The Care and Feeding of Manufacturers’ Reps

By Alan Darling

– originally published in IB (published by the National Federation of Independent Business).

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?


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 today–it’s-chicken-&-dumplings-tomorrow-it-may-be-feathers 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 lines.”

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.


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 selling it

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 done.”

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.”

The 10 Commandments

  1. Treat a rep like a customer. Act as if they’re doing you a favor when they send in an order, and tell them how much you value what they’re doing.
  2. Pay commissions on time.
  3. Don’t nickel and dime them to death. Don’t withhold commissions on phone orders because you think the rep won’t find out. Don’t charge them for freight on express-delivered samples. The major companies can do this. You can’t.
  4. Be responsive.
  5. Do the little things. When an account has some monstrous 15-page application to complete for a new product proposal, offer to help fill it out. Hand-assemble a pitchbook on your line for the rep. These things may be time-consuming, but they take some of the pain out of selling your line.
  6. Keep it simple. The rep is carrying 5 to 100 lines. He can’t wade through a price list with a numbering system that takes a Ph.D. to decipher.
  7. Start a newsletter. A monthly newsletter will fill them in on what’s new. Make sure you include information on your competition – most companies neglect to share this.
  8. Develop good literature. This is often the only thing a rep has to work and it really doesn’t cost that much.
  9. Communicate.
  10. Be a cheerleader. If you don’t lead them on, no one else will.

Get Them Going With Incentives

One way to get your reps going is to offer them something special. Major companies may offer a trip to Cancun or a variety of high-end premiums. You probably can’t afford these, but you can afford a TV or stereo now and then. Promotions like these are generally more successful if they are available to all reps who reach a specified goal, rather than only to the #1 rep or rep group in the country.Another method is to get the reps competing with each other. Wilson Kile says that establishing a Century Club for reps who reach 100% of their quota gets them going every time. “Whenever I started a quota system, the reps would laugh and say they weren’t motivated by such things, but it always worked,” says Kile. “I would set up the quota individually for each rep, and then report the percentage of attainment religiously each month. That motivated them. A rep doesn’t want to be at 15% of his quota when his friend, two states away, is at 93%. Not only does this take away the excuse that the product isn’t selling, but suddenly the whole world knows that he’s a lousy rep.”

“The reward doesn’t have to be much,” Kile continues. “Whatever you give them is going to be more than they’re getting from their other B lines. It could be something as simple as dinner for them and their spouses. What’s important is that they be recognized. Salespeople by nature are egotists, so they love to be recognized.”

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