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Strategies for managing wholesale relationships with retailers

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Copper Staff

Contributors from members of the Copper team

If you’re reading this, you might be struggling to keep up with your customers. Maybe there are too many and you feel like you’re not tracking them properly and falling behind in some way. Or maybe there’s been a recent crisis like a big customer cutting ties. On the other hand, you might be thinking that certain customer relationships aren’t worth your time and effort.

Whatever the case may be, managing relationships is a challenging yet necessary part of any wholesale strategy. Because your business model is dependent on repeat customers who fund your revenue year-round, understanding your customer relationships is crucial.

Like any relationships, there are two sides to this coin:

  • For the wholesaler: The ideal relationship is one where the customer is satisfied with your service and order fulfillment process, pays on time, and regularly places orders.
  • For the retailer (aka. the wholesaler's customer): The ideal scenario is one where they can place orders on their schedule and count on on-time delivery, quality products, and stellar service—all at a good price point.

Now that the expectations on both sides have been set, here’s how to come up with strategies to take your wholesale business to the next level in the eyes of your customers.

Ask: What do your customers want?

Wholesalers are understandably concerned with acquiring new customers and keeping them happy. However, it can be a struggle to hold onto that competitive edge when there are other companies that can offer faster or cheaper services.

Worrying about whether a customer will keep ordering from you won’t solve the problem. What will help is to put yourself in their shoes. Sure, you may not be the cheapest or fastest solution available in the market, but what do you have that others don’t?

In a 2018 PwC survey, 73% of consumers around the world cited ‘positive experience’ as one of the primary factors of brand loyalty. This is good news for wholesalers who essentially rely on brand loyalty to stay in business.

Moreover, the survey also found that 16% of consumers would willingly pay for better service. Overall, it revealed that consumers are increasingly feeling the lack of human touch in an age of technology and data.

Offering a fair price and delivering quickly should be the key to any wholesaler’s business strategy. But when it comes to staying ahead of the competition, strategies that revolve around a personal touch can go even farther in increasing customer satisfaction and retaining that relationship.

Customers are hungry for knowledge.

In most cases, it’s not the technology that’s causing the lack of human touch. It’s the way humans are using it that creates a gap between customer interactions. If used right, technology can actually enhance the customer relationship.

In fact, information is key for retailers. They need to know what products are selling or underperforming. They need to know when to order stock and how to avoid stockouts. And as their wholesaler, you play a pivotal role in fulfilling both challenges.

Data that your customers might want include the status of items on stock, how fast you’ll be able to deliver them, and constant updates throughout the process. A survey by Sana Commerce found that B2B buyers value above all:

  1. Ease of purchase (72%)
  2. Ability to search through an online catalog (52%)
  3. Access to order history online (42%)

When thinking about the future of the B2B customer experience, ready and accessible data can deliver a more personalized experience through features like predictive ordering and sales forecasting.

A wholesaler with access to real-time data on stock and previous order history can be a great partner for a retailer. In the same vein, having sales data on your customer (such as items ordered, when the orders were placed, and where the deliveries are going) also helps you to improve the relationship because you have direct access to their needs and ordering patterns.

For example, knowing your customer will probably need t-shirts with a Texas-themed design for their Dallas retail store during popular sales seasons can prepare you in advance so that you’re always on standby with the stock they need.

Strategy: Invest in a digital solution like a CRM that gives you real-time data to provide a better, more personal customer experience.

See how you can use a CRM to manage relationships, with Copper as an example:

We live in an age of instant gratification.

We all know retailers appreciate speedy delivery from their wholesalers. But it seems that the importance of speed isn’t tied to just delivery, but also overall communication.

According to the Interactive Intelligence Group’s Customer Experience Survey, “timely response” was the top criteria for customer satisfaction, over other factors like expertise and efficiency.

The results of the survey indicate that companies that don’t provide fast responses for customers risk losing their business. This is especially true for wholesalers, whose retailers might need instant responses to resolve urgent situations.

