In this, the first of our new regular series of buyers' forums, we ask whether the skills of buyers and supplier-salespeople are transferable, how easy it is to switch sides and about personal experiences of the advantages and potential pitfalls. Despite general consensus on the similarity of the roles, buyers looking to change should not be too complacent, nor should they expect an easy ride, warns a recruitment consultant.
All the buyers taking part in our forum agree that the buying and selling roles share a set of skills. They list relationship building, negotiation, an ability to think on one's feet, communication, organisation, planning, project management, persuasion, decision-making, the need to hit targets, customer focus and retail knowledge as common attributes.
There is also widespread belief that suppliers are keen on applicants who have seen the other side.
“There is huge value in taking on someone who understands how retailers work and what makes them tick,” says one buyer. And respondents are also convinced that there are benefits to both sides.
“Much can be gained both personally and corporately for the supplier and retailer by personnel who are prepared to make the switch,” is one comment, while another buyer, who has done both roles, adds: “The experience of seeing both sides of the desk is invaluable and has totally changed the way I approach dealings now.”
There is consensus that switching from buying to selling is easier than the other way round, and it is certainly more common. Dan Jago, who has taken over as Tesco's BWS category director, having been joint MD at Bibendum, is a rarity.
“Even though many of the key skills are the same, I know a number of buyers that have moved to the supply side but none the other way,” says one buyer.
“It is possible for suppliers to make the switch, as long as they have a good understanding of what the consumer wants.”
However, going to work for a supplier may not be as straightforward a move as most buyers seem to think. John Gee, former Tesco buyer, now a food and drink specialist for recruitment consultant Nigel Wright, says the roles' intrinsic links mean that buyers like to think that they could adapt easily to the opposite role.
However, he warns, there are different principles involved: “Buyers see sales people for an hour at a time and get a feel for what makes a good salesperson, but trying to replicate this is very different.
“There is often a lot going on behind the scenes that retailers don't need to know, so buyers don't get to see that. Sales is a discipline and buyers are not trained in it.”
What prompts the switch is often the desire for a change of location; it is a move rarely motivated by financial concerns, at least in the short term, as Gee points out: “Buyers wanting to move will often be up against proven sales people and will probably have to take a significant drop in salary until they've proved themselves in a sales role.”
And there are other considerations. Working conditions vary, as most retailers are office-bound, whereas suppliers work more flexibly from home. And there is also quite a shift in the balance of power, with the retailer usually having the upper hand.
Gee's advice is to expect a huge learning curve and be prepared for big changes. “It's a major cultural change. As a buyer, you get a buzz from salespeople who are vying for your attention. As a seller, you'll get more knockbacks but you must not take it personally.
“You've got to prove yourself before qualifying for the big money and you'll have to be prepared to take a realistic view of salary.
“There are no hard and fast rules. Some senior level buyers or category controllers have gone on to senior sales roles within suppliers but they've generally had many years experience; it's not that easy for someone with just a few years behind them.”