The Importance and Effectiveness of Rep Councils

by John Davis, Paul Davis Automation

Just the other week, I was on an airplane traveling to a trade show. Given the close quarters of the typical airline arrangement, I could not help but overhear the conversation between the two gentlemen sitting behind me. One worked for a large consulting firm (you would know their name), and the other as a recruiter for a prominent business school out of New York City. Both men were senior in their positions, and were discussing what business books they had read recently, what talks they had attended, and the ever-popular discussions regarding the challenges of working with millennials.

I tuned out most of their conversation, as frankly, the large scale hiring practices of gargantuan firms have little to do with the small to medium enterprises I represent, needless to say my own (very) small business. That, and being a millennial myself (albeit an early one), I couldn’t relate to their complaints and decided to post about it on social media after sending a strongly worded direct message on LinkedIn to both of them.

I am joking, I promise.

One topic of their conversation did get my attention — employee reviews. They discussed at length two perspectives on reviews — the senior manager from the consulting firm was relating research and training in his recent past that had benefited him and his team greatly in their most recent review session. Likewise, the b-school recruiter shared how his favorite interview question was, “When you have disagreed with an assessment in a review, how have you addressed the situation?” I gleaned some interesting tidbits from this part of the discussion, and mentally sorted them away to use in my next review session with my employees and associates.

The question of assessment disagreement struck a chord — what an insightful question. On the surface, it seems so simple, but yet, when I asked the question of myself, I immediately saw the many traps that had been laid. Office politics, self-awareness, and the ability to walk the line between taking constructive criticism and being combative all stood out as “gotchas” in formulating an answer.

In the context of my rep business, one instance of disagreement that immediately came to mind was a recent spat with a principal over sales numbers that were likely not going to meet the forecasted annual goal. A year prior, I had warned them that their goal was extremely aggressive and would be hard to achieve for various reasons. I had provided a lower, but far more realistic, forecast that — based on territory knowledge and the benchmarks of my other principals — would be far closer to the mark. Needless to say, they did not like my lower forecast, and instead used the higher forecast, but promised that they knew it was aggressive and would be fine with my lower number while encouraging me to stretch to the higher number.

As is often the case, all of this was forgotten the minute we ended the call, and nine months later, we were arguing.

Not surprisingly, this particular principal does not have a rep council. If they did, they would’ve heard the same from 30 other business owners and would’ve been able to be more realistic with their forecast, and perhaps put in place new programs and measures in an attempt to be proactive with growth. No one likes to miss a forecast — not only does it throw a wrench in our commissions, but it also impacts the ability of the manufacturer to make investments in their own business. There is nothing worse than witnessing the hammer of accounting crush the optimism of planning.

Our most successful manufacturer partners utilize rep councils in one form or another. Whether in-person, virtual, as a group, or individual polling, consistent interactions with their reps with the express intent of evaluation is the only way to ensure a successful (and profitable) long-term relationship.

Recalling my earlier story about evaluation, if a manager at any modern company were to operate in a vacuum with regard to their direct reports as many principals do with their reps, undoubtedly they would be branded ineffective and derelict in their managerial duties and either fired or demoted. Long ago, corporations and HR professionals proved that consistent and measured two-way evaluation between manager and report is not only healthy, but essential to retaining talent and increasing profitability.

Yet, many of these same companies are the same ones who keep their reps at arm’s length, missing the vital interactions that come from honest two-way evaluation.

Not only does this create inefficiencies and frustration due to miscommunication, but — and perhaps most important — both sides lose out on the opportunity to better themselves and their organizations, and in turn, operate more efficiently and profitably.

To phrase it like the millennial I am, it’s 2019 — why aren’t rep councils a thing?

John Davis has two professional passions — engineering new software and hardware products and having the privilege of being the second-generation owner of his family’s rep business, Paul Davis Automation. Both keep him busy during the cold Cleveland winters. When not at work or spending time with his family, he can be found at the local airport.