The Principal Is the Customer

by Tom Hayward, CPMR, United Sales Associates

“Exceed your customer’s expectations. If you do, they’ll come back over and over. Give them what they want — and a little more.” — Sam Walton

As unbridled entrepreneurs, manufacturers’ representatives naturally evaluate our business space to maximize our return on investment. We evaluate many areas to include the prospects at end user/OEMs, the effectiveness of our distributor/wholesaler networks, and the future with the principals we represent. We should not be surprised that each of these channel partners are evaluating us as well.

But an evaluation of the manufacturers’ representative is not typically a formal “review” type of process. However, it is done continuously, and often in a vacuum. As such, results can range from trivial to catastrophic. Being ahead of this is our challenge.

With our traditional customers, we generally are good at the essentials — establishing relationships, communicating our value, and differentiating us and our products from others. We have a strong focus in doing this on a continual basis. Judging by our activity with traditional customers, it is evident that we are very focused with how they evaluate us.

And with our principals, we do a good job initially in selling our services and value — at least to the point of gaining the line. But typically we soon re-focus back to the needs of our traditional customers, which can easily consume us. When so, this leaves a small amount of disposable time to attend to the needs of our principals. In this environment the communication to our principals can diminish, and can even become adversarial. When we fall into this trap, we are critically vulnerable in how our principals are evaluating us. In order to address this, we have to embrace a principal for what they are — the true customer for our services.

This is pretty lofty status — and a concern if we are not treating them this way. In order to help principals feel more like our customer we can:

  • Continually probe to find what is important to them now — and parallel our activity accordingly. Regardless if it is a new product/program, or targeting a specific market/category, there should be no doubt that we are focused there as well. Our focus will by evaluated by product sales, but also with sample/pricing requests, feedback on competitive information, and feedback on market acceptance.
  • Address their fears. Find out what is their biggest problem and strive to be part of the solution.
  • Keep them informed of their business. What are the competitors doing? What “best practices” are relevant for them to be aware of? Is there a company that they should consider acquiring?
  • Keep them informed of our business. Let them know of how we are investing in our agency. Advise them of changes within the agency. Let them know what trade shows we are doing. Invite them to work with us, or come to our internal meetings. Inform them of developments regarding succession plans.
  • Get their opinions. Ask them what it is that we can be doing better? Ask them what other reps are doing that impressed them. Ask them how things are going to change in the next five years.
  • Focus on the personal, unique relationship. Send a handwritten note for milestone events. Forward a relevant e-mail/picture/headline. Find a reason to send something.

This is not an exhaustive list, just some ideas. The opportunity is in realizing that our personal and professional relationship with each of our principal customers is our “gold.” We all can benefit by treating the relationship as such.

Tom Hayward is with United Sales Associates (Cincinnati, Ohio), a 15-person agency covering eight states and focused on the marketing and training of personal protective safety equipment and related products. Hayward has been with United Sales since 1989, and became a CPMR in 1997. USA has been a proud MANA member since the agency was founded in 1982.