Customer Relationships are Key to Sales Success

Getting your product into a store or restaurant is exciting, but once you’re on the shelves, how do you make sure that you’re there to stay?

Here are some tips from a recent panel that Good Egg Marketing moderated at the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts (SBN) Local Food Trade Show in Boston, Mass. While this article focuses on farms and specialty food businesses, the principles about how to keep customers happy apply to most businesses and organizations.

Getting In

Despite intense consumer interest in buying local, getting your local food products into specialty food stores, restaurants, and institutions is challenging. Stores like Cambridge Naturals in Cambridge, Mass. get hundreds of requests a week to carry products.

Find a Niche

Finding a distinctive niche to fill is just as important for stores and restaurants as it is for the businesses that sell to them.

There are gazillion salsas, Nola's Salsa Logocookies, and ice creams already on the market, yet new products get on the shelves every day. How?

When New Orleans native Sherie Grillon moved up to Boston, she noticed that no one was making a fresh traditional Mexican style salsa fresca, so she started Nola’s Fresh Foods in 2011 to fill that niche. Being able to differentiate her product from other local salsas helped her get into specialty food stores and restaurants and she’s now selling to Whole Foods and Star Markets.

River Valley Coop  in Northampton, Mass. faces heavy competition from supermarkets and Whole Foods Markets carrying organic and natural products, so they’re focused on being “hyperlocal.”
river valley co-op logo
River Valley Produce Manager Henry Kryeski embodies the store’s slogan, “Wild about Local.”

Kryeski goes out of his way to work with as many farmers as he can, but with so many western Mass. farmers growing “so many great things,” he can’t buy kale from everyone.

“That’s where the word niche comes into play,” Kryeski says. He gets the best quality and avoids overlap among the 200+ items he carries from more than 30 local farmers by taking the time to figure out which farmer is best at growing the products he wants to buy.

Kryeski meets with farmers off-season to discuss what they’ll grow for River Valley the next year, so everyone can plan ahead.
Cambridge Naturals Logo
Cambridge Naturals has also been adept at finding a niche. They started out as a full-scale natural foods store in 1974, when the natural foods movement was just getting going, but by the mid-1990s, the industry had become extremely competitive.

In order to survive, Cambridge Naturals rebranded themselves as a natural health store with a carefully curated selection of groceries. Their commitment to sourcing local, organic and ethical products, supporting the community, and providing excellent customer support has enabled them to thrive in the niche they carved out for themselves.

Look for the Right Venues

The best places to sell your produce and products are where the owners, buyers, and customers care about supporting local farmers and food producers, not necessarily the places with highest annual sales volume. Stores like Cambridge Naturals pride themselves on being the first to bring in a new product, so they’ll go out of their way to support small, independent local businesses.

“We go after exciting unique products with a good story to tell,” says Cambridge Naturals’ second-generation co-owner, Emily Kanter. “We’re often the first stop for a lot of brands that haven’t been elsewhere yet. We like to have products that aren’t in every store. “

Nola’s built its salsa business by establishing relationships with supportive stores. “We can sell four times as much at a small owner-operated local store than at the big natural foods supermarkets, because the customers know and trust the staff,” says Grillon.

CISA logoCommunity Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) in South Deerfield, Mass. was the first “Buy Local” organization in the country. CISA’s Local Hero Program Manager, Devon Whitney-Deal, works with over 425 farmers, retailers, specialty food producers, institutions and others who sell and support local food. She helps their members find the right venues to sell their products.

“Be creative when you’re looking for buyers,” advises Whitney-Deal. For example, if you want to sell to institutions, don’t just approach your local schools, colleges and hospitals. Some local food producers in western Mass. sell to assisted living communities, because “their residents are demanding local food,” she says. Wherever there are eaters, there are potential customers.

Be Persistent

Creating and maintaining strong relationships with the owners, buyers, and customers is essential to getting in and staying in. Most buyers are sympathetic to new entrepreneurs, but they can be hard to get reach, because they spend so much time out on the floor, receiving shipments, going to trade shows, visiting farms, or talking to other entrepreneurs. And if you’re out in the fields, meeting with suppliers, doing demos, or selling at markets, you may also be hard to reach if they do call back.

Figuring out how to get in touch with buyers–either when you’re making the initial sale or after you’re in–can be tricky. Some buyers prefer that the initial contact be made online or by email, others by phone, others by dropping by. While some venues provide information on their websites about how they want to be approached, in most cases, you often have to try a variety of methods to get a response.

The right frequency for contact will depend on each particular buyer and your product. Some buyers want to be communicated with weekly or biweekly, others monthly, others every six months. Ask them how often you should contact them and the best times to reach them.

Kryeski recommends that you check in on your product and stay in touch with the buyers. “Consistency is key,” he says. “Ask the buyer how often you should call and then call regularly, whether it’s every Tuesday or whatever schedule you work out.”

Personal contact can make the difference. “I worked with one farmer who was having trouble selling her lamb,” Whitney-Deal recalls. “I suggested she go out to dinner and bring along a little cooler with a lamb step or lamb ribs to give to the chef to ask them to taste it. She did it, and sure enough, that chef called her back” and eventually became a customer.

Be Ready to Sell

In addition to having a quality product that’s ready to sell, you need to have your samples, sell sheets, price lists, and business systems ready.

