Selling in a Post-COVID Environment, Part 1

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Cole: The biggest thing to do is to lean on your interpersonal skills. I have probably spent more time on the phone in the last two months than I have in the last two years. We’ve all become so used to email and texts that it’s easy to send one of those. What I’ve found within the last couple of months is getting someone on the phone and talking to them to see how they’re doing—having that personal touch—goes a long way in this climate.

Johnson: It’s in our human nature—in times of uncertainty and confusion—to hold up, wait and see, let things settle, and gain some certainty before moving forward. And while that makes sense if you’re caught outside in a hurricane, when that lack of certainty is more of a cultural event, is that the right approach to take in sales right now?

Cole: It’s not. In my case, when this first happened, we left everybody alone for probably a month because nobody knew what was happening. Our customers were all trying to keep products flowing and keep shelves stocked. But after that, in talking with our brokers in areas like Oregon and California that couldn’t go out into stores, we found they could still talk to people. We would get weekly reports from them and find out what’s happening at the store levels. They would say to leave the stores alone, that they don’t want to see or talk to anybody, and that they would let us know as places started opening up again. It was not being in their faces or bothering them because we knew that they were trying to handle this curveball. But once things started opening up again and knowing there was something that you have that they may need to help them, that’s when we started reaching out again.

Johnson: Things are opening up, and you’re reaching out again. It’s not normal, but it’s not a complete crisis. What are the dynamics now? How are you and your brokers being successful?

Cole: Our brokers have been putting together care packages to give to the workers because they’re considered essential workers. Nurses and the doctors are the top-line essential workers, but the people stocking your grocery store and running the cash register are also essential workers. Our brokers have been putting together goody bags to thank them. Those gestures are being noticed by the buying offices and headquarters, and they all appreciate them.

We’re also giving gifts to our broker reps to thank them for the work that they’re doing. Even though they’re not really essential workers, they’re working with the essential workers. We want to thank them for the hard work that they’ve been doing to keep things afloat and staying on top of what’s changing and what’s not during the last few months.

Johnson: Looking at your suppliers, what has changed?

Cole: Our fiscal year ended at the end of March, so we were getting ready to do a forecast for the next fiscal year. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time.

Johnson: That has to be so difficult.

Cole: Talk about throwing a dart at a dartboard. We’ve had to do our forecast and budget for the next year when it’s like looking in the dark at what our sales are going to be. Knowing the food industry and what happened back in the recession in 2007, the food industry doesn’t get hit that hard, especially our items, because they are more commodity items. Some areas of the food industry do, but we think our sales will not hurt because we’re more on the retail side. Food companies that are more in food services, such as retail or restaurants, are having to shift their model and what they’re doing. It’s hurting them a lot because restaurants, for the most part, have been closed down.

We’ve looked at the future for us, and sales are going to go up some. Because most of our products are imported, and we have to put our orders out months and months in advance, we’ve put out some large orders so that we have products coming in over the next year. We’re going to be able to service all the retail that wants our products. We experienced a few out-of-stocks in March and April. Most of that was because we allocated to give everybody a little bit of product. We ran out of some products because things got caught up at the port. But for the most part, our supply has been okay, and we have enough orders coming in to handle us for the next year.

Part 2 of this conversation with Penny Cole will be published in an upcoming Daily Newsletter.


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