Facing the New Abnormal

image of video conference

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At the conclusion of a week of MANAchats devoted to the subject of effectively communicating with principals and customers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 38 MANA members who participated agreed on a number of subjects.

  • It should come as no surprise that no one felt the end is in sight, nor could they predict when the logistics of how they conduct business might ever return to the way they used to.
  • “Staying in touch” — by any means possible — with principals and customers is now more important than ever.
  • Relationships remain the foundation for the rep to be able to work effectively in the field.
  • Now is the time for reps to leverage technology in the performance of their jobs.
  • Take this opportunity to work “on” your business if present conditions restrict your ability to work “in” the business.

Rather than embracing the term the “new normal,” the reps that engaged in the weeklong series of conversations seemed to adopt a belief that what they’re going to be working in will be a “new abnormal” and things simply won’t return to the way they used to be.

When it came to peering into the future, one Midwest rep optimistically noted, “Business was good before the shutdown. I’d say we’re positioned to aggressively take advantage of a rebound. If you ask me to take a look in a crystal ball and say what the future is going to look like, obviously I can’t do that. I do expect a healthy rebound — perhaps not a ‘V‑shaped’ recovery. So much depends upon whether we get a second wave of this thing.” She added, however, that if businesses emerge from this lockdown and then we get a second wave, “It’s going to be very difficult to get people to lock down again.”

A New England-based rep maintained, “This simply isn’t going to be forever. There’s going to be a vaccine and sooner or later customers are going to come to us and say they want to meet us face-to-face and see and hold the products we represent. We’re going to need to be in person in front of them again.”

“Staying in touch” was the most common thought echoed throughout the week of MANAchats. And, staying in touch didn’t necessarily translate into just communicating about business matters. According to one rep, “I’ve been sending out a lot of thank-you cards to dealers thanking them for their business. I’m not asking for anything, just letting them know that I look forward to visiting them in the future and reacquainting with them. I always make it a point to ask them about their families. I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve received thanking me for my interest. All too often we forget about the personal relationships as we get more involved in business activities. This is a good time to let customers know that we genuinely care about them.”

Another participant offered that “I’ve found that when I call someone’s office number, it gets forwarded to their cell at home. Once I reach them there, they’re a lot more relaxed than in the office and we’re having a lot more personal conversations about things other than business. I’ve found that it’s been a great help in nurturing relationships. As a matter of fact, I’ve found myself in lengthy conversations with some customers that I hardly ever get to speak with in their offices.”

Lest anyone forget that “staying in touch” can also be accompanied by an element of fun, one rep explained, “In my industry there are usually a number of trade shows that are scheduled throughout the year. Naturally those have been canceled. What I’ve done is to send out invitations for a virtual meeting to a group of 20 or more people that I look forward to seeing. I’ll admit that what we wind up doing can be a little dopey and fun, but it’s just great to see everyone. And, not everything we speak about is business — it’s just all about maintaining our relationships.

“One added benefit is that once word got out about these informal get togethers, some important buyers from our industry asked to be included. It’s getting to the point where more and more people just want to get in front of each other. It’s been a huge benefit.”

He added that if there are any competitive line conflicts developing among attendees, “We let everyone know who is attending and they can decide whether to participate or not.”

The Value of Relationships

According to the views expressed during the chats, and this should come as no surprise to any rep, the existence of strong relationships remains the key to a rep’s continued success during the Covid lockdown. “So far, I’ve really had no impact on my bottom line, but that’s owing entirely to the long-standing relationships I enjoy with both my principals and customers.”

Another rep offered that while she is doing fine with her existing customers, “It’s been difficult — if not impossible — to effectively prospect during the lockdown. Sure, we know how important it is to work on the relationships you already have, but the challenge remains with establishing new relationships. It’s a little bit like the steps you have to take when having a ‘first date.’ How do you connect? How do you talk about your shared interests and connections? Then, once you do that, how do you effectively make the pivot to a business discussion? That’s the challenge.

“Remember that we’re only as valuable as our customers think we are. We have to get to that point where we can communicate and demonstrate to them what our value is. It all comes down to making that personal connection and that’s difficult during Covid.”

Making the Tech Connection

That previous concern was partially addressed by the majority of chat participants who emphasized that during these challenging times the importance of tech can’t be over emphasized. If reps thought they were astute and well equipped when it came to using technology, that point has really been driven home over the last several months.

“When I started out as a rep the major technological tools we had at our disposal were landlines, carbon paper and a fax machine. We’re working in a different world today,” explained one rep. Another offered, “People simply are not going into their offices. If we want to make contact we had better be adept in the technological tools that allow us to communicate.”

Among the tools most prominently mentioned during the chat sessions were cell phones, texting, email, Internet, LinkedIn, laptops/tablets, and video conferencing tools such as Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, etc.

As he looked to the future, one rep said, “Technology and all the accompanying tools that have allowed us to stay in touch with principals and customers are just another weapon to add to our arsenal. As we move forward and things begin to open up, they’re still going to be used much more than they ever were in the past.”