“The days of writing invoices on paper are over,” notes Whitney-Deal. “You need to have computerized invoicing,” she says.

Kanter suggests that companies invest in Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, so they can track sales calls to current and potential customers. In addition, scheduling software can remind you when to make sales and follow-up calls.

In addition, almost every store is going to want you to do demos to introduce your product to their customers, so you need to make sure you have time set aside to demo and support each new store. “When Nola’s gets picked up in a new store, we do a demo in that store once a week for 6-8 weeks, so we can get people to taste our product,” Grillon says. “If you want to become one of the products that they’ll buy every time, you’ve got to talk to everybody and build a connection, so when they see your product they think of you.”

Staying In

You can’t assume that, once your products are being carried, you’re all set.  “Getting into stores tends to be the easier part,” says Grillon. “Staying in stores is harder.”

Visit stores and meet with buyers regularly to make sure that your products are stored and displayed correctly; that the owner, buyer, and staff know you and can share your story; and that you’re checking in to see what that store needs.

When she started out, Grillon did three demos a day. She’s adamant about hiring the right people to do demos. “The demo person is the face of your company. Don’t settle for somebody who isn’t going to promote your company the way you would,” Grillon says. “Tell them to talk to every customer that walks by, even if you’re just saying hi.”

In addition, you have to stay loyal to your initial customers. “Some of the specialty food producers do a lot of demo support right off the bat, but then they get into a bunch more stores and we never hear from them again,” Kanter says.

Although Kanter understands that businesses need to give extra attention to their newest accounts, she urges businesses to stay in touch. “Check in regularly to ask how things are going, what can I do, do you want any more demos, can I send you some free samples,” she advises. “We’ll keep selling the product as long as it’s relevant and our customers want it, but we’ve had to say goodbye to several local products that we loved because they over-committed and we couldn’t get their stuff.”

Lazy Guide to Marketing Resources

Person in hammockHaving trouble keeping up with all the
latest marketing tools (or even getting started)? Fortunately, there are lots of places—most of them free–to find great articles, videos, and resources to help you up your marketing game. So if, like me, you’d rather spend your vacation time gardening than sitting at your computer, here’s my lazy guide to marketing resources.

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Bring Out the Best: Descriptors vs. Taglines

Hellmann’s Mayonnaise has used the same tagline – ‘BRING OUT THE BEST’™ for decades. The “blue ribbon” treatment in the logo reinforces their message.

One of the most powerful ways to market your business or organization is to create a short phrase to help it stand out. Whether you’re using a descriptor or a tagline, a few well-chosen words can help shape how people think or feel about you.

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Do Labels Matter? Yes, They Do

Non GMO Project Verified LogoUSDA Organic, Fair Trade, B Corp, LEED Certified Non-GMO Project Verified…

There are hundreds of labels, certifications, and seals in the marketplace. The Ecolabel index lists 459 ecolabels alone.

It can be time-consuming and sometimes expensive to get your product, company, or organization certified. Does certification matter? Will it have any impact on your bottom line? Should you bother pursuing certification?

In a word, yes. And here’s why.

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Bake Great Customer Service Into Your Brand

We’ve all experienced it: the hipster barista too busy making snarky comments on her cellphone to take your order, the salesperson hovering over you that makes you flee without buying what you came in for, or the voice mail hell that seems designed to keep you from speaking with a human being.

A bad customer experience can go viral in seconds, yet when most small business owners think about branding, they’re more focused on their logo or tagline than their customer service strategy. Ultimately, customer service has more impact on your brand than the cool pictures you post on Facebook.

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How Can I Increase My Sales?

Almost every business wants to increase sales, but bigger isn’t always better! Good Egg Marketing doesn’t promote mindless consumption. We work with companies that provide great products or services that people genuinely want or need.

Here are a few of the tactics that the businesses we work with or admire have used to increase sales. By the way, many of these principles apply to non-profits, too.

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Is Your Marketing Having Any Impact?

My colleague Julia Shanks, principal of Julia Shanks Food Consulting, is an expert at helping farms and food entrepreneurs create and use business plans and financial analyses to grow their businesses. She’s also a chef and cookbook author. Not surprisingly, her approach to marketing is very analytical. I invited her to write a guest article to share how she measures her marketing tactics.

Myrna Greenfield

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Are You a Competitor or a Collaborator?

People seated at a table collaborating on a project
Photo by Jennifer Leonard, Creative Commons

It may sound counterintuitive, but the best way to grow your business may be through collaboration, rather than competition.

Americans are brought up to believe that we can’t collaborate with our competitors. There are even laws against price fixing, when competitors get together to agree on pricing. Yet, in many cases, being a collaborator rather than a competitor may be key to your success.

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How to Market Good Eggs (or anything else)

generic carton of eggsPeople who type “egg marketing” into a search engine often land on my website, goodeggmarketing.com.  I hatched my company name because I like to think of myself as a “good egg,” not because I raise chickens. But since I call myself an EGG-spert, it’s time I shared my thoughts about how to market them.

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When Less is Truly More

Are you better off selling at XYZ Farmers Market every week or every other week?  Will more people open your email newsletter if you send it out once a week or once a month? While there’s no one size fits all answer, with a little effort, you can figure out works best for you.

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