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Each year at the AIM/R annual conference, manufacturers and reps discuss best practices and industry trends in a session called the Rep and Manufacturer Roundtable (RAM). The RAM session has dozens of tables, each consisting of noncompeting reps from around the country, along with two or three manufacturers whom they do not represent.
The format encourages open and honest feedback from both sides to cover best practices, concerns and the latest trends in our industry. The forum has fostered many significant takeaways that have been implemented over the years and continues to be a highlight session of the conference.
Below is a summary of the key recurring takeaways discussed at the 2019 RAM hosted on Sept. 12, 2019.
What Makes a Top-Tier Rep
Manufacturers were asked how they evaluated their “top-tier” reps across the country, and this topic resulted in dialogue across every single table. Manufacturers, overall, were consistent in their answers:
• Manufacturers are looking for agencies with open and honest communication built on trust and transparency to maintain a long-term partnership.
• Succession planning focused on continuing the culture of the agency to future generations also is critical, and reps should communicate their plan regularly.
• Top-performing reps focus on planning, organization and implementation of technology (e.g., quote systems, customer relationship management and cloud-based communication).
• Reinvestment in the business with regards to talent, technology and continued education is another factor setting companies apart from their peers.
• When interviewing reps, manufacturers look for a line card that is synergistic with their product offering. They also want to know what the rep’s value proposition is in the marketplace to ensure they have established relationships in all levels of the supply chain.
• Solution-based companies find themselves earning more respect than those that present the problem to the manufacturer to resolve on their own.
• Manufacturers also look to the rep to be consultants by providing insights into the best practices of other manufacturers so they can improve their processes.
Working with Manufacturer RSMs
When it comes to travel in a rep’s territory and sales calls with manufacturer regional sales managers (RSMs), the conversations were very candid. Both parties agreed that travel should only occur when pre-determined, mutually beneficial goals are discussed before scheduling the trip.
Tools, such as the AIM/R Manufacturer Joint Sales Checklist and Travel Itinerary, should be used to ensure the time spent together is productive and efficient for all parties involved. There should be a minimum of 45- to 60-day notice for trips into the territory to allow for appropriate planning and organization.
An additional critical area discussed was the need for RSMs to be empowered with the authority to make decisions and resolve issues promptly. They need to be responsive when the sales team calls them.
The Ever-Evolving Industry
The changing landscape of our industry was another hot topic. With big-box stores and e-commerce gaining strength, much discussion focused on how products will make their way into the secondary contractor markets moving forward. Reps voiced concern over how the industry will adapt to two-hour delivery offered in some markets by e-tailers such as Amazon. They also were concerned about how wholesalers around the country are looking at their logistics model to change.
Reps also shared how our community is adapting to retain our relevance in our local markets by becoming more technical and consultative in our selling practices. Our value proposition continues to grow as our technical expertise helps our wholesalers and contractors train their new employees.
Because reps are taking on the labor investment in building these relationships, they applied pressure to manufacturers during the RAM session. Reps should get paid for this demand creation happening at the local level — no matter where the product is purchased.
There has been significant consolidation at all levels of the supply chain, which, in some cases, creates conflicts within a rep agency that need managing. Reps voiced concerns about losing major lines from their line card when this happens, and many shared their thoughts that continued consolidation remains inevitable.
Attracting the next generation of talent into our businesses is an area in which both reps and manufacturers struggle. There is a feeling that a perception shift needs to happen within the industry to make it more attractive to the younger pool of talent.
We need to shift our mindset when it comes to recruiting to a more forward-thinking mentality. We can use tools such as career fairs, internships and trade schools when looking for talent.
Training and retention will then be the next hurdle as our next generation learns in a different style from those who came before them. At all levels, we must adapt our management practices to marry the needs of this new generation with the realistic expectations we can meet.
New college grads have a different value set than our most seasoned employees, and their idea of career paths also has changed from previous generations. We will need to find creative ways to educate them and sell them to this fantastic industry.
Earning Reps’ Attention
Manufacturers were seeking feedback when it came to getting more time out of reps and increased focus on their newest product launches.
Reps shared ideas around awards, bonus commissions tied to quotas, spiffs, quarterly target discussions, new product bonus incentives and sales contests as a means to get more time focused on a specific line.
When it came to product launches, reps requested launch kits to make their initial presentations fluid and comfortable with all pertinent info in one place. These kits might include targeted literature, pricing, presentations, training videos on a jump drive and samples. They also shared that holding an appropriate amount of inventory in stock upon launching a new product is critical to its initial and long-term success.
And reps appreciate when a manufacturer sends out targeted customer mailings to introduce the latest products.
Data Provision and Analytics
The last consistent discussion point from RAM concerned the reporting and availability of data. Manufacturers have increased their requests to reps for more information, such as reports, CRM data and intellectual property. Reps do not mind offering the data if they have an understanding of how manufacturers are using the information or why it is needed. Relevancy is critical; reporting works as long as it is reporting with a purpose.
Reps also want better reporting by the manufacturer. Monthly sales reports should be provided to their reps in a format that can be analyzed and maneuvered (i.e., spreadsheet format and not a PDF). Today’s successful reps are using this data to assist customers in making more accurate business decisions — sometimes down to the SKU level on certain lines.
The more the manufacturer can make data available to the rep, the better we can efficiently serve our customers. Reps can operate more autonomously without tying up manufacturer resources when we have real-time, electronic access via a portal to order status, quotes, pricing, RGA submissions and status, literature ordering, stock check and sales numbers.
While additional topics were discussed during this session, the main themes have been outlined here. Overall, the feedback from the RAM was extremely positive, with many attendees saying it is consistently the best takeaway for both sides from AIM/R.
The RAM concept is one the board intends to continue at future conferences. The board is always open to additional feedback as to how it can improve on the foundation that is already in place.