Live! In-Person! Finally!

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One of the best parts of being MANA’s CEO is the opportunity to have conversations with MANA members. Conversations with reps. Conversations with manufacturers who are already working with reps or who want to learn how to work with reps.

For the last two years, most of those conversations have been on the phone or over Zoom. It’s just not the same.

Now MANA’s first Live and In-Person event in two years is on the calendar!

We hope you can join us for breakfast from 8-10 a.m. on October 24* at the Hilton Garden Inn O’Hare Airport and network with MANA’s Board of Directors and staff:

  • Michelle Jobst, Board Chairperson
  • Keynae Agnew, Board Member
  • Tommy Garnett, Board Member
  • Marnee Palladino, Board Member
  • Sid Ragona, Board Member
  • Lisa Wilson, Board Member
  • Charles Cohon, MANA CEO and President
  • Jerry Leth, MANA Vice President/General Manager
  • Daniel E. Beederman, MANA’s legal counsel

After breakfast and networking, MANA’s legal counsel Daniel E. Beederman will present important information on rep contracts.

Your rep agreement with a significant line has all the correct language to protect your commissions, so what could go wrong? A lot!

During the half-hour presentation, Beederman will discuss how reps can inadvertently undermine or even change the terms of a contract by:

  • Things they do or don’t do.
  • Things they say.
  • How they respond to proposed contract amendments.
  • How they meet or miss deadlines to protect their rights.

Your $20 registration includes parking and a full breakfast. Pre-registration is required. If you are not among the first 20 to register, you may be wait-listed. Register today at www.manaonline.org/category/events.

We look forward to seeing you October 24! Live and In-Person!

* Program details and attendees were current as this issue of Agency Sales went to press. For up-to-date details, visit MANA’s website (www.MANAonline.org).

You Can’t Sell From an Empty Wagon

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“I want to hire some reps for the new product I am bringing out in six months,” said the manufacturer who called me. “Can you help me?”

My response was not what she wanted to hear, but it was what she needed to hear.

“I’m glad to hear about your interest in reps. Reps will be the best way to take your new product to market. I understand your eagerness to start recruiting reps right away. In your shoes, I also would want to start “getting my ducks in a row” before my product was ready to launch.

“With apologies, though, my experience working with reps suggests this will not be effective. Reps you contact before your launch are most likely to respond in one of two ways:

  1. “Your prototype looks great, but I only get paid once I actually sell something. If you don’t have anything I can sell yet, there is no way for me to get paid, so I will need to wait until you have a product I can sell and you can ship to a customer before moving forward.”
  2. “I don’t doubt that you intend to launch your product, but I have had previous experiences where I have started to work on a product, only to discover that some unanticipated issue arose, and the product never launched. Lots of things can happen. A major investor can back out, there can be a regulatory issue like a failed environmental test, or a competitor can unexpectedly corner the market by launching ahead of you. I am ready to start once you launch, but I can’t start before you launch.”

“There is one other option. You could offer reps you hire pre-launch a monthly Market Development Fee to start selling now. But if you pay reps to start selling pre-launch, their customers will probably say: ‘Sounds great, come back and talk to me again later when I can actually buy this product.’”

Whether you are trying to recruit reps or customers, as my late father used to say, “You can’t sell from an empty wagon.”

What Will Happen If There Are No Sales?

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A very successful rep recently called to share his experiences with Market Development Fees (MDF).

“MDF are an excellent way for manufacturers with no existing sales and no name recognition to access a more experienced rep like me who usually would not take on their product line.

“Normally, I can’t afford to take on a ‘pioneering’ line. After all, during most sales calls, customers usually give me only 30 to 45 minutes, which means I focus that time on two or three principals that are already generating commission income.

“Principals with no existing sales who offer MDF share the cost of introducing their unknown product into my territory. MDF don’t cover all my costs, but they do mean that I’m not shouldering the entire cost of introducing a new product to my customers.

“I had an interesting conversation about MDF with a manufacturer who asked: ‘But what will happen if I pay you a monthly MDF and there are no sales?’

“My answer was straightforward: ‘I am meticulous about only accepting MDF from manufacturers whose products fit my customers and market space, so I always bring my MDF manufacturers solid opportunities. Sometimes those opportunities don’t turn into sales, but the reasons have been things like the manufacturer:

  • Didn’t have enough staff to prepare a proposal on a timely basis.
  • Didn’t have the plant capacity to accept the orders I tried to bring them.
  • Couldn’t sell their product at price levels that similar manufacturers were offering in my market.

“Sometimes, I invest 6-12 months of work on a pioneering line only to discover that they did not have the resources to capitalize on the opportunities I brought them. Sharing those up-front costs limits my potential losses and is the only way for me to take on the risk of a pioneering line.”

Note: The rep’s comments were edited for length, clarity and content.

Planting for the Future

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“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” — Greek Proverb

What trees does MANA plant to help ensure the rep industry’s future? Here’s an example.

Reps struggle to recruit recent college graduates as employees, in part because college classes don’t mention reps. Why don’t college classes mention reps? Because decision-makers who pick the content for college classes have never heard of reps.

Where do those decision-makers gather the content they include in college courses? Academic journals, so this is where we must plant the seeds for trees in whose shade we may never sit.

