“You need to be available for your customers. It all goes back to being that resource for your customer who may call you on a Saturday… they know that I work for them, and they are going to think of me and call me every single time they have a question, and that’s why I do it. I rather they call me than the competition.” ~ Eric Miller
What percent of your customers order online?
Eric: About 10%. I prefer it that way. I want to be in front of the customer, because if I’m not in front of the customer, somebody else is. I prefer them to call me, especially in the summer months when it’s extremely busy and in case they go online and place an order for something that might have been out-of-stock or the brand changed and I might have not had time to catch it and substitute that product, and then they end up having to backorder. I do have about 10% that really want to be online.
DSR Dave: If you had more of your customers, say 40-50% of them placing their own order online, wouldn’t that open up more time to sell them more items or help them in their kitchens, or in front of the house, or in the back of the house?
Eric: I think it would help me in growing the accounts. But I personally like being in front of the customers. I like taking the orders. I can catch situations on the spot like if they normally buy a certain case of ribeye and the price might be through the roof, I can suggest looking at something else. That’s generally why I like being in front of the customer just to help them maybe find a more cost-effective option than them just putting the order in online and possibly not even ordering that item because the price is so high and losing out on a sale.
DSR Dave: That makes sense. It’s all over the board because at some distributors, a sales rep gets paid more if he has the order placed online.
A/R, can your customers pay their bill online?
Eric: Yes, if they set up online, they can pay their bill online. The customers who are set up online, like being able to see and manage their account. They can see their credit memos that come through. They can see their statement’s invoice numbers. It’s a lot easier to keep track of them than just having to scan their own invoices into their systems or try to find that invoice that they checked in on a Friday when they were busy that might accidentally have gotten chicken juice spilled all over it.
How do you manage AR?
Eric: When I first started, I was kind of scared to ask people for money. And then I realized the more I collected the checks in between those terms, the more money I’m making that month because we’re on a sliding commission scale. Now I do it every day. Every account before I put their order in, it pops up in my computer telling me where they’re at within their account. I generally try to have the check-in like a week before they’re within the 30-day terms, so at about 20 days. This way, I know that they’re in terms and I’m making the right commission. I stick by that.
DSR Dave: When I was riding with a sales rep once, he told me that collecting A/R was his weak spot. He said that he hated it! He didn’t think it should be the job of the DSR to collect it. He felt like a Credit Department team would be more appropriate. That would open up more time for selling and helping his customers. He said collecting credit was like having to put on an entirely different face and tone.
What do you think of that, Eric?
Eric: That’s kind of a catch-22, Dave. I agree with that. I do think a lot of my time is spent chasing checks. I could be doing more beneficial things. But then again, I’m putting My Commission, my mortgage payment in the hands of somebody else, someone who may have to collect from 300 customers that week. So, for me personally, I would rather know that I am getting that check in my hand.
DSR Dave: There is the chance of upsetting the apple cart too if the credit person calls your customer at 11 am when they are slammed, demanding payment. How do you handle it with a customer who you may be good friends with who is behind?
Eric: I just let them know that my credit department has reached out to me, and that I understand sales are down, but we are getting behind. I tell them that I don’t want them to get too deep to where they might not be able to get out of it. And I ask what we can do to work out a payment plan with them… pay half now and make payments on the other portion possibly. I try to be very flexible because I don’t want to offend them too, especially if the customer is down in their sales. The cash flow can slow down a little bit here, especially because we are a very seasonal community. We’re a beach town, so in the wintertime, it’s a ghost town. I try to not let everything float, but I try to work with them as well, because in the end, you don’t want to insult the customer. You don’t want to insult or hurt friendships. We just make it work.
How do you deal with your colleagues, your peers, the people that you work with, transportation, credit, buyers, drivers, and everybody? Is it important how you treat them?
