Starter or Sustainer? 3 Tips for Tapping Your Retail Development Talent


Janet is a sustainer. She enjoys a great rapport with her retail and brand customers and her reliability is beyond reproach. She's there when customers need her and no one is a better internal advocate for their interests. Sales for her accounts haven’t exactly been spectacular under her watch, but they’ve held steady. That’s no small feat in today’s retail climate (as Janet is always quick to point out).


Emily is a starter. You’re more likely to find her high-fiving coworkers in the hall after sealing her latest deal or volunteering to jump on a plane to pitch that new prospect. She’s a bit restless, but for every time that she’s cut out of a meeting early to catch a call, coworkers could cite several more instances where she’s brought a deal home faster than anyone expected.


Janet and Emily represent two personas that I often find in my clients’ companies. You’re lucky if you have examples of both on your team because with the proper hand-offs in place, they can drive a lot of volume. In my experience, companies get into trouble when they confuse the two, or when they expect one person to embody the qualities of both.

Expect Janet to start driving business acquisition and she’ll likely panic or shut down. Throw Emily into a client service role or challenge her to manage a client relationships for more than a few weeks and watch her sunny smile turn upside down. I’ve seen these dynamics play out more times than I can count, with a devastating impact on results when companies maintain the mismatch and accompanying expectations over time.

Of course, industries and companies operate in cycles as well, and starter leaders thrive in those that are undergoing extreme reinvention. These days that certainly describes retail, and yet sustainers still predominate in the upper echelons of many companies. Retail’s ranks promise to become more balanced if and when retailers like Walmart begin to promote the entrepreneurial starter-leaders they are inheriting through acquisitions, and as starter-led digital dynamos such as Amazon become the new standard for traditional retailers. Cultivating cultures of constant entrepreneurship may not come naturally in retail but these days, there are more templates to follow.


In the meantime, here are my three tips for supporting your starters while making the most of your sustainers:

1. Know the difference – Someone who takes responsibility for an account that was acquired through someone else's efforts isn’t a starter, but I’ve found that memories can be short. Who cares who gets the credit? You should, because it will make all the difference in how motivated your true starters will be to open new doors next time. I’ve seen misplaced sustainers develop elaborate smoke and mirrors campaigns designed to mask their lack of business development progress, and it’s surprising how many companies go on to overlook the obvious symptom, stagnant volume, until it’s too late. In these situations, unrealistic expectations are to blame, not "performance."

2. Realign your roster – As retail's reinvention marches on, it's never been more important to honestly assess your current bench strength, particularly if you’re attempting to implement new positioning strategies or significant shifts in focus. A sustainer-heavy sales team shouldn’t be expected to carry the day initially, but will be critical in later stages as your starters transition to new opportunities. After a one-day retail positioning boot camp last year, my client’s CEO asked me who I thought would be best suited to lead the charge as they implemented their new strategy. About 50 team members attended the boot camp and fortunately, they represented a nice mix of starters and sustainers. After he made the tweaks that we discussed, the CEO told me that team morale has never been higher, and that their pipeline is the fullest it’s ever been going into a new year. All of this was accomplished without making any new hires because everyone was empowered to operate in their zone.

3. Assign appropriate accountabilities – Starters should be held accountable for, well, starting things. It’s what they are good at, it’s what makes them tick and compensation should encourage it. The long-term commission arrangements that motivate the Janets of the world usually don’t work well for the Emilys (but acquisition bonuses often do). Sustainers typically enjoy the interaction and camaraderie that is inherent with longer-term account relationships, but assuming that activity and frequent interaction will lead to account growth is a common mistake made by managers. Even though it’s easier and more profitable to grow business with existing customers, sustainers usually require some support in order to make that happen. In many cases, a third strategic hand-off makes even more sense.


Retail Pro Tip: In Praise of Doing the Holiday Hustle


It was December 19th and there I was on a near-empty plane returning home from a meeting with a mega-retailer on a day that began with me being summoned from a near-empty vendor lobby.

Back in my sales days, I caught plenty of flak over my habit of scheduling retailer meetings close to the holidays...all of it from co-workers and other suppliers of course, because retailers don't have the luxury of taking the holidays off.

My personal experience, and ongoing reports from my supplier and agency clients, prove time and again that the "holidays" are an ideal time to get to work on retail initiatives and yes, to schedule meetings with retailers. Why? Because that’s when retailers are focused, obsessed with making business happen and undistracted by meetings with suppliers (otherwise known as your competitors), the vast majority of which are rationalizing taking off or "getting things going after the first of the year." More and more, retailers are also leveraging the post-holiday lull to plan next year's holiday strategy while impressions are fresh.

