Every October our son-in-law Joe Knutson heads north with his Dad and an entourage of his childhood friends to fish in the pristine lakes of Ontario.
Generally they fish for northern pike and walleye, but on occasion they land a muskie. The muskie is the fish of 1000 casts. Consider yourself fortunate if you land one in your lifetime.
Though I subscribe more to the theory of growing a business through bunts and singles, to land a big account in business, on occasion, is analogous to reeling in a muskie.
We were able to accomplish this recently with a national account with over 500 locations. Here are some of the lessons we learned.
1. Fish where the muskie lurks.
You can’t catch a muskie if you’re casting from the pier on the farm pond. We had to get our boat into the deep fresh water of a northern Canadian lake. We needed the right gear. We had to change our way of thinking and orient ourselves to the way the potential client operated. This involved doing our homework, multiple walk-throughs of their stores, learning all we could about the way they did business, taking pictures of their displays, and assessing their current product before establishing contact.
2. Recruit a guide.
We could not have done this on our own. We needed a guide. Fortunately, we had a friend who made introductions for us. This was critical. The Chinese refer to this as “guanxi.” It appears that the entire economy of China hinges on this principle. Individuals and companies work hand-in-glove to assist each other. They don’t keep score. They work hard to out-do each other. They become interwoven and indebted to each other in the process, ending up with a tangled combination of ingratiation and saving face. We could learn from them.
3. Chum the waters.
Once we were able to make contact with a key associate within the organization, communication started to mushroom. We sent countless e-mails, communicating with various buyers in different departments. A couple of pallets of samples were sent. Three of us arrived the day before the presentations to get fully prepared for two big days of presentations.
4. Bait the hook.
We designed and produced a one-of-a-kind wall carving that weighed over 400 pounds, stood seven feet high, and was exquisitely framed in various hardwoods. We wanted to prove to the customer that we were a versatile, capable, and reliable supplier.
5. Reel in the catch.
After the two-day visit, we spent the following three months doing follow-up with the various departments. Attention to detail was critical; we had dozens of balls in the air, all of which needed to be thoroughly followed up on.
6. Review lessons learned.
To be a supplier to a large, multi-store corporate account you must be competitive, have compelling product, and be capable of convincing the potential customer that you can deliver. Doing your homework prior to making the call is just as important as thorough follow-up after the call.
You have to be capable of adapting to the customers needs. This involves the ability to modify, and even morph into products where you have had limited experience.
Most importantly, we learned that you can’t rest on your laurels. An opening order is no assurance of a continued business relationship. Growing your business through new accounts is analogous to raising your children. The account has to be nurtured and carefully monitored.
In growing a business there is safety in numbers. Having multiple small accounts is a much safer way to grow than having two or three large accounts. As a rule of thumb, we do our best to keep no one account from becoming more than ten percent of our business.
Fishing in the lakes of Northern Ontario is adventuresome and good for an adrenaline rush, but in the long run, we’ll stick with the calmer, and safer waters of Ohio farm ponds!