A few years ago I built a small sales force for a tiny development company I owned. One of the independent sales reps that I recruited in the Chicago area sold almost exclusively to a single customer, Kohls. She also limited the number of products in her sales bag. Even with this narrow focus she was selling $40 million per year. She was making more in a month than most people make in a year.
She was a big believer in focus. She refused to add product lines or more customers so that she could focus closely on this single account. I believed she coud do better with more accounts and more products, but she was doing fine. One thing she told me that made a lot of sense was, “If you want big sales, serve big customers.”
At that time we were serving two markets, mom and pop stores and major big box chains. Both markets had their own specific needs. We were such a small company that we found it difficult to serve both sets of customers. I decided we needed more focus. We stopped our development efforts for the nearly 3,000 mom and pop stores that we had been working to serve. We determined to focus on big box chains.
One of the first orders we landed was a $400,000 order from HSN. We made more money on that single order than we had earned from all the orders for the previous years serving 3,000 mom and pop stores who placed such tiny orders. Soon we had orders from Costco, Hobby Lobby, Michaels, ABC Distributing, Big Lots, Avon, Beals, AC Moore and others. Although each of these orders took more work to land than orders from a single mom and pop the volume was so much larger that it made sense for us to focus on these large chains.
As we expanded to work with Sears, Linens n Things, Kirkland, Bed,Bath & Beyond and others we found that we needed to be careful about choosing customers that would allow their vendors to make money and who were financially solid enough to share the risk rather than push it all onto the vendor. We were very close to accepting a large order with extended payment terms from Linens n Things just before they went out of business. We dodged a bullet. At that point I learned that you can lose more money than you make in a month by accepting the wrong order.
I have met reps who opened an office accross from Wal Mart’s home office and began to serve Wal Mart and Sam’s Club exclusively. That has turned out to be a brilliant strategy for them. They focus on those two accounts, create long term relationships, learn the policies of that account, feed a stream of products to them, and sell millions per year. They often make more in a single month than most people do in an entire year.