The Care and Feeding
of Manufacturers' Reps
By Alan Darling
- originally published in IB
(published by the National Federation of Independent
Ah, reps. To hear manufacturers tell it, they don't call on the right
accounts, they miss too many accounts or they don't call on any
accounts. They never get your prices right. They don't understand what
your company does. Two months ago, you hired a rep after she told you
that she'd get right in there and tell General Motors just how great
your company is. You haven't heard from her since, and you're beginning
to wonder if she remembers who you are.
They go by a variety of names: Brokers, manufacturers'
reps, and agents, to name a few. There are some in virtually every
field of business out there. They carry many lines. They never tell you
exactly how many, but it varies from as few as five or 10 to over 200.
In some industries, a rep can make $50,000 on one order. Recently a rep
made nearly $300,000 on a Christmas giftwrap order from K-Mart. Your
reps aren't going to make $300,000 from your line, or even $50,000. If
they do a good job, they'll probably make $6,000. So how do you get
reps to pull your line out of the bag?
THE SECRET IS MOTIVATION
There are ways to get reps to work for you, even if
yours is a minor, or "B" line, as reps call them. You'll first have to
step back and look at the situation from the rep's perspective. They
may be IB owners themselves. Reps live in a
world. They are straight commission salespeople. They are not company
employees. They have no regular salary and no company behind them that
will crank up every morning rain or shine.
"When a rep gets up in the morning, he's made no money
that day," says Paul Buhl, President of HMS, Ltd., a 15-employee,
$1.5-million manufacturer and distributor of Christmas decorations,
toys and housewares in Northampton, MA "He asks himself, 'If I'm going
to make money today, where and how am I going to do it?' He has a
tendency to go towards his most likely sale, which is with his major
There is a way, though, to get your reps to actively
pitch for you. The secret is to make them want to please you. "I'm
convinced that it's critical to establish a personal relationship with
the rep on a friendship basis, so the rep will not want to let you
down," says Buhl. "If you can do this, he will feel badly that he
didn't do the job for you."
Patrick Rykens, a transplanted Englishman who is now
president and co-owner of Vesutor, Ltd., a 12-employee, $1-million,
Charlotte, North Carolina, manufacturer of plant-related gifts, echoes
this. "They may have lines that are an easier sell, but if you can get
beyond just being another line, and get them to make some sort of
personal commitment to you, because you're pleasant company, because
they feel sympathy towards you or whatever, they're now making a
commitment to you beyond just being able to make money."
John Mallett, an Indianapolis-based rep who carries
ladders and ceramic planters among a dozen other hardware/garden lines,
remembers that it was Rykens' character that immediately got him going
when be took on the Vesutor line a year ago. "Number one, I found
Patrick to be a very likable guy. Reps are human - they want to help
some guy who's trying, who seems interested and who has enthusiasm.
Even if he's not going to pay you a lot of money, you want to work for
Patrick. It's a personal thing, I think."
Rykens impressed Mallett with his enthusiasm for his
own company's product, and that paid off. Mallett quickly got Vesutor's
merchandise into a 270-store garden center chain.
YOU'RE ON PROBATION
Reps are generally uncomfortable with new lines.
They've all been burned by companies that have blown deliveries,
shipped shoddy merchandise or simply never paid them their commissions.
Typically, a new rep will show your line, tentatively, in small doses.
You'll see a few orders right away, and then watch a month or two go by
with little or no activity. Why? Because the rep is testing your
company to see if you ship what you say you do, that you ship on time
and that your commission check clears. You'll find that giving special
treatment to a rep's first orders will go a long way.
A rep is also concerned about looking foolish in front
of customers. A rep's loyalty, after himself, is to the customer. No
rep will admit this, and it may sound ludicrous because it is the
companies he represents that pay his commissions. All reps have
learned, however, that lines come and lines go, and that there will
always be new lines to be had. But the supply of customers in any rep's
territory is limited.