Eric: Yes, it is. First off, I will say that the number one thing that you need to have, other than having a great relationship with your customers, is a great relationship with your home base. And that means you’re purchasing agents, the transportation manager, the operations manager, the GM, and especially your drivers, because if you don’t, you are not going to succeed. Nobody likes to get yelled at, and we are all there for the same purpose, to move cases. They can “make” your growth or “tank” it. I have a wonderful relationship with every single person in my home base, we’re all in it together.
The number one thing that I think you really need to have is a great relationship with the drivers who are out there busting their butts because they are seeing your customers maybe more than you do. If you have a wonderful relationship, they will tell you if they saw a case of fries from another distributor in one of your accounts. We need to treat each other with respect. I might throw them a case of beer in the front seat of their car as a thank you knowing they had a long, difficult day.
Do you ever turn your phone off?
Eric: When I go to bed, I turn it off and then turn it back on around 6:00 AM. I am available from 6:00 AM to 11:00 PM because I do get phone calls at night and questions on the weekends. You need to be available for your customers. It all goes back to being that resource for your customer who may call you on a Saturday with a question on a price. I bust out my computer and give them a price and they know that I work for them, and they are going to think of me and call me every single time they have a question, and that’s why I do it. I rather they call me than the competition.
What method do you use the most to communicate with your customers, email, text, Zoom, Team, phone, or all the above?
Eric: I tell them whatever’s easier for them. I prefer phone calls, but texting is great too. Emails can get missed sometimes, but they work too, but we do not really use Zoom or Teams because I’m not that far from them, I would prefer face-to-face or a call.
Do you have a relationship with brokers and manufacturer reps and do samples work?
Eric: Absolutely. I utilize the brokers as much as I can because they’re the ones with the product and the product knowledge. I have a great relationship with my brokers because they’re going to go above and beyond for me. I bring in samples because nobody is going to buy anything if you just explain it to them, they need to touch it, taste it, feel it, smell it, create something with it. I utilize brokers as much as I can. Samples work, yes. I would never purchase something unless I could touch it, taste it, feel it, put it out to my customers, put it out to the servers, and get feedback. Samples work a lot.
Do you prefer a case of samples or just a baggy?
Eric: I would prefer cases versus a small sample we can cook up one time that may work once but not consistently. I will refer to a new account I had, a huge pizza shop. We sell Galbani cheese, and I told him I would send a broker in to do a cutting. He told me that would not work for him. He said he’d need four or five cases. He needed to make pies with it, send them out on deliveries, put it out in the restaurants, have his employees work with it, and then make his decisions based upon that. Just doing a cheese cutting against the current cheese that he was using would not work for them. I respected that because they really needed to see how it was going to work with them in real-life daily situations.
Are there any things you began doing during Covid because you had no choice, but now see that it works better than the way you used to do it?
Eric: I think customers are now more inclined to different ways of looking at their sanitation. I think that’s going to stick.
Advice for Greenhorns:
Eric: Learn your products. Don’t take anything personal. It’s going to be tough in the beginning, but once you get your niche, I think you need to find a niche of what accounts you like to call on, what accounts make you feel comfortable to help you grow your sales. And the main thing, I have said throughout this entire interview is just be a trustworthy, honest person. Go over and above for your customers, come through for them. Be that first person they call when they’re looking for a product or they have a problem, and you will grow. You will thrive. Just relax. It’s food. This job is 100% what you put into it. So, if you’re not out there busting the streets every day, you’re not going to grow. You need to beat the streets. You put 1000% into what you do every single day, then it will come back to you in return.
Advice for Veterans wondering if they want to keep doing this or lacking motivation due to all the substitutions and discontinued products they’ve sold for years and having to come up with new things:
Eric: Just know that every single other distributor in this entire country is going through the same problem that you are. Just remember this is how you make a living, how you pay your bills, and eventually it’s going to hopefully come to an end soon. That’s what I tell myself every day. I get up in the morning knowing I’m going to have 2 hours of shorts and mispicks and same-day deliveries. I might even have to throw some stuff in the back of my car, but I do it anyway because that’s the job. I roll through with it and tell myself that, this is going to come to an end.
Be a Resource and SELL SOMETHING!!