In 2018 I first met with Trond Bergestuen, a Ph.D. candidate writing his thesis on manufacturers’ representatives. I helped him gather the data he needed to write and defend his thesis and earn his Ph.D. I continued to work with Trond to help him with articles about reps for academic journals.

Trond’s first two articles have been published in highly respected academic journals.

  • “Dual distribution systems: Investigating their effects on independent manufacturers’ representatives’ perceptions of manufacturers,” Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, November 22, 2021.
  • “Principal-independent manufacturers’ representative relationships: Review, synthesis, directions for future research,” Industrial Marketing Management, January 31, 2022.

After helping Trond collect the data he needed for articles about reps in North America, I connected him with my counterparts in Europe. They are assisting him with data collection that will allow him to write articles comparing and contrasting North American practices with European practices.

As more articles like these reach academic decision-makers, more information about reps will become part of future college classes. In the future, recent college graduates will know about the rep industry and give us strong consideration as they begin their careers.

I can’t say when we will be able to sit in the shade of the seeds that were planted in 2018, but I can tell you that those saplings have taken root and are thriving.

The Most Revealing Question

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Manufacturers’ representative firms have a lot in common with Olympic rowers. Just to qualify to compete, we have to be fast, agile and impressive performers.

But when it comes to line card profitability analysis, some of us forget what Olympic rowers know: To be winners, you have to regularly take the boat out of the water to clean and wax the bottom. And before the rowers get back in the boat, make sure that all of them still belong on the team.

Instead of doing regular maintenance, we just row harder. Instead of replacing weak line card performers, we just row harder.

Rowing harder instead of solving the problems that drag down your representative firm’s performance is not a solution. It’s a sure way to lose races. And losing isn’t what gets us up in the morning; it’s what keeps us up at night.

— Line Card Profitability Analysis Workbook

MANA’s Line Card Profitability Analysis Workbook is a tool that helps MANA rep members objectively evaluate how much of their time each principal deserves. It’s free to download in the member area of MANAonline.org.

The workbook helps reps objectively gauge how well each secondary line fits with the firm’s primary lines and whether the commission income from each line justifies each line’s time demands.

Objective analysis includes asking questions like:

  • How well does this line complement the rep’s primary lines?
  • Is this line a “door-opener?”
  • Does this line have the potential to open new markets to my rep firm?

But recently, I realized that two more questions are needed to make this analysis complete:

  • Is this a line that gets me out of bed in the morning, or is it a line that keeps me up at night?
  • If I resigned this line tomorrow, would I feel regret or relief?

Regret or relief? The most revealing question you could ask, and one you should ask yourself at least annually.

75-Year-Old Soup’s On — Come and Get It!

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A perpetual stew, also known as forever soup, is a pot that is never or rarely emptied all the way, and ingredients and liquid are replenished as necessary. Foods prepared in a perpetual stew have been described as being flavorful due to the manner in which the ingredients blend together, in which the flavor may improve with age. — Wikipedia

The year was 1947. Harry S. Truman was president of the United States, and a group of manufacturers’ reps decided to band together to exchange best practices and elevate their industry’s professionalism.

The best practices that those reps shared in 1947 included protecting their commissions, negotiating rep agreements, and coping with house accounts.

Those discussions were the first ingredients in a perpetual stew of best practices that have been simmering at MANA for 75 years. Since then, we’ve stirred additional best practice ingredients into the pot, including:

  • Writing rep business plans.
  • Finding the best lines to represent.
  • Developing new markets with pioneering lines.
  • Negotiating win-win rep agreements.
  • Analyzing your line card.
  • Leveraging new technologies.
  • Managing house accounts and split commissions.
  • Working with international principals.
  • Forming rep councils.
  • Planning to sell your rep business.

With 75 years of best practices to choose from, the pot eventually started overflowing. So we curated the ingredients into a list of our most valuable best practice resources. The result was two curated lists in the member area of MANAonline.org:

  • For reps: 12 Steps to Rep Professionalism
  • For manufacturers: 9 Steps to Selling Through Independent Reps

The very best from 75 years of collecting the best practices, all in one place and all included in your MANA membership.

It’s food for your brain and for your business success. Soup’s on; come and get it, available exclusively to MANA members.

We Are the Same, But Different

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Lamps are different, but light is the same. — Rumi, 1207-1273 AD

Travel across the Atlantic Ocean, and you’ll often discover that things abroad may seem the same, but also different. And, in the process of learning about things from international lands that are the same but also different, you may develop a deeper understanding of the familiar things from home.

For example, on both sides of the Atlantic, commission-based outsourced sales forces are a popular, cost-effective way for manufacturers to go to market. In North America, manufacturers’ representatives; and in Europe, commercial agents.

Are manufacturers’ reps and their European … Read the rest

Manufacturer: “What Am I Doing Wrong?”

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“I need to sell more aluminum die castings,” said the manufacturer. “So I downloaded a list of reps who sell die castings and started making phone calls.”

“Most of them said, ‘I already represent a die casting company, so I can’t represent you,’” he continued. “What am I doing wrong?”

It’s a common question, so I was ready with an answer.

