• Tabletop Conferences: Building Relationships the Fast Way

    April 1, 2007
    Perhaps the most difficult part of building a solid relationship be it personal or business is getting your foot in the door. Lining up that initial meeting

    Perhaps the most difficult part of building a solid relationship — be it personal or business — is getting your foot in the door. Lining up that initial meeting can be a very intimidating task, especially in today's busy environment.

    HARDI has come up with a solution for manufacturers and wholesalers to come together — a way of getting over the hump and breaking the ice — with its tabletop conferences.

    The idea is this: Member wholesalers and manufacturers have the opportunity to get acquainted with one another and to address any number of topics — all in an organized, business-like setting.

    “When these tabletop conferences were first tried a few years ago, they would put the wholesalers in a room at tables. Then they would tell the manufacturers that for the next 2 ½ hours, they could go visit with their favorite wholesaler and discuss policy, pricing or whatever,” says John Lawler, Nu-Calgon Wholesaler, Inc., who chairs the Supplier Member Committee.

    However, there was a problem with the old methodology — there was no organization, which made it an unhappy experience for both the manufacturers and the wholesalers.

    “For the manufacturers, if you could even get to the wholesaler that you wanted to talk to, you'd either have to wait in a line or you'd have somebody breathing down your neck as you talked to them,” Lawler says. “One wholesaler might have a lot of manufacturers waiting to talk to them, while others may not. It's very hard to have privacy that way.”

    Recognizing that there was a problem and that the whole session was unproductive, the Supplier Member Committee set out to change the format for the tabletop conferences.

    Throughout the years, many different methodologies had been tried — some more organized than others — in a setting of two to three hours where the wholesalers and manufacturers could meet. Of course, some regions didn't even try to get these two groups together.

    “What we did a couple of years ago, at the suggestion of a couple of manufacturers, was to add a little organization to the process that we already had in place,” Lawler says. “It was a good idea to have some sort of a structured environment where the wholesalers and the manufacturers can talk.”

    Lawler and his committee wanted to come up with a way to conduct the tabletop conferences that would be less chaotic. Their goal was simple: A structured format that would benefit both manufacturers and the wholesalers.

    In spring 2005, HARDI instituted a new format at the regional meetings.

    “As before, the wholesalers go into a room, and each has a table,” Lawler says. “But rather than turning all the manufacturers loose on them, we divide the manufacturers into two, three or four groups depending on how many of them there are and let them into the room one group at a time.

    “This way, there's not a lot of standing around and waiting, and the wholesaler can have privacy while they meet with each manufacturer.”

    Each group of manufacturers gets about an hour in the room with the wholesalers. Groups divide up so that the number of wholesalers and the number of manufacturers in the room at one time are almost even. Depending on how many there are, each manufacturer will be able to spend four to eight minutes with each wholesaler.

    Similar to the concept of speed dating, when the allotted time is up, a bell rings, and the manufacturers will rotate to another wholesaler. After an hour, the next group of manufacturers is brought in, and the process starts all over again.

    Four to eight minutes may not seem like a lot of time, but it's enough time to make that initial contact and perhaps set up something further down the road. It gives the manufacturer an opportunity to establish themselves with a wholesaler, or it could be an opportunity for them to show off a particular new product or opportunity that they may have.

    “This isn't a time for a two-hour meeting. This is a time for a brief chat,” Lawler says. “They can talk about many different things in that short time period.

    “If a particular manufacturer has never done business with a certain wholesaler, it gives them a chance to meet each other, and the manufacturer can give a brief synopsis of what they can offer. Then, the two of them can set up another meeting somewhere down the road.”

    On the flip side, if there is already a prior relationship between a particular manufacturer and wholesaler, they can use the time to get reacquainted, discuss any problems that they're having or even just to say hello and ask how things are going.

    “The sky's the limit on what you can talk about. The only limit is on the amount of time you have to talk about it,” Lawler says. “But that's OK; for a new manufacturer member, this is a godsend. It's a chance for the manufacturer to get their foot in the door … to get that quick introduction that they may not otherwise be able to get.”

    For the wholesalers, sitting in a room for three hours while an almost endless parade of manufacturers stops by to say hello may seem intimidating. But the end result, Lawler assures, will be beneficial.

    “The best thing for the wholesaler to know is that they're going to be able to meet with a lot of manufacturers and that they'll be sitting at their table for three hours,” he says. “The point is, the wholesaler should know that they're going to have a manufacturer walking up with any one of various different things to share with them and talk with them about.”

    He adds that all the wholesalers should do is be open to the conversations and to listen to whatever the manufacturer wants to share with them. Each regional meeting would be a little bit different because it's contingent on how many wholesalers are there and how many manufacturers are there.

    Lawler divides the groups randomly with one exception: The first group that goes into the room is made up of first-time attendees. The rationale is that it will be easier on the new members since the wholesalers will be fresh.

    “It's also a little perk for new members who are attending the regional meeting for the first time,” Lawler says.

    Since the new format was instituted two years ago, the feedback from the regions that participate has been extremely positive. The tabletop conferences are now a beneficial process for both manufacturers and wholesalers.

    “It's so new yet that it's hard to say whether or not it's something that is looked forward to at the regional meetings,” Lawler says. “But, to those who have participated, it's something they don't dread going to anymore.”

    The next step would be to institute the tabletop conferences at all of the regional meetings. Currently, Lawler says only two or three out of the four regions participate.

    “It is up to the region to make the decision on whether or not to conduct these tabletop conferences at their meetings,” he says. “But we encourage all the regions to hold these beneficial sessions.

    “The wholesalers are happy, and the manufacturers are happy. All it needed was a little organization, a little structure.”

    Pete Grasso is an associate editor with Contracting Business magazine. Contact him at 216/931-9439 or [email protected].