My clients who have heeded this advice have experienced some nice benefits to include:

  • Faster decision-making
  • Access to higher-level decision-makers who aren't normally available
  • Greater focus and buy-in from retail decision-makers
  • Increased (and enduring) respect
  • Killer momentum going into Q1 (while competitors are playing catch-up)

Oh, yeah. And big business, which brings me back to my story…

Just before takeoff on that fateful day, I checked my voice mail and was surprised to have received a message from my mega-retailer contact. She normally waited at least a couple of weeks to get back to me but knowing that she always got right down to business, I dialed her up.

The conversation went like this:

"Hi Dee, just about to take off but returning your call."

"Great. Start writing."

To my shock and extreme delight, she went on to rattle off 12 SKU numbers with quantities in the thousands. We hung up just as the flight attendant was giving me the side eye. Off went the phone, out came the calculator... $7 million and change.

Hassle or Hustle? You decide!


Prelude 3: You're in the Dark


The pitch slap.

That stinging, post-pitch strike from a retailer that you didn’t see coming, whether it lands the day after your meeting or several months later.

Maybe they just said no, left you hanging forever or kept you in the dark.

Either way, you're determined to make sure it never happens again!

In this three-part series, I outline three behaviors that, whether perpetrated by your internal teams or third-parties, will leave you wide open.


The following is Part III in Carol Spieckerman's series for retail suppliers: Three Little-Known Preludes to a Pitch Slap .

Read Part II: You Didn't Know When to Stop

Read Part I: You Got Flattered by Chatter


"Why didn't you tell me?" 


Ask any retail decision-maker how many times they’ve heard these five words from a supplier and you’re likely to get an eye roll. It’s hard not to go there when you’ve just walked into one of your customer’s stores and spotted a big, beautiful program filled with competitors’ brands and products, or when you’ve just read a press release announcing a partnership between someone who you thought was your best customer and a competing solution provider. It’s one thing to be given a crack at a program and lose fair and square, but something totally different to not even be given the chance.

Most suppliers and brand marketers assume that retailers will inform them about any opportunities that touch their particular categories, capabilities, or brands. Quite a few expect it. Not only are retailers under no obligation to do so, their process of developing a short list for big programs has never been more subjective. That means more suppliers are getting surprised with a pitch slap. One executive for a major retailer recently told me, “I don’t waste my time – I know who is strategic and who can handle the business. Those are the ones I go to.” Putting raw capability aside, in my experience, suppliers get left in the dark on big programs for three illuminating reasons:

1. They have a perception problem –When it comes to retailers, perception is reality. You can offer the greatest products, highest quality, and best price and still find yourself left out of retailers’ decision sets if your company or your retailer-facing teams are perceived as being:

  • Tedious to work with
  • Slow to make decisions
  • Out of touch with the market
  • Frantic, overloaded, or otherwise unable to take on more
  • Unable to play well with others (including competitors) 


Many of the most coveted retail programs are multi-channel, multi-category, multi-brand, and multi-stakeholder. This means that they require more than just the ability to execute. Soft skills such as collaboration, project management, and the ability to think on your feet aren’t lost on retailers, and they come through (or don’t) in every interaction that you have with them.

2. Their retail relationships are limited –I recently spoke with an accessories supplier who couldn’t believe that a consumer electronics merchandise chief had coordinated a comprehensive program that included housewares, apparel, and accessories. The supplier had found this out after the fact, and asked their buyer contact the question that opens this article. The simple answer was that while some of the products in the program came from the buyer's area, she wasn’t in charge of pulling the program together. These days, it pays to forge relationships, not just with retailers’ upper management, but also with decision-makers in other departments. This is particularly true as the distinctions between categories such as toys, electronics, and fashion continue to blur.

3. They aren’t asking the right questions – It’s easy to get into a sell-in-and-go-home rut with retailers, but doing so is a surefire way to stay in the dark. Every meeting with a retailer should close with pointed questions regarding upcoming initiatives and, going back to the point above, who is responsible for coordinating them. If you took the advice offered in Part II of this series, you should have plenty of time to drill down. As fast as retail is moving and as opportunistic as retailers have become, it also makes sense to inquire about new format launches (not just new store openings), new roles that are being brought into the organization, new data capabilities and metrics, new content sharing opportunities, and other points that go beyond simply selling in products.

Getting left in the dark is a pitch slap that stings like no other. Managing perception, expanding relationships, and asking the right questions help to head it off while lighting the way to high-volume opportunities.