“Reps very rarely represent two competing manufacturers of the same product,” I explained. “Your list probably includes some reps who only have copper and brass die castings and can represent your aluminum die castings, but it is also is going to include many reps who can’t sign up with you.”

“What you need to do is download a list of reps who sell complementary, non-competing products.”

“What do you mean by complementary, non-competing products?” asked the manufacturer.

“It’s probably easiest if I give you an example,” I continued. “Let’s say you’re a manufacturer of nails. So, you search for reps who sell nails.

“They won’t all have conflicts. If you make roofing nails and a rep on your list only sells finishing nails, it won’t be a conflict, but most reps who already represent a nail manufacturer can’t take on your product.

“So, you search for reps who sell fasteners, and you find reps who sell complementary, non-competing products, like screws, nuts, and bolts, but don’t have a line of nails. They call on the right customers, don’t have a line card conflict, and could be a perfect fit.

“But you want to interview a deeper pool of reps, so you give some careful thought to other complementary, non-competing products. Reps who sell hand tools, like hammers, would have excellent contacts to sell nails.

“Ask yourself, and perhaps ask some of your best customers, ‘In addition to my products, what other products do you buy frequently? You should get some good categories to use for your rep search and get the right reps in place to grow your sales.”

Note: The manufacturer’s comments were edited for space, clarity and content.

All Your Eggs In One Basket

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In my January editorial, I quoted a manufacturer who regretted a hiring mistake that put $200,000 of his company’s money down the drain:

“My problem is not that I have been searching for direct sales­people and didn’t find qualified candidates. My problem is that after a long search that didn’t turn up qualified candidates, a year ago I got impatient and decided to settle on the least problematic of the candidates who did apply.”

“Between salary, expenses, and medical insurance, I have spent $200,000 on the salesperson I hired a year ago, and I have absolutely nothing to show for it. $200,000 down the drain. That’s why I am calling you today to talk about reps.”*

The manufacturer and I spoke about the benefits of using reps, but only later did I realize what may be the most important reason to use $200,000 to hire 8-10 rep firms instead of one direct salesperson. Not putting all your eggs in one basket.

Spend $200,000 on one direct salesperson, and if that salesperson fails, “$200,000 down the drain.” Spend $200,000 on hiring 8-10 rep firms, and even if one or two turn out not to be a good fit, most of the reps will succeed, and you will still get a good return on your $200,000 investment.

It’s the same reason that savvy investors like Warren Buffet recommend buying shares in an S&P 500 fund instead of gambling on just one single stock: Diversification. A single stock may tank, but a diversified investment isn’t as risky, so your winners will probably outnumber your losers.

That’s another reason manufacturers should spread their sales investment over a nationwide rep network instead of hiring a single direct salesperson.

Because it’s too risky to put all your eggs in one basket.

* The manufacturer’s comments have been edited for space and clarity.

How Long Is a Piece of String?

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The manufacturer on the phone asked a question I couldn’t answer.

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“I’m interviewing reps for a territory where my company has no existing business. I understand that a well-established rep can’t work for free, so I am willing to pay a monthly Market Development Fee (MDF). What should that cost?

Great question! So I asked a rep who often accepts new lines based on an MDF. The answer they gave me was puzzling: “How long is a piece of string?”

I asked for an explanation, and the rep happily supplied it.

“The point I am trying to make is that there isn’t enough information in your question to answer it. I need to know what the manufacturer needs before calculating an MDF. For example:

  • “If the manufacturer asks me to make four calls a month on their behalf, the fee could be pretty modest. If the manufacturer wants 15 calls, the fee would be quite a bit higher.
  • “If the manufacturer only wants monthly feedback by phone or text, the fee could be modest. If the manufacturer wants a formal written monthly report, the fee would be higher.
  • “How many salespeople does the rep firm employ? A $1,000 monthly MDF won’t go very far if it has to be split between the salespeople of a 10-person rep firm.

“My rule of thumb for quoting an MDF is to start by calculating my cost to deliver the services they want. Then the MDF has to be at least 50 percent of my cost, so we will both have skin in the game.”

“If my MDF doesn’t fit their budget, then they need to accept fewer monthly sales calls and less reporting. Until I know the services the manufacturer requires, asking me to quote the cost of an MDF is pretty much like asking, ‘How long is a piece of string?’”

Note: This article combines several different conversations, which were edited for length and clarity.

$200,000 Down the Drain

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“There are worse things than unsuccessfully trying to find a direct salesperson,” said the manufacturer who called me today.

Let me tell you about the call.

Most of the phone calls I’ve gotten from manufacturers recently start out like this: “I have been trying to recruit a direct salesperson for quite a while, but none of the applicants that have contacted me are even close to qualified, so I need to talk to you about reps.”

Today’s call started out like most calls I’ve received recently. The manufacturer and I spoke about some of the more common reasons to use reps:

  • Existing relationships with important customers.
  • Market knowledge in their territory.
  • Experience in their market space.

We also spoke about the fact that even in the current tough hiring environment, reps are still abundant for most markets MANA members serve.

I shared with the manufacturer that searching for direct salespeople and not finding qualified candidates was a common problem. Then he stopped the conversation to correct me.

“My problem is not that I have been searching for direct salespeople and didn’t find qualified candidates. My problem is that after a long search that didn’t turn up qualified candidates, a year ago I got impatient and decided to settle on the least problematic of the candidates who did apply.”

