One Approach That Works


What works for one manufacturer doesn’t necessarily work for all, but one manufacturer contacted us to detail his approach when contacting prospective reps.

According to the manufacturer, “We know we’re not going to get any attention at the beginning unless we’re forthcoming with what we expect from reps and provide a description of how we work with other agencies.

“Here’s what we generally do. Before we even have a phone conversation, we’ll let the rep know that our goal is to partner up with a professional agency that is energetic and persistent in following up potential leads. We emphasize the importance of the rep firm having synergistic lines. We’re very much aware of the fact that having those complementary lines opens a number of sales opportunities for us.”

In addition to providing the prospective rep with information concerning the company’s history, key personnel, products/services and manufacturing facilities, he continued, “We let him know that we appreciate the fact that he can’t get the job done without our support. Therefore, we’ll go into detail describing how we provide support in the following areas:

  • Brochures.
  • Direct mailings.
  • Interactive website.
  • Samples.
  • In-plant training.
  • Travel and joint sales calls with reps.
  • Telemarketing.
  • Pre-qualification of potential customer.

“And finally, we address the subject of commissions by letting the rep know that we pay a base commission rate of X% on all production and they (the reps) are also open to the discussion of a start-up retainer fee. Furthermore, the territory will be exclusive to the appointed agency. We let the agency know that we work with reps from all across the country and we are committed to building long-term solid relations with the agencies we appoint.”

What to Do With Vacations?

Some manufacturers’ representatives — especially the single-man operations — are reluctant to commit to family vacations or other extended trips. Their thinking goes that if they’re out of the territory for an extended period of time, no one is contacting customers and sales can be lost. If sales are lost, then there’s no commission check coming in.

At one gathering of manufacturers that work with reps earlier this year, a manufacturer described how he addresses that concern. “We’ve made every effort to construct a rep network that we know we can depend upon. One reason our network works as well as it does for us is that we treat our reps as members of the manufacturing family. As a result, we ask them to let us know well in advance whenever they’re going to be out of the territory. That way we cover for them. If there’s something pending or problems that must be resolved, we make sure that we commit the proper resources to the matter. That way, when the rep returns, he doesn’t have problems to unravel and he can do what he does best — meeting our and the customers’ needs.”

Who’s the Bearer of Bad News?

When something goes wrong — a late shipment, product problem, etc. — who has to deliver the bad news? Obviously the rep is the first on the firing line. When this subject was raised with one manufacturer, here was his approach: “Good reps have to be depended upon to deliver bad news quickly. That’s exactly what we expect, but one thing we try to do is take the heat for him. Often we’ve found that if we paint ourselves as the bad guys, it works better for all of us. Remember the rep has a number of other lines that he represents with that customer. If the customer is upset with him, it may affect his overall performance. We let our reps know that this is our approach, and we’ve stayed true to it.”

Maximizing the Joint Call With the Rep

Elsewhere in this issue of Agency Sales, several manufacturers’ representatives present their views on the subject of joint field visits with their principals. The benefits and drawbacks of such joint sales calls have long been discussed. A valuable source for information concerning such calls is the third edition of MANA and MRERF’s Operations Manual for Manufacturers’ Representatives. In that publication, which is available from MANA and MRERF, there is one article devoted entirely to the subject. Of particular interest to manufacturers is a discussion devoted to planning and maximizing the opportunities provided by such sales calls.

Authored by Gene Foster, the article notes that the primary reasons for a manufacturer desiring to work with his rep in the field include:

  • Conducting new line or new product orientation.
  • Making routine visits to major accounts.
  • Solving specific problems.
  • Negotiating a contract.
  • Evaluating a representative.
  • Conducting annual or quarterly reviews.
  • Conducting technical seminars.
  • Getting away from the factory for a few days.
  • And sadly, terminating the rep.

The author offers a number of recommendations for the rep to ensure that such a visit is worthwhile. Manufacturers should pay heed to the suggestions and in fact insist that many if not all of the recommendations are followed — that is if they don’t want to waste their time on such visits. For instance, manufacturers should let the rep know “the objectives of the visit, the accounts to be called upon, and the time frame for the visit.”

