Solly Tamari thought distributing his goods would be easy. He was wrong. What he learned helped him revamp his strategy. And how he learned it can prevent other entrepreneurs from losing time and money on faulty distribution methods.

Tamari is the president of Effective Education Inc., a $300,000 education-products vendor in South River, N.J. An established national-distribution network seemed to Tamari like an ideal way to reach his target customers at elementary schools, so he chose a network that had worked wonders for his former employer -- a $25-million company that also sold products to schools. But after a year of unspectacular results, Tamari was frustrated and decided to investigate. He began shadowing the network's reps on occasion, and he started to follow up on unclosed deals personally. In that way, he uncovered the network's shortcomings.

In sleuthing, Tamari discovered that the network's sales reps struggled because they approached the wrong contacts at schools. Tamari's reps typically presented his wares to shop teachers, even though science teachers would have been a more appropriate audience. Only after a few months of watching his reps flounder did Tamari realize how crucial it was to identify and reach the right buyer.

Another bit of intelligence that Tamari learned by shadowing the network's reps was that different customers had different purchasing rules. At some schools the science department had check-cutting authority, but at others it didn't. Tamari learned to tailor his sales pitch according to the system a school used.

The process of trailing reps provided Tamari with a sense of how important his product line was to the network relative to the other lines the reps sold. There were times when a rep got Tamari's products in the right hands but was less inclined to follow through on that deal than on another involving more-expensive merchandise.

Tamari's biggest lesson? Not to trust a distribution partner he hasn't fully researched. His biggest regret? That it took him more than a year to catch on.

Hands On

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