to micro-manage your broker. You’ve hired a broker specifically because of her connections and the relationships she’s spent years and years developing and cultivating. Sending her out to cold-call on a bunch of restaurants frustrates everyone, defeats the point, and leaves operators feeling interrupted and harassed – the opposite of the impression you want to give. Instead, respect the connections your broker brings to the relationship and collaborate to divide and conquer, making sure you cover all the bases.

Be well-connected.

Hire your broker with an eye toward her connections, and bring your own connections to the table, as well. Handing the sales and marketing aspects of your business over to a broker may seem appealing, but the most successful broker relationships, as we’ve discussed, look like partnerships, with both parties pulling at the oars.

For instance, use digital activation to help seed distribution in early adoption markets and to drive expansion to operator customers a broker may not call on directly. Be out there on the street presenting things, to really justify and solidify your slot with distributors who may be inside the broker’s portfolio but perhaps don’t get called on as often. What could you do, in other words, to really build a strong relationship, a one-on-one relationship, with that distributor? Expanding your market this way benefits everyone – you, your broker and the distributors.

Your connections may also allow you to identify strong regional pockets and test out an approach. Once you have proof of success, you’re much more like to get full support behind expanding. Or, if the results show a weaker area of the business, your feet on the street could allow you to say, “I found an effective closer for those weak areas that really influences operators. And here's what it looks like.”

Cultivate and use your connections outside of your broker’s portfolio, too. For example, back in the day, when I was working on the Frank's Red Hot brand, at French’s, we put together a promotion with Budweiser, called Fire and Ice. Budweiser launched Bud Ice (again, this was back in the day) alongside our hot sauce, which at that time didn’t have the omnipresence and name recognition it has now. That partnership gave us a secondary direct sales force, presenting our product to a completely different customer in a completely different way than our brokers were presenting it.

Everybody won in that situation -- we had merchandising and the power and tremendous resources of the Budweiser brand. Budweiser people looked at it like, man, somebody's eating hot wings with hot sauce, they're gonna order that extra beer. They even went out and did the research to find out that if you serve a patron something spicy or hot, they're much more likely to order a second or third alcoholic beverage, so they even had some stats to back it up. Talk about a marriage made in heaven!

That alignment, a perfect partnership with different ways of going to market, worked because of a common customer. Again, you have to know your customer, your operators, and your broker. Who else has a customer profile who looks like your customer profile? How can you build mutually beneficial relationships with them?

Be a natural.

No matter how hard a broker may try to treat all customers the same and deliver the same level of service across her portfolio, those top-selling brands take priority. Your plan and your work will influence the effort your broker spends on your brand, and basic human nature dictates your attitude and support will have an impact, too.

Make sure you deal with a broker like you’d deal with customer, because you want to make the same kind of impression. If you called on the customer, you’d want to give them your best self; when you talk to your broker, you want to do that same thing, because then they can carry your attitude out into the world. Especially at the seller level, you're talking to the sellers, your feet on the street. You want to show them the attitude you want represented to the customer. When you're talking to the leadership or client manager, show that transparency and collaboration. Make sure you get the most out of the mutual effort you're putting forward by demonstrating the care and helpfulness you want them to show the customer.

For example, early in my sales career, I worked for a company that represented a lot of major brands, but one of the products we sold most was a smaller brand, Sanderson Farms. The reason? That manufacturer had skin in the game alongside us. The more skin and effort you have in the game, the harder people want to work for you. This guy had a resource on anything we needed, had all the facts we might need, anything it took to make us successful. And guess what? He was out there hitting the bricks, too. Everybody liked him. Everybody wanted to help him succeed, too. Even as a smaller brand, compared to some other clients, we represented his brand consistently because he made himself and his brand stand out to us.

Just like Sanderson Farms, giving your broker all of the tools she might need to represent your brand makes it an easy one to sell for her. Samples matter. Be generous with them because this gets you presented. Imagine the mind of a seller as she goes into the sample room in the morning, or as she walks into the cooler or the freezer. “What have I got here? I can take this and that to XYZ. Maybe I won’t really present too much today, just drop off a couple of samples, and then the next time I go in there, or when I follow this one up with a call, I can ask what they thought of the samples.” Having those samples available makes your product the low-hanging fruit, the hook she’s going to be able to bait now and reel in later.

Does every sample that comes out of the sample room make it to a customer? Let’s be real. No, not everyone single one. Some of them will end up in the broker’s lunch or in her kid’s lunchbox. This is just a fact of life, but so is this: Human nature makes a broker more likely to present a product she has tried and liked with her own family. You don’t want someone running a catering business out of your broker’s cooler, but within reason, count this as a cost of doing business.

Be a partner.

Communicate with your broker and show her that you won’t ask her to work any harder than you’re willing to work. Show that you understand and respect the relationships she brings to the table, by supporting her efforts inside her portfolio, like my Sanderson Farms client. Work hard with customers outside your broker’s portfolio, the way I did at French’s on the Fire and Ice campaign. Could you partner with another of her clients to expand into additional segments – so that you appear together not only in public schools, for instance, but also in a corporate cafeteria setting? What other opportunities do you see that might produce some win-win results?

Make sure that you respect the relationships your broker has with her distributor customers, because they are her stock in trade. Ask yourself what distributors, larger operators or local leverage operators can help stabilize your distribution – and what levels of funding and resources you need to meet their potential demand. You want to utilize those great relationships brokers have with their distributor customers, and make sure that you can live up to any promises you might make, to create some nice, profitable terms in any business you do with that distributor, and to prevent any difficulties.

These four strategies can help the small fish in the big pond begin to set herself apart, and even start seeming like a bigger fish, by fully partnering with her broker. Support your broker, provide as much effort and information and as many resources as possible, and you’ll see a pay-off in more attention and more representation and more sales. Business is business, and brokers will take care of the stable, established clients they’ve depended on for years and whose sales consistently pay their commissions. But beyond those top-tier clients, as a newer or mid-sized brand, your attitude and engagement with your broker will influence how your brand grows and how quickly it grows. Brands who coordinate and even collaborate with their broker’s sales and marketing efforts will get noticed more and get better results, no matter how big the pond.

Julie Swift

Our guest blogger for this five-part series is Julie Swift. Julie provides us with a unique perspective, as a person who’s spent thirty years in foodservice, with time on each side of the client-broker relationship.

Julie spent 25 years in sales and marketing for the French’s Food Company and McCormick, and then just over 4 years as a broker in senior & executive leadership roles across sales, marketing, digital & business development.  She has interviewed over 100 potential manufacturers – she knows what she’s talking about! Visit her or find her on LinkedIn