Many reps, therefore, are nervous when presenting a
new company, especially when it's a small firm with an unknown
reputation. To top it off, because reps are the type who look for
instant gratification, they often make the first call unprepared. "If
the rep doesn't get a positive reaction," says Buhl, ."your product
goes back into the satchel, never to see the light of day again. I try
to give a rep as much information, particularly competitive
information, as I can, so he won't be unhorsed by just a few quick
comments that may be inaccurate."
Wilson Kile, the former sales manager for Wite-Out
Products, Inc., the Beltsville, MD, manufacturer of correction fluid,
found that his reps struggled with what would seem to be a very simple
product line. His solution was to make selling the product as simple as
possible. "Reps never want to look stupid in front of the person
they're calling on. My product was simple, and our prices were 30
percent better than our competitor's, but I had to put words in their
mouths to get them to sell it. I consolidated all the pluses of
Wite-Out on one sheet, so they could look at it and have something in
their mind when they walked in. In this way they could pick up the high
points quickly, and it would make them look like geniuses even though
they hadn't really spent a lot of time on it."
"You have to make sure the rep is comfortable with the
line," Kile says, "because he's certainly not going to show your line
if he thinks in any way that it's challenging the intelligence of the
buyer. He doesn't want to risk losing a big line to get a small line
in. If the buyer comes in right away with 'I don't want that,' without
really getting into it, and the rep isn't comfortable with your line,
he'll back off because he doesn't want to challenge the buyer and risk
hurting his other lines."
Working with reps at a trade show or in the field is
the best way for you to make them comfortable with your line. If you
can do this, and they can have a little fun while you do, they might
just remember you a bit more often. Working with all your reps in the
field is impractical, however, and most reps aren't that interested in
spending several days concentrating on a B line.
But even if your contact is limited to phone calls,
you can still make an impact. Somehow, make sure you do a bit more than
the major companies do. Look at the things that you can offer as a
small company. Be flexible - be willing to develop custom products or
programs for them. Many reps like working with small companies because
they're not as rigid or as distant as the big guns. Make it easy to
deal with you and your company. The most common complaint voiced by
reps is that the sales manager or owner is never there - they don't
have anyone to talk to when there's a problem.
"I think it pays to be extremely responsive," says
Rykens "If a rep needs samples shipped overnight because he's forgotten
about a key appointment, then you have to do that. You can't yell at
him for his mistake. He is at least out presenting your fine - he has
30 other lines that he could present. You also can't bully him when he
sends in orders with the wrong prices on them. At least he's selling
your line. The real problem is dead silence."
The temptation to climb all over reps who foul up must
always be resisted. If you bully reps, they may decide to just drop
your product fine. Or worse, they may simply keep the line, but stop
John Passonno, a Syracuse-based rep carrying
housewares, hardware and automotive lines, remembers a few times when
he simply couldn't get along with the people back at the factory. "With
a major line, I bit my tongue and worked the line. Probably not as
hard, though, as I did for the companies where I liked the people. If
you don't like someone, subconsciously, you may resent his product.
With marginal lines, I just told them to get another salesman."
Passonno has advice for sales managers from the rep's
point of view. "The best sales managers always call regularly," says
Passonno, "and ask what's going on at Fay's Drugs or Wegmans, or at one
of my other accounts. Then they go out of their way to help me get
their product into my accounts. 'Hey, we haven't gotten that glue gun
into Fay's,' they'll say. 'What can we do? Give them $2,500 in
advertising money up front? Tell me what you need.' Now that's not a
high pressure approach - that's someone working with me to get the job
Remember that reps do create orders, despite the
aggravation that they can cause. The best salespeople become
independent reps, because they make more money than do company
salespeople. You'll find them, at least at times, to be incredibly
creative and occasionally downright amazing. And because most reps have
contacts going back many years, they are often the only way that a
small company is going to get into many accounts, particularly if
you're going after the giants. Treat them tenderly, and never lose
sight of the fact that you have to constantly sell them to keep them
selling your product.
As Pat Rykens says, "The effort is more on our side.
They're keen to take on the line because they've heard that we're new
and different, but after that, because they have so many lines, it's
really up to us to make our products important to them."