“Between salary, expenses, and medical insurance, I have spent $200,000 on the salesperson I hired a year ago, and I have absolutely nothing to show for it. $200,000 down the drain. That’s why I am calling you today to talk about reps.”

“So, you see,” he concluded, “There are worse things than unsuccessfully searching for a direct salesperson. Worse than unsuccessfully searching for a direct salesperson is unsuccessfully hiring a direct salesperson.

The manufacturer’s lesson learned: Take advantage of experienced, expert MANA rep members to take your product to market. And then you won’t have to call me about $200,000 that went down the drain.

Note: The manufacturer’s comments have been edited for space and clarity.

A Milestone

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Next year marks MANA’s 75th anniversary. A milestone anniversary often prompts discussions about how much has changed over the years. Discussions like: “In the future, will there still be manufacturers’ representatives?”

Yes, many things have changed. But when customers buy mission-critical products that make the difference between keeping their factories running smoothly and shutting down their production lines, there will always be a need for trusted resources. And those trusted resources are very often manufacturers’ reps.

I can’t think of a better example of the ways that some things don’t change than this excerpt from the September 1949 issue of The Agent and Representative (now MANA’s flagship publication Agency Sales magazine) written by manufacturers’ rep Edgar A. Wilcox, MANA’s first president:

“Chas B. Roth pointed out in our columns last month, in ‘The Selling Parade,’ that ‘salesmen’ are still not professionals. But ‘sales agents’ had better be professionals — in business, as they are, for themselves — although there admittedly remain many things yet to be accomplished for the well-being of such agency profession. MANA aims to elevate such profession in the opinion of manufacturers, suppliers and others, as well as in the opinion of agents themselves; to make it an object of true respect rather than of weakness or ridicule; and to improve its position morally, politically and legally.

“It takes energy, initiative, and a great deal of unselfish devotion to a cause to found and establish a national association like MANA — an organization in which any agent, no matter how large or small, may indeed be proud to be a member. It can mean more to you, bring you more satisfaction, and increase your income to a greater extent, than any group to which you as an agent could possibly belong.”

These words from 1949 could just as easily have been written last week. Sometimes, the more things change, the more they remain the same. One thing that has not changed, and probably never will change, is that there will always be a place for trusted resources like manufacturers’ representatives.

Why Hire Reps? I Had No Choice!

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Helping manufacturers work effectively with reps is a primary reason MANA exists. So, manufacturers call all the time with questions about switching to reps.

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Until today, their reasons were pretty much always one of these three:

  • “I need a salesforce that already knows best prospects and is a trusted resource to those prospects.”
  • “I need a salesforce that is already familiar with our market space and our technology that can hit the ground running.”
  • “I need a salesforce that sells complementary, non-competing products so I can ride the coattails of the manufacturers already on that rep’s line card.”

But the call I got today was different.

“I am in the process of switching to reps,” said the manufacturer* on the phone, “so I joined MANA for the educational materials. I have some questions about Shared Marked Development Fees and Life-of-Part/Life-of-Program rep agreements.”

At the end of our conversation, I asked: “How did you decide to go with reps?”

“I had no choice,” explained the manufacturer. “We tried to hire a direct salesperson, but we couldn’t find any qualified applicants.”

“However,” he continued, “as we dug deeper into the problem of finding salespeople, we discovered that there are abundant, highly-qualified manufacturers’ reps available to sell our products, so we went with reps instead.

“Other manufacturers must have discovered the same thing because, even though highly-qualified reps are readily available, we find that we have to compete aggressively with other manufacturers to get reps’ attention. That’s why I called to learn more about Market Development fees and ‘Life of Part/Life of Program’ commissions. We’ve had to offer more generous contracts to compete with other manufacturers, but we’re very impressed with reps we’ve been able to bring on board.”

Today was the first time I heard a manufacturer say: “I hired reps because I had no choice.” But it sounds like I will be hearing that again.

Note: The manufacturer’s comments were edited for space, clarity and content.

Line Card Profitability Analysis in a Parallel Universe

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It’s a little bit like science fiction.

What would a rep do if, one day, that rep woke up to find that the names of the companies on their line card were the same, but those companies were all subtly different?

  • The people at the factory were subtly different.
  • The products were subtly different.
  • The service levels and policies were subtly different.

Did this rep wake up in a parallel universe?

Nope.

The rep woke up to find out that their lines are just not the same after 18 months of Covid.

  • Some of the companies are grateful for the efficiencies they get from a commissioned sales force.
  • Some of the companies have developed sharp elbows and started squeezing rep commissions.
  • Some of the companies kept the experienced people who know how to keep production lines humming.
  • Some of the companies cut staff too far, and everyone there is new and just learning how things work.

What’s a rep to do? Take the time to look at your line card and conduct a methodical Line Card Profitability Analysis. Does the commission earned from each line justify the time it takes to support each of those lines? Do all the lines fit my target market, or does supporting some of these lines pull me into areas that are not my core competency?

How can I do that methodically? I’m glad you asked.

