When manufacturers participated in a week-long series of MANAchats devoted to the subject of what they need to do in order to get more time and effort from their independent manufacturers’ reps, a number of constants rose to the surface of the discussion:
- Regular visits in the field with reps firm up relationships.
- Reps and their principals share in the responsibility for creating and following up on leads.
- For their part, reps ought to create and share their succession plans with their principals.
- The establishment and regular meeting of rep councils remains a critical factor in improving relations between manufacturers and reps.
- Ultimately all of these factors — and others — play a role in the manufacturer’s ability to rise to the status of a rep’s “emotional favorite.”
In the series of chats that took place over a three-day period, the above topics were discussed by 19 manufacturers that go to market with reps. The group of manufacturers that participated in the conversations sported a varied history of working with reps, some dating back more than four decades, while others noted that they were brand new to the rep experience.
Interestingly all of the subjects raised by the manufacturers related to the ability of the manufacturer to create a working atmosphere where they, in fact, become the rep’s “emotional favorite,” that is the principal that reps most want to work with and for.
Setting the stage for that subject, one manufacturer emphasized that perhaps the most important thing a manufacturer can do is to pay commissions on time. “Our company mantra has always been ‘Pay commissions accurately and on time.’ It boggles my mind that some people don’t believe that’s important. There’s nothing you can do more to turn off a rep than to not pay them according to the terms of the contract. Don’t ever say cash flow is bad or business isn’t good. It just doesn’t work.”
In order to create an atmosphere of “emotional favorite” with reps, chat participants agreed that a strong relationship, mutual trust, shared expectations, and regular communications were key.
Taking first things first, several manufacturers who admitted that they were at the very beginning when it came to building those relationships, expressed some frustration in their inability to get the attention of prospective reps. “We’ll send out any number of email queries to prospective reps asking if they’d be interested in working with us, and it’s not unusual for us to get no response” was a complaint voiced by several. As the conversation progressed, however, it was emphasized by others how critical the initial approach to a prospective rep is and that’s why carefully crafting such queries is so important. In addition, it was emphasized that a more personal approach (e.g., phone call) to a prospect might be much more effective than a “cold-call” email.
Once manufacturers are able to make contact and firm up an agreement with a rep, it was generally agreed that it was important to build and nurture the relationship. According to one manufacturer, “I’ve got to admit that there isn’t really an awful lot of ‘wow’ that accompanies our products. That’s why it’s such a challenge to get reps involved. In order to accomplish that goal I attempt to have reps act a little bit like ‘mini-mes’ in that I’d like to have them do the same type of market development that I perform every day. We also try to establish a real relationship with our reps beyond just sending them a check. We want to make them a part of our family, not like they’re some far-away distant person. If we’re able to do that, it makes a real difference.”
Welcoming the Rep
To achieve that latter goal, the manufacturer explained, “We have a consistent ‘onboarding’ process for our reps. We travel with them regularly, at least four times during the first year, when we’ll familiarize them with our company and introduce them to existing customers. On top of that we have monthly meetings with all of our reps and assist them in developing marketing and sales plans. We collaborate with them on their sales plans and attempt to get feedback from them. We regularly ask them what they need, provide them with support, visit them and offer whatever support they require.”
Among the support that manufacturers offer is that of providing leads — and that introduced an interesting subject for conversation. According to one manufacturer that boasts of a 34-year history of working with reps, “I used to be a rep for eight years, so I know what’s going on out there in the field. If there’s anything that’s really important to me in our dealings with reps, it’s their ability and willingness to follow up. I know this sounds a little bit like Basic Sales 101, but following up is the lifeblood of the profession. Sure it’s easy to get their attention to follow up on an order that’s going to bring them a ‘chunky’ commission, but that’s not always the case with other orders.”
Backing that view was another manufacturer who offered, “We also find that’s the case. We want and need feedback. We don’t charge anyone for creating a quote, but it can cost us anywhere from $500 to $800 just to come up with a quote. If we’re going to put that much time, effort and money into developing a quote, the least the rep can do for us is give us the backstory. They’re being paid — why not do it? It’s that type of information that will allow us to come up with competitive quotes in the future.”
