Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk

Every once in a while it's a good idea to look at where you are in light of where you've been and how you got from one place to the other.

So much has changed in 37 years that it's hard to know where to begin. Starting out as an outbound tour operator working from our basement, Sherrie sent more than 3,000 people to the World's Fair in 1982. She opened the first cruise-only agency in Tennessee in January 1988. I came into the company full time in 1993.

And here we are today. Along the way we were named Carnival's Agency of the Year (when there were 32,000 travel agencies in North America). We received numerous other awards, with induction into the CLIA Hall of Fame easily the ultimate recognition.

We have endured recessions, business booms, terrorist attacks and going to war (the last two of which nearly did us in). We have seen our performance with suppliers soar, only to watch it plummet with unfortunate supplier management changes.

With all of these changes, advances, slides to the side, slides to the rear and leaps forward, one entity has been a constant throughout it all. It was the supplier's first contact point we reached out to for help when we needed something fixed or a problem resolved.

Whether they're called a BDM (business development manager), a DSM (district sales manager) or some other acronym, this first-touch person for a supplier has often been the reason for our successful or less-than-successful relationship.

We had been open maybe six weeks when Eric Kelley, our BDM with Commodore, requested a meeting. He had Dave Christopher, vice president of sales, with him. A vice president. In our office. I felt a lot like Ralphie in the motion picture "A Christmas Story" when he received his Little Orphan Annie's Official Club certificate -- honors and benefits. And he was 9. Seriously.

Things were a bit less structured then, and the upshot of it was that after we had the opportunity to share our story and our vision, Dave offered us 15% commission. And we hadn't made a single sale for Commodore yet.

We sold a lot of Commodore. Eric and Dave moved on to other adventures, but that initial experience had a lasting effect. It didn't matter whom they worked for, their employer was a preferred supplier. We've had similar experiences and relationships with other BDMs, as well.

We had 18 different BDMs with one of our suppliers in 20 years. It's difficult to establish a rapport with that kind of turnover. Some of them hit the ground running and immediately made a difference. Our agency was named a key account for Royal Caribbean just in time for 9/11 and the several hundred thousands of dollars in cancellations that followed. Mark Stoneham came to us with a marketing idea that was successful beyond expectations and one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dark time.

Our best BDMs schedule visits in advance and show up ready to review business results, sales and booking trends and to work on marketing and promotions for the next six months or so.

They value our time, and we certainly value theirs sufficiently to avoid excessive talk about unrelated matters. I say "excessive" because these BDMs understand that as high-tech as this business is, it is also high-touch, and relationships are important.

In that same vein, BDMs who take time to interact with our agents in their capacity as instructors, resources and motivators (often before they come to my or Sherrie's office) are far more effective than those who are perceived as nonconstructive critics and taskmasters. One BDM who matched the latter description managed to drive down our business with his company more than 40% in two years.

Good BDMs assiduously guard information shared by owners or relevant to the agency. Some years back, one of our agents had a child who attended the same school as one of our BDMs' children. One afternoon at pickup, the BDM publicly berated our agent for actions that our agency was or was not taking, souring a relationship that caused sales to slump significantly.

The best BDMs are eager to conduct training sessions for our agents and independent contractors (we require at least two sessions a year) that differentiate their product from those of competitors.

They know they don't need to read the brochure to our agents. The best BDMs don't just teach the product, they teach how to sell the product, and they do it with passion and enthusiasm. They understand they are selling our agents on selling their products.

And just as there are good and bad BDMs, our BDMs tell us there are good and bad agencies and agency owners.

We produce a marketing plan for every preferred supplier each year that sets forth our expectations and the commitment needed by both parties to carry it out. As much as this would seem a standard business practice, BDMs tell us it is far more common that they have to submit their plan to the owner for the coming year if one is to be done.

Good agency owners refrain from getting the BDM involved in issues that the agency can usually work out for itself, such as dining and the like.

And good agency owners and agents never call the BDM for assistance on things the owners clearly should do themselves, such as the owner who asked the BDM which vacation she should recommend to her client and the best travel date.

Good agency owners understand they are selling the BDM on giving them marketing funds from a finite (and, we are told, ever-shrinking) budget and must offer well-thought-out plans with measurable sales growth results.

They understand that the BDM, having to choose between such a plan and one that offers only "increased exposure for the brand and goodwill creation" will almost always choose the former.

Some of the most unfortunate supplier business decisions in recent years have involved reduction or near elimination of the field sales force. One very short-lived supplier was confident it would capture 90% of its sales without involving the retail channel, let alone having to have an extensive field sales force.

Others have thrust highly skilled accounting and financially oriented persons into very senior sales positions with really negative effects on both employees of the supplier and on the retailer.

Those in such elevated positions might well be astute number crunchers and analysts, but in some cases they lack a fundamental understanding of the essential nature of the sales process. They might never have been exposed to the axiom "Nothing happens until someone sells something."

Suppliers who work for top executives who understand all facets of the operation have been the most successful.

The most notable example was Ted Arison. He got it. I had the pleasure of sitting with him several times at Carnival Cruise Line functions, and he was always patient in answering my many questions about how the business was operated. He assured me once that Carnival would always be successful because it took care of its guests, employees and brokers (his name for the retail channel).

So you can understand my dismay to overhear a cruise line senior sales executive characterize BDMs as "brochure pushers." I concede that might be true in some cases, but in the main, nothing could be further from the truth.

It's like this: A good BDM is a supplier's single most valuable frontline resource if that supplier's long-term sales model includes the retail channel. Retailers would do well to observe how suppliers treat and regard their sales force. It tells us far and away more about how the supplier truly feels about the sales process and the retail channel than other pronouncements they might make.

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