MANA’s 18-page Line Card Profitability Analysis Workbook is free to download in the members-only area of www.MANAonline.org. Inside you’ll find worksheets and step-by-step instructions on how to create a Line Card Profitability matrix that will tell you which lines deserve more of your time, which lines deserve less of your time, and which lines may not belong on your line card.

Having trouble finding the workbook on www.MANAonline.org? Members can email us at mana@manaonline.org, and we’ll respond with the file.

“Reps Keep Ghosting Me — I Give Up,” Says Manufacturer

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“Based on my recent experiences, common courtesy is not common practice with reps,” said the manufacturer. “And, frankly, the absence of basic common courtesy gives the entire rep industry a black eye.”

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Is this manufacturer right? Let me share his story, and you be the judge.

This manufacturer joined MANA with high hopes of partnering with reps, and he embraced the idea of a win-win relationship. And MANA has at least 200 rep members in this manufacturer’s market space, so it’s likely that right rep is among our members.

“We tried all different ways to contact prospective reps. We tried email. We tried phone calls. We tried contacting them through their websites’ ‘contact me’ pages.

“We finally reached a few, and they were very personable, knowledgeable and helpful. But, overwhelmingly, we were just ignored.

“Any response at all would have been fine. ‘Not a fit for my line card,’ or ‘I have a competing line,’ or even just ‘I am not interested.’ But, with only a few exceptions, I got nothing. Radio silence. Zero.”

“If reps can’t respond when we reach out to them — even with ‘no thanks’ — then how can I trust that if they had our line that they would not ignore customers or prospects the same way they ignored us?

As reps, we are a community, and the actions of each of us impact all of us. Even if we are not interested in a line, there is probably a rep somewhere who would love to have that line. Taking a moment to respond to each manufacturer’s inquiry can go a long way to encourage that manufacturer to keep searching MANA’s RepFinder® for the right rep.

Let’s find time to say “no thank you” to manufacturers who don’t fit our line cards but could be a great line for another member of the rep community.


Note: The manufacturer’s comments were edited for space, clarity and content.

Moving the Needle on Shared Market Development Fees

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Last week a MANA rep member thanked me for MANA’s work to champion Shared Market Development Fees (SMDF). In recent years, said the rep, manufacturers have become more and more receptive to SMDF, which he credited to MANA’s efforts to familiarize manufacturers with SMDF.

SMDF are monthly payments a manufacturer pays to a rep when the manufacturer needs that rep to pioneer a territory without existing sales. Because it can take a year for the first commissionable sales to close where that manufacturer’s product is unknown, the manufacturer pays part of the rep’s costs for pioneering activities.

MANA began championing SMDF because manufacturers with no market presence often ask reps to introduce unknown brands into their territories without compensation because: “You’re in there anyway, just add us to your sales call.”

“No,” MANA explained to manufacturers. “Customers give reps limited time during a sales call. So they lose income if they take time from a principal that generates commission income to talk about a principal that doesn’t.”

Later, we discovered that SMDF might benefit manufacturers even more than reps.

Why? Because professional reps with full line cards were always out of reach to manufacturers with lines that required pioneering. But SMDF can make reps who would never before have considered pioneering a line accessible to manufacturers who want the best reps to launch their brands.

Win-win for reps and manufacturers. That is what MANA is all about.

What else has MANA learned about SMDF? Written SMDF agreements are crucial so each party knows the other’s expectations, for example:

  • How many sales calls on the manufacturer’s behalf does the principal expect?
  • Does the manufacturer expect a monthly report on the rep’s activities? How detailed and how formal does that report need to be? Would phone calls and texts suffice?

MANA is proud to have moved the needle on SMDF. Want to share your SMDF experiences or suggest how MANA can move that needle further? Reach out to me at ccohon@manaonline.org.

We Knew It Couldn’t Be Done

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Until We Had to Do It

Experts tell us that after 18 months of quarantines and pandemic, “The New Normal” is coming.

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Part of that “new normal” will be that things we “knew” could not be done, pre-pandemic, actually could be done. Quarantines and a pandemic have forced us to accept that some of the things we thought we couldn’t do were really just things we didn’t choose to do.

Let’s consider the example of a prospective customer inviting a rep to visit and present one of their principal’s products, pre-pandemic. What would have happened if the rep had suggested a Zoom video chat instead of a personal visit?

The prospect would have been highly insulted. “What, so I am not important enough to visit?”

The rep probably would have lost that opportunity right away. And if the prospect complained to the rep’s principal, the line could even have been in jeopardy.

Pre-pandemic, we knew that presentations had to be done in-person. That was that way we always had done it, so that was the way it had to be done.

We knew that presentations had to be done in person until we couldn’t have face-to-face meetings anymore, and then reps found creative, non-contact ways to take care of customers and principals.

Another example of the things we thought we couldn’t do that were really just things we didn’t choose to do was many employers’ mandates that employees “had” to work from employers’ physical offices. “You need to be here for meetings. If you worked from home, I couldn’t keep an eye on you. We need the staff together to build camaraderie.”

Until the day that those employers announced, “Everybody grab your laptops, go home, and figure out how to make this work.” Home offices not only worked, they often actually improved productivity.

As the “new normal” approaches, one of our lessons learned from the past 18 months is to look hard at things that we “know” can’t be done, and remember how many other things looked like they couldn’t be done right up until we did them.