Another manufacturer noted, “We make every effort to provide our reps with what they need and want. But in return we simply want to know what’s going on in their territory. The last thing we want to do is overburden them with requests for reports, but it’s important for us to know that we’re in the ballpark with what we’re doing.”
That word “overburden” reappeared when another manufacturer emphasized — especially to manufacturers that are new to working with reps — that they should “…remember the reps they are working with are not employees of the company. Instead, they are independent entrepreneurs, running their own businesses. As a result, some of the requirements you might have for your direct employees ought to be different from what you require from reps. For instance, we don’t require sales reports from our reps. Be very careful about overburdening.”
If providing a backstory serves as a means of communication from rep to principal, the manufacturers who participated in the chats described some of their efforts to communicate effectively with their reps. “We’ve regularly produced a weekly newsletter for our reps that includes articles on our products and offers tips on how to best sell them. We also like to visit with them, but because of the pandemic, we’re not doing much of that. In addition, we conduct a lot of video meetings with them and provide them with a lot of product and sales training.”
The manufacturer that boasts of more than three decades working with reps offered that “reps’ time in the field is much too valuable to have them sit through too many meetings. However, we’ve always completed quarterly mutual action plans with our reps. These plans serve as a two-way street for us and the rep, and we both get a lot out of the quarterly meetings.”
Importance of Succession Planning
If communicating is important so too is something mentioned at the outset of this article — the existence of an agency succession plan. A number of the manufacturers emphasized the fact that several of the reps with whom they work are on the older side. As a result, it’s inevitable that the manufacturer wants to know what the future holds for the relationship. According to one manufacturer, “The rep’s succession plan remains important for us. Unfortunately too many reps are involved in their day-to-day activities to the extent that they don’t spend much time on long-term planning for their agencies. What they should have, at a minimum, is a three to five-year plan providing for their exit from the agency. They should want that for themselves so they can get some money out of their agency. Too many are simply waiting for the last year and then they just drift off.”
He added that once a succession plan is in place, “The rep should make sure to communicate that plan to their principals so the manufacturer will know there’s value in the agency and that moving forward it will be in good hands — and the relationship will continue.”
When the subject of rep councils was introduced, one manufacturer with a lengthy history of working with reps explained that when “I joined the company 25 years ago, we didn’t have a rep council. I had previously worked with a distributor council so naturally I was interested in how such a group would work with reps. In our favor, we learned enough that we immediately created a council and have worked with it ever since. Presently our rep council is composed of six reps, of whom we turn over two of them annually. In addition to regular turnover, we make sure we have a diverse group of reps that we meet with. We have large and small reps, those that have a variety of tenure, a varied product mix and those with different approaches to the market. We’ve found it especially interesting that problems faced by one agency have already been faced and solved by others.”
In addition, the manufacturer emphasized that their rep council doesn’t just meet in the flesh once a year. “You can count on them for consultation on any number of subjects over the course of a year.
“We’ve made every effort to have participation in the rep council to be perceived as an honor, and thankfully our reps take it that way.”
Another manufacturer volunteered that “While we don’t presently have a rep council, many of the reps we work with also represent non competitors. It’s amazing how much valuable information they provide to us on how to enhance the manufacturer-rep relationship.”
List of MANAchat Participants
MANA wants to thank the following members for their contributions to the “Achieving ‘Emotional Favorite’ Status” Agency Sales magazine article. They made these contributions by participating in MANA’s first ever manufacturer MANAchat. These online virtual meetings create a platform where members exchange information on how to successfully partner with their manufacturers’ representatives. Jack Foster, Agency Sales magazine editor, wrote the article using the information and knowledge these members provided during the MANAchats.
Thank you! We sincerely appreciate the time you took to participate in the MANAchats and particularly the information and knowledge you shared.
Universal Hydraulik USA, Corp.
St. Louis, MO
Rampart Partitions, Inc.
Sugar Land, TX
Eriez Manufacturing Co.
Sugar Land, TX
Bell Foundry Company
South Gate, CA
Benz, Inc., a division of Stiles Machinery, Inc.
LinMot USA, Inc.
Lake Geneva, WI
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.