Prior to in-field visits, manufacturers should ask their rep to communicate an itinerary — including hotel, transportation and other arrangements.

During the actual visit, be sure that sufficient time is allowed for you to interface with the rep’s management team. Before the visit ends, ask for a debriefing so you may be made aware of any visit results and any problems or opportunities that have arisen, been resolved, etc.

Post-visit, manufacturers should provide the rep with a complete visit review and ask that the rep provide a recap of all calls in which commitments were made.

Anticipating Problems

The article went on to discuss some “problems” that may not be of the rep’s making that can occur. The obvious reference here is that such problems might be caused by the principal, and the principal would be well served to prevent such situations from arising. Among the problem areas mentioned were:

  • “A principal who wants to visit too often. This is a tough situation that requires diplomacy, but it can be handled with logic. A request for what is to be accomplished, prior to the rep committing to the visit, can work to push out a schedule.”
  • A principal who wants to visit for a week when two days are adequate.
  • A principal who is a “load” on a sales call. This is the most serious and difficult situation.

Options to Field Visits

The previous items referenced the benefits/problems/drawbacks of joint manufacturer-rep sales calls. For some, an efficient option to that approach to meeting customers’ needs is the teleconference.

A number of manufacturers, reps and their customers report that such an approach can save time, reduce costs (travel, meals, lodging), increase productivity and results in more efficient use of limited resources and time. A number of manufacturers report that teleconferencing is a more personal medium than e-mail for interacting with customers, sales reps and suppliers when face-to-face meetings are not practical or are too costly. With teleconferencing, a customer can be in New York and experts can be on hand in California, Europe or Asia. A crisis that might have taken on major proportions if the manufacturer and/or rep were out-of-town can be handled quickly and efficiently because the appropriate individuals immediately can be accessed.

According to information from Tom Ireland, the managing partner of Best Conferencing (, teleconferencing can replace a physical joint sales call when there’s a need to share or exchange information with several people or groups in different locations for purposes of:

  • Sales rep and customer meetings.
  • Project updates.
  • Brainstorming sessions.
  • Customer seminars and new product roll-outs.
  • Crisis management.

Ireland goes on to offer several tips for getting the most out of conferencing:

Before the Call

  • Provide participants the date, time and expected duration of the call. If you are using a dial-in service, include the toll-free dial-in number and participant passcode. If overseas participants are included, also provide the international toll or toll-free dial-in number.
  • Advise participants of the agenda and that the call will begin promptly.
  • Forward any written documents or presentation copies that participants may need ahead of time.
  • Position speakerphone (if used) near key participants. Use the best speakerphone equipment available to maximize quality of the sound.
  • The moderator (either you or a designee) should dial in five minutes prior to call as a courtesy. In many services, participants will hear music on hold until the moderator joins the call, a security feature that prevents unauthorized use of your bridge.

During the Call

  • Begin with a roll call to confirm attendance and inform all participants who is on the call.
  • Review the agenda and any meeting ground rules.
  • Advise participants to mute phones when not speaking and to avoid creating background noise such as rustling papers or side conversations. Be aware that cellular phones may be disruptive to other participants. It’s especially important to mute these phones when not speaking. (Also, be aware that cellular and cordless phones should not be used around microwaves.)
  • Ask participants to please identify themselves when speaking.
  • Address people by name when asking questions.
  • Avoid placing phones on hold — any music on hold will disrupt the call.
  • Divert side issues not on the main agenda to a sub-conference or schedule a follow-up call.
  • Before closing the conference call, agree to date and time of next call.

After the Call

  • Send a follow-up e-mail or note with minutes of the call and any action items.
  • For conference calls that have been recorded, provide this information to anyone you want to hear the recording. If available, and when needed, order CD(s) of the recorded call.

Ireland notes, “When used properly, teleconferencing can prove to be a useful and essential business tool in today’s time-constrained work environment.”

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.