Why Didn’t I Call You Back?

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“I get plenty of voicemails, and I actually return lots of those calls,” explained the anonymous executive. “When I don’t return a call, it’s often for reasons like these:

  • “You called four times without leaving a message. Each time you called, you disrupted the call I was on as my phone prompted me to choose between your call and my current call. To keep you from disrupting more calls, I blocked your number.
  • “I called back, but you screen your calls, so you didn’t answer. Your next message to me was, ‘Sorry, I didn’t recognize your number, so I didn’t answer.’ You only get to waste my time once. Number blocked.
  • “I called back and left a voicemail. Your return voicemail to me starts, ‘I see you called, but I didn’t listen to your message.’ You called me, but you are too busy to listen to my voicemail? Number blocked.
  • “I called back. Your voicemail answers robotically, “You have reached 312-555-1212. Leave a message.” If I don’t hear your name, maybe I misdialed. Suddenly it became just too much work to return this stranger’s call. Never mind.
  • “You called me from 312-555-1212, but your voicemail asks me to call you back at 708-555-7834. Call me from the number you want me to call back, and I can return your call with one tap. I was already on the fence about returning your call, and you made me write down your number. Never mind.
  • “The voicemail you left for me is a mumbled name and a phone number spoken too quickly for me to write down. I don’t have time to listen to a message over and over to capture the digits.
  • “The number you asked me to call is answered by a call screening app. I am supposed to wait while Nomorobo decides whether or not to put my call through? Never mind.

“If I didn’t return your call,” concludes the executive, “now you know why.”

Flextime

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You have heard it from MANA, from manufacturers, and from reps. In the new normal, manufacturers that sell through reps have significant advantages over manufacturers with a captive sales force:

  • In uncertain times, customers don’t take risks with untested vendors. They turn to trusted, proven resources for the products they need to keep their companies running. And, more likely than not, those trusted resources are manufacturers’ reps who may have a decade or two of history with their customers.
  • When customers’ buyers and engineers abruptly had to pull up stakes and work from home, regular communication channels often were disrupted. Only trusted, proven resources like manufacturers’ reps were entrusted with customers’ personal cellphone numbers and permitted to text as needed to keep customers up-to-date with information about mission-critical products they need to keep their companies running.
  • Face-to-face video chat appointments are granted only to those same trusted, proven resources. A stranger’s request has a slim-to-none chance of getting a video chat appointment. So if your product needs face-to-face demonstrations, but you don’t have trusted, proven rep resources as your salesforce, you are out of luck.

But there is another aspect of the new customers-working-from-home normal that has not gotten much attention. It’s flextime.

Let me explain.

Customers who work from home have discovered that their jobs are to get their work done. But not necessarily between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

What does having customers working unconventional times of day mean to reps? I rarely see a rep who doesn’t check emails outside conventional office hours. Reps are there when customers working flexible hours need answers. When there is an emergency, customers know that reps reply faster than manufacturers, who will likely respond during the next business day.

Reps, go ahead and strut your customer-first attitude. It’s flextime.

Property of NASA

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“What is the difference between dealing with a rep and dealing with the factory?” Let me tell you my story.

image of car wash

© monticellllo | stock.adobe.com

When I was a rep I sold industrial timers to a car wash manufacturer.

The customer called to report a defective timer. I secured a Return Material Authorization, and the customer sent the timer back for evaluation.

The timer factory reported that the timer worked perfectly, so they shipped it back to the customer. The customer called me again, reporting a different timer was defective. But when it went back to the factory, it tested out fine.

After a few more times, the timer manufacturer wanted to start charging the customer for testing and return freight. The customer was angry that so many timers were defective. Resolving the problem fell on my shoulders.

Eventually, I tracked down the person who was reporting that the timers were defective. I asked him how he determined that our timers were defective.

“We know that they are defective because our car wash stopped working.” A car wash has hundreds of electrical connections and dozens of parts that could fail. But the customer insisted that whenever the car wash failed it was our timer’s fault.

My principal and my customer had both drawn lines in the sand. Neither would budge. My dad came up with the solution. “Let’s build them a timer tester.”

It was that simple. And because the tester had lights that reminded Dad of 1960s NASA mission control, he labeled the timer “Property of NASA.”

Problem solved. Each time a timer was suspect, the customer tested it. We never had another failure.

Reps are creative problem solvers. That was my story. To share your story, email me at ccohon@manaonline.org.

Always Take the Mint

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© Africa Studio | stock.adobe.com

Thirty years ago, a colleague from my rep days shared some valuable advice she got from her mother. “Always take the mint.”

“When somebody offers you a mint, maybe they are just offering to share. Or maybe you have bad breath. You will never know which. So always take the mint.”

That’s great advice. And it applies to more than just breath mints.

Let me share an example. Sometimes manufacturers call to tell me that reps won’t take their line. “Reps don’t understand the great opportunity they are turning down,” or “I emailed hundreds of reps with no takers, they are missing out on making lots of money.”

I always offer to help. “Let’s look at the offer you’re making to reps and see if we can figure out why.”

Most manufacturers are happy to get fresh eyes on their offering, and we find a way to help make their recruiting more effective.

But occasionally there is a manufacturer who won’t take the mint.

