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Written by Roger Jackson,
March 11th, 2022 | Category Management

Category Management: Becoming a trusted advisor – 5 tips for success

Our task in Cat Man could be defined as using understanding of the consumer and shopper journey to identify growth strategies for our customers and our business – to deliver the “Triple Win”.

But as we all know this hides a multiplicity of competing demands. And much depends on the mindset of your boss, or even who your boss is.

Some category management functions can be under pressure to be more like a sales support function i.e., “just give me the data deck that justifies the listing”. Some may be more autonomous and be able to pursue a more long-term agenda, i.e., developing and implementing longer-range category growth strategies (agreed with the retailer) into which most business initiatives fit. Others may have to operate somewhere in between either of these.

We know that one of the primary assessments retailer buyers make is “whose recommendations do I trust”. Let’s face it, buyers have little time to review the data suppliers provide let alone do their own analysis. And even when they take the time to review your deck, detail can be lost so they have to trust the person doing the summary to come to the right conclusions. So success does boil down to whether you can build that trust.

How do you get to the position of “Trusted Advisor”? Well, it can take time. And it certainly won’t be achieved by always showing up with a story that miraculously supports every listing or promotion your sales team are looking for. Rather it’s by sharing meaningful, category oriented, objective insight and advice on a regular basis.

Here are our tips on building trust as a Category Manager:


1. Start by listening

This can seem a bit strange. You want to impress with your excellent analysis, the one you sent hours and hours working on. But understanding what the buyer cares about first, goes a long way to establishing a respectful relationship. And bear in mind the retailer certainly has knowledge that you don’t (for one, what their boss cares most about right now). A buyer wants to be respected as also possessing knowledge, they don’t want to feel you are setting yourself up as superior. Make sure your meetings start with dialogue. (Read more about why it’s important to make your buyer a hero in their business in our blog post: If you’re a Category Manager are you the next CEO or stuck for life?”).


2. Find your point of difference

I know. You spent a fortune on Scan and loyalty card data. You want to show you have it and are smart enough to use it. But so does everyone else. And, let’s face it, historic sales patterns are unlikely to lead to category transforming ideas.

Look wider and push the boundaries of your understanding. Understand other countries, other categories. Mine your company’s consumer research, talk to insights and brand managers to understand MORE than other people about what really drivers the shopper. (Read more about the importance of benchmarking).

Share and talk about things your buyer might not have heard from other suppliers.


3. Be ruthlessly shopper-oriented

One sniff of self-interest and your emerging trust factor takes a hole beneath the waterline. Leave the sales pitch to other people.

Stay 100% focused on what this retailer’s shoppers need and want. Be the champion of the shopper within your business and for your customer. Because that’s what the buyer cares about too. Retailers are customer-obsessed. Ask them. They understand the customer is king and they know they must deliver what shoppers really want or they go out of business.

If you do this every time, you will demonstrate you care about the same things.


4. Use your buyer time wisely

Buyers are extremely busy, have a built-in bullsh*t antennae and are trained to look out for inconsistency. So don’t waste their time with long presentations with data that doesn’t add up and gives different advice to previous views. (read more on how to Cut the cr*p and become a better storyteller).

Challenge yourself to present your insight and advice succinctly. This will have more impact and allow more time for listening and discussion.

Look at your previous decks before you sail in with another one. It’s no good having 3 recommendations for growth in October but then talking about three completely different ones in January. Ideally, your business has clear growth strategies at a category level that you can refer to every time.

Consistent, great insight, shared well, maintains trust, and has more likelihood of being used by the buyer with their colleagues to help them make changes that are required more easily. (Read more about why retailer sell-in decks should be built like a burger)


5. Be proactive

Sharing interesting and useful observations about your category and its wider competitive surroundings on a regular basis can slowly and steadily build your credibility. (Read more on why to Stop looking for the killer insight).

Don’t wait for the big day or the big presentation.

Ideally, you already have a trusted relationship before the big decision comes along. The more you make an effort when you don’t actually have to, the more it’s appreciated.


+1. Demonstrate your ROI

If you feel you are not being supported in building trust, you may have to make the case for it. You may have to demonstrate to management how much more effective and sustainable business initiatives will be if they are backed up by objective insights from someone with that trust. The ROI is in there, even if it’s slightly longer term to build.

Share your insights, recommendations and their effect with your business. (Read more on why Category Managers are the key to bring people together and align different objectives).

Even today, not everyone is a category management convert and it’s our task to win them over. It may be that for some retailer customers it could be strategically agreed that it’s not worth the effort. That’s fine. That will allow you to focus on delivering your category thinking where it matters.