Providing delivery confirmation for your retailer hours after they’ve received the stock is careless. Even worse, a retailer who expects stock by Monday but receives it only at the end of the day on Monday will be understandably annoyed with their wholesaler. A lack of attention to detail in communications like this can potentially turn off your customers and lead them to check out your competition.

Let’s face it. Changing consumer behavior has reshaped our society, particularly in the retail industry. Customers more or less expect instant responses across all channels. Although this study applies to B2C scenarios in retail, wholesalers that work with retailers are also affected by the changing landscape. If retailers must provide instant responses to their customers, any communication they have with wholesalers also need to be speedy.

To improve relationships with your retailers, understanding this key component of their business will go a long way. Constant communications can be challenging to maintain, but it can and must be done to remain competitive.

With live chat now the #1 preferred communications channel for customers, B2B businesses can invest in low-cost solutions that provide 24/7 customer service.

Whether through using bots to respond instantly to simple queries or recruiting customer service employees in different time zones, wholesalers who offer satisfactory round-the-clock service will make themselves more valuable for retailers.

Strategy: Keep a 24/7 customer service team going.

Everyone loves special VIP treatment.

In the wholesale-retailer relationship, special discounts, free delivery, or complimentary items and services are the equivalent of cutting in front of the line and getting a free glass of champagne.

As HelloWorld’s 2019 Loyalty Barometer Report suggests, customers not only want special treatment; they actually expect it. Up to 61% of customers surveyed made it clear that brands can earn their loyalty by surprising them with gifts or offers.

Focusing on loyalty goes beyond simply satisfying your customers. It’s a strategy that aims to create a bond between the two parties; like any successful relationship, this takes time and effort.

Try identifying a pain point for a customer and giving them a gift or discount that addresses that. If an account’s been with you for a couple years and you know that their last quarter sales were lower than usual, see if you can give them a complimentary delivery. Offering special services is great, but directly addressing their concerns is even better.

A retail study by Motista showed that customers who had an emotional connection with a brand do three valuable things, compared to customers who are just satisfied:

  1. They spend more, with 306% higher lifetime value.
  2. They stay longer with a brand (5.1 years vs 3.4 years).
  3. They recommend the brand at a higher rate (71% vs 45%).

Spend with Preferred Brand

Satisfied Customers

Emotionally Connected

Emotional Connection Lift





Department Stores




Discount Big Box Stores




Footwear Retail




Home Goods




Luxury Goods




Office Supplies




Table source

As a wholesale company, you can differentiate yourself by going the extra mile and really thinking about the business from your customer’s perspective. Which products are the most popular? Can you think of ways to make the process more effective for them?

Research your customer’s business and see if there’s a way you can make relevant offers. Maybe there’s a more efficient delivery route. Maybe you’re seeing patterns they haven’t even identified yet and can supply products in advance, or for free. Show them that you value the relationship by surprising them.

To retain long-term customers, creating some type of loyalty program is crucial. Think of ways to reward your customers, provide incentives for returning, and invest in innovative tactics beyond discounts to nurture the relationship.

Strategy: Create a loyalty program to nurture an emotional connection.

Managing wholesale relationships is about creating a win-win situation.

Here’s the simple truth of running a wholesale business. If your retailers are satisfied, you’re guaranteed good business. Unlike other businesses that rely on a large number of one-off or periodic customers, wholesale companies can succeed even with just a few solid customer relationships.

It’s not so much about acquiring new customers, but more retaining them. It’s the ultimate mutually beneficial relationship: if your customers are generating crazy sales and consistently need more orders, that’s a win for you as well.

So you might not be directly involved in the day-to-day selling, but you’re already helping your retailers behind-the-scenes by delivering quality products when they need it. When you begin to think this way, it becomes easier to help your customer and gain their trust—ultimately, this will lead to a solid, long-term relationship.

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