“I’ve worked in companies with reps for 20 years. I already know everything there is to know about working with reps.” They didn’t call for advice, they just called to complain.

Did they waste my time? At first, I thought so. But then I realized they had taught me an important lesson.

When someone offers me advice, I always let them make their case.

  • Sometimes the advice will be brilliant. So, I win.
  • Sometimes the advice will be “not brilliant,” but it triggers an idea that I otherwise would not have had. So, I win.
  • Sometimes the advice will be the exact opposite of brilliant. But it reminds me of what to avoid. So, I win.

Turns out my colleague’s mother was even wiser than I realized at the time.

“Always take the mint.”

Boxers Call It “Leaning Into the Punch”

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You see a punch coming. No time to block it. No time to move out of the way. Now what?

image of a punch

© Brazhyk | stock.adobe.com

Lean into the punch. You still get punched, but that punch has not had time to reach the speed and power it would have reached an instant later.

That’s a valuable life lesson, even when no real punches are involved. The more quickly I can respond to a problem, the less time it has to grow. Step into problems before they grow out of control.

True confession: A recent situation tested my commitment to step into problems before they grow. Let me share what I learned.

An email from a member of MANA’s staff had alerted me that a new MANA member was not happy. He had experienced a technical issue while doing a rep search in MANA’s RepFinder® database. The email suggested that he was very unhappy.

When I find out a member is unhappy, I drop what I’m doing and make the call, and that’s what I did. But it was late on a Friday afternoon and he was not available. I have to confess that when he wasn’t available I was relieved, because I was expecting a difficult conversation.

I didn’t want him to think that I hadn’t responded, so I left a voicemail promising to call him Monday morning. Knowing that I had to speak to a very unhappy member first thing Monday morning hung over my head all weekend.

On Monday morning, I wavered. Was the call I tried to make Friday enough of a gesture? Or did I really need to make the call?

I made the call and I’m glad I did. He was very cordial and had two very constructive suggestions that will make the RepFinder® a better tool.

The lesson I learned: Don’t waver. I was glad I stepped into the problem, and when you step into your next problem you will be too.

Reinventing Rep Search

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MANA’s online RepFinder® and RepFinder® smartphone app are already the best rep search tools in the world. So, what’s next? We reinvent ourselves. Better smartphone app. Better rep profiles.

RepFinder® 2.0 Smartphone App

Version 2.0 launches now in the Apple App Store and Google Play and gives manufacturers even more sophisticated search tools than version 1.0 launched early this year.

RepFinder® “My Rep Profile Score”

“My Rep Profile Score” is …

“My Rep Profile Score” is …

Manufacturers use MANA’s RepFinder® to find world-class reps. But sometimes world-class reps don’t have world-class MANA-member profiles.

Why wouldn’t a world-class rep have a world-class member profile? Because they forgot to include important details, or were not careful about choosing territories or product categories.

For example:

  • They forgot to include their website address.
  • They claimed to cover so many territories for their number of salespeople that their territory coverage seems sparse.
  • They claimed so many product categories that they seem to lack focus.
  • Their profile has not been checked or updated for a long time.

Manufacturers tell us that:

  • They want to see reps’ websites listed.
  • They prefer reps with enough staff to cover each territory thoroughly.
  • They prefer reps that focus on a particular market.
  • They expect the information in reps’ profiles to be up-to-date.

To help world-class reps ensure that their member profiles present them as world-class sales forces, MANA has launched the “My Rep Profile Score” system to let reps know if their profiles don’t present them as world-class sales forces.

“My Rep Profile Score” is a private tool to let you be sure your profile is world-class. You are the only one who can see your company’s “My Rep Profile Score.” However, even though manufacturers cannot see reps’ “My MANA Rep Profile Score,” when they download a list of reps that list is sorted in “My MANA Rep Profile Score” order.

To see your “My Rep Profile Score,” watch your email or visit your company’s member profile on www.MANAonline.org.

Please call us with any questions — we are here to help!

The Sales Force — Working With Reps

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This is the final in a number of articles serializing The Sales Force — Working With Reps by Charles Cohon, MANA’s president and CEO. The entire book may be found in the member area of MANA’s website.

Several years had passed since Troothe hired William Carl’s company as its first rep. The changes Troothe had made in its operation seemed gradual as they occurred, but, in retrospect, looked more dramatic.

Troothe employees who had been its direct sales force had made a transition from having day-to-day direct account responsibility to being regional managers charged with supporting and providing oversight for … Read the rest

How Much Do I Owe You?

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It might be the nicest compliment MANA has ever received. And it came to me in the form of a question.

A rep called me to discuss a thorny issue he was having. It was a challenging problem, so we brainstormed potential strategies and solutions for about a half an hour.

By the end of that call we identified a pretty good strategy for the rep to use.

And that’s when the rep asked me the question that was a compliment I never expected.

“Charley, I have had consultation sessions like this with you and also with Jerry Leth in the past, but MANA has never sent me a bill. How much do I owe you?

The question caught me by surprise. Such a nice compliment! It took me a moment to reply.

“Business telephone consultations are a benefit included with your MANA membership,” I explained. “Jerry and I get calls from MANA members facing thorny problems every week. And because Jerry and I have fielded so many of these calls over the years, we’ve both already seen a lot of the problems that give MANA members heartburn.

