Top-to-top meetings are very important, but handle with care

I have in my hand a piece of paper,” says the CEO, stepping down from the company jet. “During my two-day market tour with Mr Wonderful, the head of Superchain, we have redefined a way of doing business. Our difficulties are a thing of the past.”

Sounds great doesn’t it – senior managers from both customer and supplier getting together for a forward-thinking agenda without the presence of the account manager and buyer to drag it down? This top-level contact with the customer is a good thing, right? I mean, imagine if you didn’t have it but you knew your competitor did For that reason alone, I know you feel you have to do these meetings (assuming you can gain access, and indeed that you’ve got something to say).

When suppliers look at it, they see the potential influence and many other reasons for driving the top-level contact. But do not overlook the many reasons against. From a retailer viewpoint, there are many reasons to go ahead, but by contrast almost nothing to watch out for.

The behaviour is normally more statesman-like, but that doesn’t mean these meetings are any less tactical. The directors are typically hard-bitten ops managers or traders who have been through every level of retail or wholesale. They set the tone for the pressure you are constantly under. They love your market information, your professional outlook and your expertise. They also love the high-level pressure they can put on you, whether it’s subtle or not!

The willingness to change working practices exists on your side and the new ways are cascaded through your organisation with refreshed objectives, strategies and measures. But ask yourself if you think the retailer bigwig would really go back and change the buyer’s performance measures? Not likely! The chasm between those conversations and the buyer’s activities is kept nice and wide. While your piece of paper is being held aloft and lauded, theirs will be filed – under B if you know what I mean.

So I say these meetings are a must, but should be treated with the same respect and caution as any other. Or just like Neville Chamberlain’s piece of paper, yours will also be a generous gesture for empty promises from someone who has every intention of trampling over you.

Sentinel Management Consultants deliver sales, negotiation, planning and finance training courses for our clients worldwide.