We find that life science companies have very different ideas of what qualities are most important when looking to partner with a distributor. Some focus on the size of the sales force, some focus on technical / scientific expertise, some focus on complementary products (or lack of competing products) in the distributor’s product offerings, some focus on the extent to which a distributor has existing customers that would fall into the supplier’s target market … the list goes on. All of these focuses are reasonable and should be given focus, but I would argue that they overlook the most important quality that any distributor could demonstrate: the desire to sell your product and the willingness to put in the effort to properly promote it.
I should mention that this doesn’t apply to situations where you’re using distributors solely or primarily for local fulfillment capabilities. In those situations there is very little effort required by the distributor as you’re not relying on them for marketing or sales. They just warehouse the products, ship orders and collect payment. I also don’t mean to play down the importance of qualities which, in certain situations, may be a hard requirement; an example of this may be repair and / or maintenance capabilities for certain kinds of instruments.
That said, the importance of the willingness to sell your product cannot be understated. In most circumstances, a distributor which is otherwise a poor match – one that does not have the right scientific expertise, does not sell complementary products, and does not have a large sales force or existing customer base – but which has a strong desire to sell your product and puts in the effort to do so will sell more than a distributor who looks like a perfect match on the surface but does not prioritize your product and puts in little effort. I have witnessed one-person distributors who had practically no existing customer base outsell far larger and more established companies which have over 20 outside salespeople. This kind of performance is admittedly the exception, but it illustrates the value of desire and effort. Of course, a distributor that demonstrates a genuine willingness to put effort into promoting and selling your product and also is a good match in all of the other important ways would be ideal, but such ideal matches rarely occur.
Determining the level of effort that a distributor will put into promoting and selling your product line is very difficult to do in advance. It is most often ineffective to directly ask how much effort a distributor will put in, as most will either exaggerate in an effort to impress the supplier or will not want to verbally commit to any particular courses of action. Responsibilities should be discussed in advance of an agreement and this will help, but expected levels of effort are rarely written into distribution agreements and are almost never binding. Discussions must be had which allow the supplier to gauge the interest of the distributor indirectly, as these discussions will be more telling than asking directly.
The effort that distributors will give to a product line is not solely dependent on the distributors themselves; the supplier’s distributor manager is responsible for keeping the distributors motivated as well.
When recruiting distributors, identifying distributors who will place an appropriate effort into the promotion and sales of your products is invaluable. More than any other distributor quality, the effort put forth by the distributor will determine the level of success your products will have in a particular geography.