“As a matter of fact, the problems and solutions that have come out of the consultations we’ve done over the years have given us perspectives and solutions we can bring to bear on problems we hear from reps calling us today.

“Jerry and I can’t give legal advice, but MANA membership does include a legal telephone consultation benefit, where the 23 attorney members of MANA will give MANA members a half-hour complimentary consultation before the clock starts running.

“So the answer to your question is, Jerry and I will always be happy to help you, and there is never a fee when you give us a call. Just keep renewing your MANA membership, and we’ll be here when you need us.”

The Sales Force — Working With Reps

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This is the 26th in a number of articles serializing The Sales Force — Working With Reps by Charles Cohon, MANA’s president and CEO. The entire book may be found in the member area of MANA’s website.

“I see your point,” Jim replied. “Two national trade shows probably would bring in a total of 250 sales leads, which typically translates to 25 quote requests. Based on our current hit rate, that would be five new customers. So to be equal in value to two national trade shows, the rep would have to bring in 25 viable quote requests and close … Read the rest

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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© Agor2012 | stock.adobe.com

Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble.
And if I stay it will be double.
So come on and let me know.

The Clash, 1982

Rep members have been calling recently to talk about how to adapt to the challenges of running a small business in a COVID‑19 environment. Many of those calls have ended up as discussions about “Should I stay or should I go?”

The “Should I Stay” group has been saying: “My commissions are down and I need to find a way to replace the income I’ve lost. How can I find a rep firm for a merger or acquisition to make up for that lost income?”

The “Should I Go” group has been saying: “I’ve been thinking about retirement for a long time anyway. How can I find a buyer for my rep firm?”

Whether you are in one of these groups or are just thinking about testing the waters, MANA has the resources you’ll need to make your decision strategically.

  1. MANA’s “Steps to Rep Professionalism” program in the member area of www.MANAonline.org has 14 carefully chosen articles, reports, and audio/video succession planning resources, including our centerpiece: Valuation and Sale of a Manufacturers’ Representative Business Special Report.
  2. MANA’s Business Counseling lets MANA members contact us to get objective third-party ideas on how to succeed with succession planning.
  3. MANA’s Attorney Access membership benefit gets you an annual free half-hour consultation with an experienced, rep-savvy attorney.
  4. MANA can help you locate MANA rep members that have been in business long enough that the founder might be open to a conversation about an acquisition or merger.
  5. MANA’s online “Agencies for Sale” ads are free to MANA rep members through June 30, 2021. If you have any questions reach out to Susan Strouse by email at sstrouse@manaonline.org.

Should I stay or should I go? Reach out to MANA, we’re here to help you figure it out!

The Sales Force — Working With Reps

By

This is the 25th in a number of articles serializing The Sales Force — Working With Reps by Charles Cohon, MANA’s president and CEO. The entire book may be found in the member area of MANA’s website.

William continued to explain the manufacturer’s costs, “Now, variable overhead, material cost and outside processing all are attributable to the new business. In-house sales costs and general and administrative costs are just like the fixed overhead: they are sunk costs that were already committed whether or not this new job was written, so I am going to strike through those dollar amounts as … Read the rest

The Toughest Question All Month

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“I feel like I’m facing a lot of competition from other manufacturers when I try to get the attention of really high-quality reps,” said the manufacturer on the phone. Then he asked a question that sounded like it should have been easy for me to answer.

“Are there more reps looking for manufacturers or more manufacturers looking for reps?”

I started to answer. Then I stopped. I asked if we could talk about his other questions first and circle back to that one. As I answered his other questions, I put my finger on why this question was so challenging.

Every day I talk to manufacturers who are struggling to recruit high-quality reps. Every day I talk to reps struggling to sign high-quality manufacturers. Every manufacturer says there is a shortage of high-quality reps. Every rep says there is a shortage of high-quality manufacturers.

Then the answer to his question came to me.

“You asked if there are more reps looking for manufacturers or more manufacturers looking for reps.

“I think the answer is: Yes.

“Let me explain.

“There are always lots of manufacturers eager to recruit high-quality reps. There are always lots of reps eager to represent high-quality manufacturers.  So, the answer to this question depends on your perspective.

“As a manufacturer trying to sign a really great rep, it will feel like you have to compete with lots of other manufacturers to get that rep’s attention. Just like reps who are trying to sign a really great manufacturer will feel they have to compete with lots of reps to get that manufacturer’s attention.

“Bottom line, really great reps and really great manufacturers always have lots of potential partners clamoring for their attention.”

Whether you are a manufacturer or a rep, for the best advice on how to make your company attractive to top-tier partners, turn to MANA for help.

The Sales Force — Working With Reps

By

This is the 24th in a number of articles serializing The Sales Force — Working With Reps by Charles Cohon, MANA’s president and CEO. The entire book may be found in the member area of MANA’s website.

“I didn’t see a ‘Life of Part/Life of Program’ clause in the agreement, and I’d like to see it added,” William replied.

“What is that?” Jim asked. He felt the discussion between William and Joe was not going well, and he was hoping to interject himself as a mediator.

“Most reps and manufacturers refer to it as a LOP/LOP clause,” said William, “and … Read the rest