I have found mounting regular sales conferences for distributors to be both essential and beneficial to develop business together. As we know most distributors, regardless of the country they work in, are independent, often still family owned, and who handle a number of principals. Frankly they can make or break you.

Even if one is able to regularly visit them in-market, much of the trading year is managed at long distance electronically, geographically and in different time frames.

In my company we accepted that the majority of our export business and its continued success lay in the hands of our distributors. It was not just a simple matter of supply at the right price and let them get on with it. Commercial life is not like that and we certainly did not want to leave matters to chance. We therefore undertook a major review of our trading relationships with all of our distributors to basically ensure we were getting our fair share of their operational attention and to set up plans to ensure we maintained that status.

We recognised that regardless of the attractiveness of our products and our trade pricing, this would not be enough. In many markets, we were using the best available distributor and would be reluctant to lose them. However all distributors serviced a number of principals each of which had their own priorities and requirements. Hence the reason for seeking ‘ a fair share of attention of time

The review naturally considered all aspects of distributor relationships including communications, motivation and training. As a result we decided to mount a pilot distributor conference in one region of the world. We also decided to go where the most positive response could be gained as this was to be a learning experience for all. We contacted a number of our key distributors who were themselves opinion leaders in their region and sought their early views. The proposal received a green light.

For the pilot we considered a number of issues:

  • What was in for them?
  • The venue & location
  • Duration
  • Business versus pleasure

We decided there were a number of potential benefits to be offered for attendance – to learn more on how to increase business through selling our products; to individually raise matters with company key personnel; to meet and socialise with regional colleagues. The bottom line was the requirement to attract attendance and ensure all attendees departed wishing more.

The location would not be in any of their markets as we felt this would be unfair to the ‘home’ distributor. Additionally the country was accessible to all delegates so no visa problems could ensue. The venue was a business class hotel which offered suitable recreational facilities. For this first event we set three days for the formal activities wishing to ensure it was rightly perceived as important to their business. Structurally we set an approximate balance of 70/30 business to pleasure.

Notice of the intention to hold the conference and its timing was given one calendar year in advance to ensure all parties could plan next year’s diaries. An invitation was sent to the most appropriate decision taker within each distributorship. Participants were asked for their early ideas on the format and agenda. It was both pleasing and surprising to note that the first response was positive in both a confirmation to attend and on ideas for the conference itself.

We then considered the conference itself. Whilst we would not wish to censure any negative reactions during the event, we wished to create a positive environment. As was the first time we had brought this group together we could only guess at the group dynamics and general levels of behaviour. One activity we avoided was to offer a general feedback session which could run out of control particularly if an attendee wished to raise parochial complaints.

Without detailing the content of each session, we planned the following:

  • Conference hours would be in line with normal local working habits
  • Any company presentations were to be short and allow ample time for discussion and clarification.
  • There would be a general business development session with tips and experiences from other markets.
  • One distributor was invited to present his business experiences from his country.
  • During the conference time would be set for formal ½ hour meetings with each distributor
  • Any new company activity was timed to be introduced at the conference

Social time was divided into three segments:

  • All meals would be together with one dinner to be held outside of the hotel. We wanted to keep delegates together, create a good community atmosphere and not risk losing delegates to other distractions.
  • One pre-planned trip to a local tourist attraction
  • Free time for delegates

Our own company participation was on a need to be there to ensure the normal business functions were represented – Marketing, Finance, Export administration, Logistics plus a main board director.

In terms of budgeting the company paid for all direct costs – conference venue for all attendees, accommodation and meals, transportation to and from airport. The delegates happily paid their own airfares.

The conference was run and was considered a success by all parties. All distributors were represented with only two providing suitable substitute delegates.

Over the years Distributor conferences became an essential part of the commercial and social fabric of the company and its overseas partners. Other Regions had their own conferences and in normal circumstances they were held every two years. The company made it clear it always had the right to cancel or postpone in adverse trading or security climates.

The popularity of these events amongst distributors grew. Generally they were extended to four days. Also distributors brought spouses which added positively to the social events but never conflicted with the business of the day.

As these events became a regular biannual fixture we were then able to build in more business inputs such as contributing to the annual planning process.

In terms of cost effectiveness it is hard to measure motivation, but we could quantify the simple savings of meeting the distributor team under one roof.

In summary, we wondered why we had not started the process a lot earlier.


Written 18th April 2013 by Dick Brentnall S&H LLP Associate/ Trainer

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