An interesting bit of advice was offered on the subject of participating in video conferencing: Be very careful about the background in your video calls. “Whether it’s Zoom or some other platform, be sure you know what’s behind you. Look at your background. Make sure it’s not cluttered, that it’s professional, that there’s nothing that shouldn’t be seen by others.”

Working on the Business

An important focal point of the weeklong discussion was that the present situation has freed up reps to focus on things that should be done to make their businesses more efficient. Points mentioned included everything from:

  • The mundane cleaning and painting/organizing the office.
  • Doing a deeper dive on POS with our distribution customers.
  • Updating agency web pages with the goal of presenting a professional appearance to principals and prospective principals.
  • Deciding upon more efficient CRM programs. (There was sufficient interest in this subject that plans call for a future MANAchat that will be devoted to it.)

In addition to the fairly obvious optimistic views offered about the Coronavirus situation, one word of caution was heard a few times during the course of conversations. One rep explained it this way, “We’ve heard something from both principals and customers that causes a little concern. I’ve had both tell me that since we’re all working in a lockdown situation, the reps’ cost of conducting business has decreased. There’s no automobile, travel or entertainment expenses. As a result, I’ve had some customers ask me when they’ll be receiving a decrease on the cost of products and some principals have even raised the subject of talking about cutting commissions.”

Other chat participants were unanimous in their response. When it comes to customers asking for a decrease, “Let them know it’s taking the rep twice as long to make contact and complete a sale as it ever has in the past. They’ve got to work longer and harder to meet the customers’ needs. And, when it comes to commissions, hold the line. While some reps note that they haven’t seen a hit on their incomes yet, it remains to be seen what the next few months will hold. Be firm in holding the line.”

In conclusion, one rep probably stated the situation best when he said, “What we’re facing now shouldn’t really be called the ‘new normal.’ I think it’s more like the ‘new abnormal.’ Obviously, the future hasn’t been written yet, but when it is, it will find us learning from each other and continuing to adapt. We’ll exhibit a willingness to change, and we’ll pull together to help each other.”

List of MANAchat Participants

MANA wants to thank the following members for their contributions to the “Facing the New Normal” Agency Sales magazine article. They made these contributions by participating in MANA’s first ever MANAchat. These online virtual meetings create a platform where members exchange information on how they deal with issues, such as COVID-19. 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.

Eric Anderson
Prime Devices Corp.
Willow Springs, IL

Rosanne Brunello
Mountain Rep
Cleveland, OH

David Burke
Halpin D. Burke & Son, LLC
Fenton, MO

Marc Carver
Carver & Associates, LLC
Lake Oswego, OR

Aime Cedrone
Amval Associates
Dover, NH

Claudia Cort
Cort Design & Marketing Group, LLC
Eden, MD

Dick Darraugh
Component & Device Sales, Inc.
Gurnee, IL

Julie Defee
Team Creations
Hayesville, NC

Rich Ellis
Ellis Company, LLC
St Louis, MO

Stephen Fowler
Process Equipment Resources & Consulting
Bridgewater, NJ

Tim Gahan
Henry M. Wood Co.
West Chester, OH

Chuck Given
American Manufacturers Agency Corp.
Oxford, PA

Peter Grimes
Industrial Distribution Associates, LLC
Newcastle, WA

Chad Hall
CM Hall Associates, Inc.
Canonsburg, PA

Keith Hubbard
Southwest Sales Group, Inc.
North Las Vegas, NV

Steve Karr
Rossi, Steve
Jersey City, NJ

Brandt Klopp
Hip-Spectrum Marketing
Yorba Linda, CA

Scott Lau
Marcor Associates, Inc.
Midlothian, VA

Rob Lawrence
R.T. Lawrence and Associates, LLC
Duluth, GA

Bill Mann
Matrix Plastics Company
Medina, OH

Ron Marks
Marks Management Services, Inc.
Birmingham, MI

Matt McCroskey
McCrosco, Inc.
San Clemente, CA

Dan Monaco
Technical Products, Inc.
Orlando, FL

Martin Nolan
R.L. English Co.
Cleveland, OH

Paul Pirozzi
Pirozzi & Associates, Inc.
Upton, MA

Scott Prater
Prater Technical Partners, Inc.
Brooklyn, NY

William Ray
Ray Engineering Co., Inc.
Westford, MA

Steve Ross
ArKco Sales, Inc.
Mahtomedi, MN

Robert Rundle
R.W. Rundle Assocs., Inc.
Glen Rock, NJ

David Simmons
Agri-Sales Associates, Inc.
Nashville, TN

Mark Sommer
Sommer Energy Technologies, LLC
Bethel Park, PA

Doug Sublett
Prairie States Industrial Supply
Overland Park, KS

Don Sullivan
J.W. Sullivan Co.
Ballwin, MO

Ed Sweeney
Today’s Technologies
Dresher, PA

Perry Thornton
Pinnacle Marketing, Inc.
Raleigh, NC

Richard Wickizer
Wickizer & Associates, LLC
Woodland, WA

Larry Wiemann
Hip-Spectrum Marketing
Yorba Linda, CA

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.