Retail Reframe: Death by "Slow No"

In my consulting practice, I help future-proof retail positioning and accelerate business development for brand marketers, solution providers, tech companies and others who rely on retail. In my Retail Reframe series, I shine a spotlight on the challenges and triumphs my clients are experiencing as they navigate retail “from now to next.”

Retailers are picking up the pace, amping up their agility and streamlining operations as never before. Surely that means that they’re making faster decisions all around, right? Not necessarily! In fact, based on my clients’ experiences, retailers are just as capable as they’ve ever been of hemming and hawing and generally dragging things out. Don’t get me wrong—many retailers are zooming along when it comes to making acquisitions, launching new innovations and hiring tech-savvy talent (at least when compared to the glacial pace with which some moved in the past). However, suppliers are finding that retailers’ newfound sense of urgency isn’t always directed their way.

As with many supplier frustrations, retailers aren’t entirely to blame. In fact, suppliers can be their own worst enemies when it comes to moving their business development processes along. One obstacle is so pervasive in fact, that I’ve given it a special name: the “Slow No.” Death by the Slow No often starts on a deceptively high note, as supplier teams leave a retailer meeting giving high fives to their teammates. From there, the heady afterglow of a pitch that seemed to hit all the right notes soon begins to fade, and then...crickets.

Suppliers’ phone inquiries go unanswered, actions are stalled, emails languish in inboxes. From there, the supplier often clings to any crumbs that are thrown their way because they’ve already invested so much, literally and emotionally. Rationalization replaces reality.

Suppliers end up being rejected slowwwly, sometimes over the course of a year or more. I hear it all the time: “We were this close!” then there was a buyer change, or the strategy shifted, or a new executive came in and changed everything, or whatever other excuse suppliers can conjure. These days, if you let things drag out and rely on wishful thinking, you're asking for it. As every day passes, the variables working against you increase, mainly because retail is moving so fast. On top of that, most retailer organizations are a revolving door from the C-suite down to the rank and file. If your favorite decision-maker wasn't relocated during last week’s reorganization, she just might be during next week’s round of layoffs, and your pitch can easily get "lost in transition".

Retailers are deploying a host of physical and digital tactics that ensure they own the shopper journey and snag the transaction. They are applying processes to make that happen. Just like retailers, you must put processes in place and walk your prospects through them to drive outcomes and stay in the mix. Retailers know that they can’t just afford to say to shoppers, “Hey, get back to me when you feel like it.” You can’t either when working with retailers. The good news is that you have more control over your sales processes than you think. In my one-day Platform Positioning workshops, I coach my clients on a 5-point, retail positioning methodology that builds a retail-relevant positioning roadmap and business development toolbox. The last step clearly defines how meetings should end and therefore the potential desirable outcomes that follow (and there are many). The following are a few tenets from the process that head off the Slow No:

  1. Fail fast – Yes, there is such a thing as a “Fast No,” and once you develop a stomach for it, your business might just take off. It’s kind of crazy (but understandable) that some suppliers have gotten so used to the Slow No that speedier rejections give them a bit of vertigo. That alone can create an aversion to truth-finding. Think about it this way: the faster your next rejection surfaces, the quicker you can move on to exploring your next opportunity, and the fewer resources you will allow to hemorrhage as you chase a dead end (time, phone calls, samples, brochures, flights, hotels, oh my!).
  2. “No” often means “not right now” – Here’s some great news that harnesses some of the otherwise scary dynamics I mentioned before. Retail’s constantly shifting sands and the revolving door at HQ can make not-so-great memories fade fast. I can’t tell you how many times my clients have been given second chances to present their premises, sometimes within weeks of their initial unsuccessful attempts. In fact, sometimes the sting of rejection is still fresh with the supplier, yet the retailer prospect (or shiny new decision-maker that took her place), had already forgotten the initial meeting even happened! There are ways to leave the door cracked without hanging out in the hallway, and that leaves you available for second and even third chances to boomerang back.
  3. "Next steps" is lazy (and ineffective) - Many suppliers use the phrase "next steps" as an all-purpose wrap-up slide. It's sounds definitive, but is often a road to nowhere. The words themselves wouldn't be so bad if they weren't so cliché and if so many companies hadn't rendered them meaningless by abusing them for so many years. The reality is that, for most suppliers, "next steps" amounts to an open-ended, no-pressure dismount that lets them off the hook and places all initiative (and control) squarely on the retailer. As part of my methodology, I work with suppliers to develop, declare, and follow a clear and ownable business development process that drives two critical goals, differentiation and time sensitivity. Most suppliers know all about the processes that kick in once they get an order, yet few have a clear process for getting there (other than "pitch-and-wait").

Allowing the Slow No to creep into your business development process will sap away precious energy and resources that could be deployed against more promising and lucrative pursuits. Allow the breakneck pace of retail work for you by defining your process and obliterating open endings once and for all.

To learn more about bringing a Platform Positioning workshop to your teams, visit my website or contact me at carol@spieckermanretail.com

This article expands upon principles from my article, Alien Invasions and Other Reasons to Reinvent your Retailer Communication Strategy.