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  • Ben Salisbury

3 Ways to Help Your Distributors Help You!

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

Man reaching out to extend a helping hand

Extend a helping hand to your distributors

Originally published on

Welcome to the new reality

The longer you’ve been in the wine & spirits sales game, the harder this concept is to grasp – what distributors used to be able to do for their suppliers they can no longer do. Why? Quite simply there are too many suppliers & brands and way too few distributors. As a result, that sets up a new reality that if you fail to appreciate will leave you seriously frustrated. You need to help your distributors help you!

So, YOU must adjust to the new reality and let go completely of any notions that you can somehow get your distributors to perform at a higher level. Let me be clear. The diminishing of distributors’ capabilities is not a matter of “motivation” or intention. It’s simply a function being in a very overwhelming situation. So, stop the seriously flawed belief that somehow more training, more communication, more accountability, and more incentives will improve your distributors’ performance. Put your bleeping “trackers” in the paper shredder where they belong!

How could so many people be so out of touch?

When I look at a typical wine sales job ad, I’m astounded to see evidence that this way of thinking is still very much alive. As I peruse the “essential functions of the job,” I see bullet points that are so out of touch with reality it’s sickening. How could so many people be so wrong about something so obvious? Here’s why: people are making the fatal assumption that what used to work still does.

Now, for those of you reading this who are finally ready to accept the new reality and DO something about it, consider this article to be a nickel’s worth of free advice. It’s time to start helping your distributors help you.

What can and should the distributor do?

Image of a typical distributor warehouse

Distributor warehouse

I think it’s wise to re-calibrate your expectations to the lowest common denominator and slowly, incrementally move up from there. Think about the most basic capabilities you NEED from your distributors: a) purchase pallets of your products and store them in their warehouse, b) ship them to accounts as ordered, c) do it at the correct price, d) don’t run out of stock.

Then the next level is to have their sales reps actively building new distribution for you. But here’s where things start to go wrong for most suppliers. This is not going to (and should not) happen without YOU doing your part. I’ve said this before but unless YOUR footprints are all over the marketplace, you’ve got no right to expect the distributors to do it. In fact, a good rule of thumb is the best you can expect the distributors to do for you is MATCH YOUR EFFORTS. Once again, help them help you!

Now, if you are one of the countless supplier “partners” that feel it’s the distributors’ “job” to do these things you simply must wake up and recognize those days are long gone. It’s not a question necessarily of whether not a distributor CAN sell your products but more one of WILL they sell your products. And whether they will or won’t is completely up to YOU. You need to be the lead dog on the sled- not them.

What should YOU do?

Once you’ve come to terms with the cold hard facts that you’re going to be limited in what you can expect the distributors to do for you, you can then get busy executing a newer, more modern approach to building distribution. I suggest these 3 important steps:

  1. Have a plan. A REAL plan. A REALISTIC plan. A plan that based on solid research of the market, the competitive landscape, and the “complexion” of the market. By this I mean chains versus independents, on premise versus off premise, etc. Where’s the business being done? Where are the highest value targets? What’s trending? I’m not going to go too deeply into this in this article but suffice it to say you need to do your homework and lots of it.

  2. Create your own target list(s) of accounts. Start with a “profile” of the idea customer for your brand. Then start researching accounts that fit that criteria. Adopt the mindset that less is more; fish where the fish are; not all accounts are equal, and the 80/20 rule is real. Let’s face it: time, people, money will always be very limited. Therefore, you can’t be everywhere calling on everyone. The results-by-volume approach is extremely foolish. Being more selective in the use of your resources will provide a much greater return on your investment. In case you haven’t picked up on this yet, the target list is for YOUR efforts. Don’t just hand it over to the distributor.

  3. Take responsibility for generating demand for your brands with both trade and consumers. How do you do this? There are several powerful ways, but I highly recommend a combination of Facebook Lead Ads and email marketing. We use Constant Contact and recommend it to all our clients. Use the highly targeted Facebook Lead Ads to grow your email list (one for trade and one for consumers) and use the email list to market and “sell” your wares. There is a learning curve to all of this but isn’t it wonderful to have something that is completely within your control?


Look, there are no doubt varying degrees of successful collaboration between suppliers and distributors. There are those who do an exceptional job, those that are average and those that truly suck. I suggest you figure out where YOU are on the spectrum and resolve to move up the ladder to the next wrung. I will just say this in closing. There is a magical correlation between how hard YOU work in the market and how hard your distributor works for you. So, go forth and leverage it! Help your distributors help you!

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