Gauging the Rep’s Activity


Over lunch following a MANA seminar that he attended, a manufacturer was asked what he had learned from the half-day program.

“I’m new to this business of using reps,” he explained. “When I took over the company 18 months ago, I looked at our figures and the first thing that hit me was that from a financial point of view, there was no way we could continue using direct salespeople to support our manufacturing effort. When I encountered some internal resistance, all I had to do was point to the bottom line and let everyone know that if we couldn’t make some progress in a hurry, we were all going to be out of work.” He added that in the year-and-a-half since, the company has exceeded its sales figures. “What I hoped to learn from the seminar,” he continued, “was how other manufacturers stay in touch with their reps. How do they know what they’re doing in the field? How do I figure out how I fit on their line cards? These might seem like fairly fundamental questions that most anyone would know the answers to, but remember, I’m new to this experience.”

He continued that a majority of what he learned from the round table sessions that took up a good part of the seminar was that “other than looking at the figures at the end of the month, another way of getting a fix of how the rep is working for me is gauging how much the rep requires of me in terms of support. Is he calling me with questions or requests for information? How about product samples and literature?

“I can tell you already that the rep who’s burning up the telephone to me or filling my e-mail box is doing a good job of convincing me that he’s got me uppermost in his mind.”

More Than Just a Toe in the Water

When he was describing his and his company’s commitment to reps, a manufacturer likened the experience to the timid swimmer who decides whether he’s going to take the plunge by first dipping his toe in the water. “That’s not the way to do it with reps. In my opinion there’s no way to go other than all the way. I’ve heard others claim that a mixed — some direct and some rep — sales force works well. I think you have to go at it full-time. You don’t just dabble, and once you make the decision to work with reps, make sure you support them full-time. Answer their calls, provide them with the support they need in the field and let them know they’re not out there all alone.”

Importance of Making the Right Choice

“We’ve got to refine the way we choose the agencies we go to market with.” That’s how one manufacturer opened a conversation with another. After reviewing a litany of poor choices, the first manufacturer asked the second how he could account for his good track record with reps. In response, the second offered his recent experience in filling a vacancy in a territory. “We had been emphasizing our presence on the East Coast and were looking to expand to the Midwest. We had no agent in the territory, but had identified three fairly successful agencies to interview. I visited each. While the first two were very impressive, their presentations left me with the problem of how to choose between them. Any indecision was taken care of, however, following my interview with the third agency. Here’s how the owner of the agency got my attention and, in fact, made my decision for me. First, he not only took the time to gain a familiarity with our product line, he went further. He visited with potential customers he felt might have a need or desire for our products. From the contacts he made, he not only gathered great ideas concerning how he would open the territory for us, he also brought forth an idea for a modification to make the product more saleable in his territory.”

What really impressed the manufacturer was that the agency owner demonstrated his ability to serve as a consultant, a solution provider and a salesperson.

“In the end, the decision was a no-brainer. That was two years ago, and our continued success in the territory shows us we made the right decision.”

Maximizing the Synergistic Approach

Maybe it’s a matter of semantics, but there are a number of manufacturers that don’t necessarily fall back on the use of the word “synergy” when speaking about the benefits of using independent manufacturers’ representatives. But while they may not use the word, they know what it means when they hear it. For instance, in a recent interview with one manufacturer, he took pains to explain that an important consideration for him when selecting a rep is that the potential rep “not represent the same products (from other manufacturers naturally), but rather products that customers of ours would also need.” When offered the choice of the word “synergy,” he said, “Yes, that’s it! That’s exactly what I’m looking for in my reps. I want him to have plenty of opportunities to get inside the customer’s door with his full offering. Once he does that, I know I’ll get my fair share of the rep’s time.”

Fulfilling the Reps’ Literature Needs

The complaints that many manufacturers have heard concerning their new product literature have hardly fallen on deaf ears of one manufacturer. “I know where they’re coming from when they complain about not getting up-to-date supplies of new literature. I also appreciate the fact that many reps want us to supply literature to them. We’ve followed two courses of action,” he explains. “First, we have printed literature available ahead of time and provide it to the reps well in advance so there’s no shortage when they’re calling on customers. On the other hand, we let them know where to find new product information online. So it’s their option. If they want to download it and print it out for occasional use, they can do that. If they’re in the habit of handing out literature with frequency, all they have to do is let us know, and they’ve got all they need.

“The bottom line here is that we asked our reps what they wanted and did whatever they requested. They’re our feet on the street, and it’s our goal to make their lives easier. By doing that, it just comes back to help us.”

Evaluating Is a Two-Way Street

After taking part in a conversation with three of his reps on the importance of reps annually evaluating their principals, a manufacturer came back with his thoughts on doing the opposite. “I annually review how my reps are performing and when I find a problem or determine that something is lacking, I take care of it immediately. Here are some of the things I’m concerned with. Before I even chose which reps I was going to work with, I learned all about their length of tenure in the territory. After that, however, I regularly evaluate:

  • Among their lines, how many are top lines?
  • Among their other lines, which and how many are complementary to mine?
  • I closely scrutinize the quality of the owner and his salespeople. What’s their reputation in the field?
  • What customers do they call on and what do other reps (including my own) and other manufacturers think of them?

“I do this regularly, and the results of my study have caused me to make changes in the past.”

Learning From Past Mistakes

One of the contributing factors the regional sales manager of a manufacturing company cited for leaving his previous employer was their lack of success in working with their network of independent manufacturers’ representatives. Thankfully, this individual wasn’t soured on the idea of working with reps. Rather, he was encouraged by the prospect since his previous place of employment did so many things wrong in the relationship. He knew he could — and would — do better in his new position.

Here’s what he had to say about his experience at his last stop: “I don’t recall that they did anything right. For instance, here are some of the things they made a habit of doing:

  • They did nothing to involve their reps in the workings of the company.
  • They rarely scheduled rep visits to the factory and did little to encourage their reps to get to know as many people as they could at our headquarters.
  • They placed no importance on promptly responding to reps’ requests for quotations.
  • It was hardly unusual for commissions to be paid late.
  • And, here was one of their favorites — they loved to make surprise visits to the field, often calling directly on customers without letting the rep know.

“If I learned anything, I learned it in reverse. I know what not to do and I wouldn’t repeat any of those mistakes.”

End of article

Jack Foster, president of Foster Communications, Fairfield, Connecticut, has been the editor of Agency Sales magazine for the past 23 years. Over the course of a more than 53-year career in journalism he has covered the communications’ spectrum from public relations to education, daily newspapers and trade publications. In addition to his work with MANA, he also has served as the editor of TED Magazine (NAED’s monthly publication), Electrical Advocate magazine, provided editorial services to NEMRA and MRERF as well as contributing to numerous publications including Electrical Wholesaling magazine and Electrical Marketing newsletter.