Equity In, Equity Out

Paige Wittman, Owner Miller Wittman Retail Design

I was talking to a business friend of mine and we were discussing customer relationships and hunting for some synergy between our respective products. We both have been salespeople, sales leaders, and now both own companies. He didn’t know a lot about working with independent dealer networks and I said in many ways it is similar to other kinds of customers, except, in every case, they own their own business. You must prove value every time you approach them as it is their livelihood and that of their employees on the line.

As a person who has spent my entire career working with independent dealers; first with Malone Advertising, then The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, followed by Polaris Industries & Andersen Corporation, I can tell you that it is a specialty and it has led to the philosophy that I follow.

You are either putting equity into a relationship or taking it out with every interaction.

Independent dealers are generational. You will know the grandfather, the daughter, and the person you encounter at a tiny desk or sweeping the yard could be the next owner. You are playing a very long game with them. If you are a corporate person they will, unless something like fraud or bankruptcy should occur, outlast you. That is a hard, unpopular truth when you are climbing the corporate ladder, but will serve you well.

I have been in thousands of hours of dealer meetings and the thing I noticed early on in my career was that the successful sales representatives always take the corporate programs to their “advisor” dealer first to take the story out for a test drive and confirm what the customer reaction would be.

Where am I going to be in the land of equity when I take this to all my dealers?

If a program filled a dealer need (sell more, be more efficient, cost less, etc.), the momentum was swift and sell-in was successful. If the word on the street was that a program was useless or too expensive, it would die a quick death. Every rep knows that if they use their equity to sell a bad program, that dealer relationship has lost value and the next time they approach, it will be that much harder.

There are great dealers, good dealers and not so good dealers in every network, but each of them are entrepreneurs. I always tried to imagine that I was writing the checks when I developed programs for dealers. Would this be something I would buy? Would I make this investment? Would this be enough of an incentive to change behavior?

Hit reset

I participated in an introductory meeting where it was clear that this very successful dealer did not like the relationship with the company I worked for. They sold millions of dollars of our product a year and could barely speak to us civilly. I asked the dealer to give us a chance to listen and come up with better solutions. We reset the relationship and embarked on collective winning. We were negative equity that day and built it up to overflowing. In case you are wondering, that also means sales were way up with that dealer and we were finding more ways to proactively grow together.

The equity I earned with customers, I now cash in asking for their advice.

I am a partner in a business now and many of the relationships I had with customers, I now rely on for business counsel. My friend, Rob Holden, owns Florence Building Materials, a multiple location business on Long Island, NY and as soon as I said that I was becoming a partner in a company, he asked me many pointed, but very helpful questions and gave me very clear advice. (Thanks, Rob!) He started out as my customer, became an advisor dealer to me, then became my friend and now we talk about how to run a business. If I hadn’t been able to bring value to him in our first relationship, we wouldn't have one now.

Today we aspire to bring value to every customer we touch.

After thousands of dealer locations designed and many product launches, we confirm our value through surveys & interviews, but our true measurement is all of the customers who come back to us for each of their retail store projects. For us, that is the ultimate equity-in test.