The Changing Rep Business Model

by Jerry Leth, Vice-President and General Manager, MANA

Back in 1988, I started a manufacturers’ representative business. Back then, we used fax machines to communicate with each other and thought that was high-tech.

The world and consequently the manufacturers’ representative business changed significantly since then. The question we want to address is, “How has it changed recently and how do we help our MANA members successfully adapt?”

Technology made a huge impact on how manufacturers’ representatives operate today. We all know that, and you adapted and use it effectively. Websites, e-mails, social media, smartphones, tablets, apps, etc. pose no serious challenges. As a matter of fact, technology provides tools that increase productivity and create a positive outcome. The technology evolution goes on and the few who fail to adapt become extinct.

The major change deals with how manufacturers’ representatives interact with younger customers. Rather than communicating with them by phone or e-mail, you text. Getting in to meet with them face-to-face is challenging. How do you get them to recognize you want to help them? That you want to learn the problems they face so you can provide solutions that work and create trust with them?

When I was a manufacturers’ representative, a new principal required all their reps to attend a consultative selling course. The course taught us that to sell effectively, your purpose needs to be to help your customer solve problems, not to book orders. That may sound counterproductive, but if you help customers, they trust you and buy from you. We then learned skills that allowed us to find out the issues customers face. When I returned to my territory and put into practice what I learned, my sales went up dramatically. But, back then I had no trouble getting in to visit customers for face-to-face meetings. From what I hear from members, I would be hard pressed to do that today.

How do we help our MANA members successfully adapt to deal with this situation? Five years from now, when the younger buyers’ percentage increases substantially, it creates a significant impact on the manufacturers’ representative business. We need to develop strategies that allow members and this generation of customers to adapt so it works well for both parties.

We plan more research in a number of different ways. What tactics work that open the door and allow you to get the message across that you came there to help them? What does it take to make them realize that you can be someone they can depend on?

Stay tuned and we hope to have answers shortly that allow you to effectively work with this new generation of customers.

Jerry Leth, MANA’s vice-president and general manager, started as membership manager in August 2000. Previously, Jerry owned and operated Letco Tech Sales, Inc., a MANA member, multi-line professional outsourced sales agency he founded in 1989. Before starting his own agency, he managed a network of manufacturers’ reps as vice-president of sales and marketing for torque and tension equipment. Jerry graduated from Stanford with a mechanical engineering degree. He started his career at Hills Brothers Coffee in San Francisco in engineering and production before embarking on a sales career.