DALLAS -- Fleming here is helping its independent retail customers in a new way -- assigning each one a go-to person to help resolve ongoing challenges.
"We recognized the need for a single point of contact between Fleming and the customer," Paul Adams, director of retail training, explained. "Our goal was to connect what the specialist knows with what the retailer needs."
Accordingly, the wholesaler has created the position of retail account executive, replacing the traditional retail counselor with a better-trained, more well-rounded individual who becomes intimately involved in the strategic planning and long-term success of each customer, Adams said.
Since the program began in March 2000, Fleming has designated approximately 80 RAEs, each of whom is assigned to approximately 20 stores, Adams pointed out. RAEs are working with more than half of Fleming's 3,000 customers, he said.
The focus for RAEs is learning about each retailer's needs, he pointed out. "They provide a listening point, which is part of what makes this program unique. This is a listening position, not a telling position."
RAEs are paid by Fleming, and their salaries are enhanced by incentive bonuses tied to the success their accounts achieve in meeting sales and profit goals, "so there's a clear measurement linking the RAE's accountability to the retailer's results," Adams said.
Highlighting the importance of the RAE's position is the fact that each one reports to the president of the Fleming division in which he works rather than to the sales manager, as retail counselors did, Adams said. "Retail counselors were responsible for division sales, whereas RAEs are relationship-builders who are responsible for the retailer's sales and earnings," he pointed out.
Fleming sees the RAE program as a growth initiative, Adams said, "because if we're able to help customers grow their businesses, then we, too, will grow because we'll be able to sell that customer more products and services."
"Each RAE is a proactive facilitator and long-term strategic planner, whereas retail counselors were problem solvers dealing with specific day-to-day issues," Adams said. "But the RAE is not a troubleshooter assigned to stores with problems -- rather, he's the go-to person when one of his retail accounts needs help.
"And unlike retail counselors, who were more reactive and who sought to resolve problems by consulting a list of services Fleming offered, the RAEs are more proactive -- they get inside the issue to see what the problem really is, since a problem is not always what it seems on the surface.
"They talk to each retailer to find out about any specific problem, then ask questions to see how the retailer perceives the problem. Through good questions the RAEs can hopefully find solutions to the problem, and they keep that dialogue going when the problem has been resolved."
RAEs visit each store periodically to see how well the strategic plan is working and where the retailer may need to make changes, Adams said, "so he has to prioritize where he needs to be so a store with more severe problems gets more time."
Based on feedback from Fleming customers, Adams said, "Many companies view their RAE as part of their staff." (See accompanying stories for specific retailer experiences.)
According to Adams, Fleming conducted extensive tests and evaluations of personnel in each region to select individuals to become retail account executives. "The RAEs have to go through a lot of tough interviews," he explained, "because we want to make sure they are capable of listening to customers."
Fleming developed the RAE program following internal discussions on how it could get closer to customers and build sales and profits, Adams said. "It took us six months to develop the education program and then another year to roll the program out to all divisions across the country."
RAE training involves two separate training sessions, wrapped around three to six months of field work. The training is conducted at the University of Oklahoma Graduate School of Business in Oklahoma City, Fleming's former home base.
The first round of training is a 10-day session designed to educate RAEs on finance, strategic planning and relationship building, while the 11-day second session focuses on helping RAEs use numbers to make decisions, devise strategies to improve same-store sales, and utilize technology and advertising strategies, Adams explained.
"Phase I puts a heavy emphasis on relationship selling -- finding ways for Fleming to meet the needs of our customers to help them grow, matching up the retailer's needs with those of Fleming and redefining that relationship," he said, "while Phase 2 involves more intense classes."
Fleming introduced a third phase of training in June -- a two-week course -- that it hopes to repeat "so we can refresh the RAE's skills and add new skills and knowledge," Adams said.