One of the most anticipated sessions at every AIM/R annual conference is the Rep and Manufacturer Roundtable (RAM), where reps and manufacturers discuss best practices and industry trends. When it became clear that our 48th annual conference would need to be virtual this year, continuing the roundtable event was one of the board’s top priorities.
Instead of the face-to-face meetings we have done in past years, the “tables” for 2020 were set up virtually, using multiple Zoom rooms. Each room consisted of several noncompeting reps from around the country grouped with manufacturers they do not represent.
The virtual platform proved to be an effective way to discuss best practices, concerns and the latest industry trends. Many participants felt the participation and takeaways were even more productive than past live sessions. We all missed networking with other industry leaders in 2020, and this RAM session was the perfect chance to reconnect.
Below is a summary of the key takeaways discussed at the Oct. 16, 2020, RAM sessions.
Communication/Engagement in a COVID World
At the RAM session, reps and manufacturers agreed that proactive communication has never been more important. Relationships are now more critical as manufacturers rely on their reps to keep them up to date with regional developments in the business environment.
With fewer factory salespeople and regional managers able to travel to the territories, reps’ local relationships have even more value today. The best rep firms proactively communicate key information to their principals regularly.
One main topic of discussion was how reps could effectively communicate with both customers and manufacturers in our new virtual world. The virtual platforms have helped us all stay engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic; reps and manufacturers acknowledge that they are here to stay. Although the consensus among the groups was that virtual meetings could not completely replace personal engagement over time, they were an essential tool in 2020.
Leading reps are finding ways to reduce “Zoom fatigue” by keeping the sessions concise — 30 minutes seems to be the sweet spot. The shortened timeframe allows organizers to be respectful of others’ time and provide brief, relevant content (doesn’t everyone work better with a deadline?).
In the planning process for virtual training courses, reps found that another good way to generate participation is to use Door Dash/Grubhub/Uber Eats (for the “lunch” portion of the Lunch and Learn) and send electronic gift cards to engaged attendees after the session. Training is viewed as a top priority by manufacturers, reps, wholesalers and contractors.
Reps who can leverage technology to be more efficient will have a big advantage moving forward.
Also, the best reps are learning new ways to interact with each other during this unprecedented time. No one expects things to go back to normal anytime in the near future. The sales climate changed last year — and there is no standard right now.
Reps are seeing differences even within their different regions in how their customers are reacting to the pandemic. There is no one-size-fits-all approach within a territory; the best reps can quickly adapt, depending on each customer/manufacturer preference.
Four Qualities of Top Reps
1. Warehousing footprint. Many manufacturers are looking to the rep to provide warehousing in local markets. Transportation costs can be reduced when the product is closer to the local marketplace. When such costs are on the rise and finding reliable truck drivers is harder than ever, local inventory can be a huge advantage to manufacturers.
2. Digital presence. Communication through social media is becoming more and more important. Finding a good system to manage the complexity of disseminating who gets what information is a massive undertaking. COVID-19 is accelerating trends and making a digital presence more important than ever.
When customers are constantly inundated with emails and media, the reps and manufacturers most proficient at providing valuable and engaging content to their customers will set themselves apart. Manufacturers want to see their representatives working heavily on a virtual presence with existing wholesalers who stock and support their products.
3. Rep website. The best rep websites include an “easy” button for contractors and wholesalers to access downloadable files or links to download from manufacturers’ sites. Reps also can choose to include short videos to drive interest. Offering longer PK/training videos was discussed as well. The keys to a great rep website are ease of use and up-to-date information.
4. Continuous improvement. Many reps and manufacturers used the shutdown time in early 2020 to reflect on how they could improve. Many dramatically improved their systems and capabilities, which will pay dividends in the future.
They remodeled offices/training facilities, looked into virtual platforms, purchased new phone systems, updated social media/website/virtual training platforms, and refreshed training PowerPoint platforms to be more current and effective.
Standardization of CRM Systems
There is a desperate need for standardization among different CRM platforms. Both manufacturers and reps are seeking the best vehicle for gathering and processing information. Most often, when manufacturers require information to be fed into their system, it requires the rep firm to process the data twice.
For example, if the rep uses Telenotes, Empowering Systems, Rep Fabric, etc., and the manufacturer is using Salesforce, the rep has to assign someone in its organization to pull the information and re-enter it into the manufacturer’s system.
The hope is for more collaboration between manufacturers and reps on processing key information to reduce redundancy in the future.
These are just a few highlights from the RAM sessions this year. As you can see, great collaborations and ideas were shared; AIM/R certainly intends to continue such sessions in future conferences. We hope to offer next year’s RAM sessions in person at the 49th Annual Conference, currently set to take place Sept. 29-Oct. 2, 2021, in sunny San Diego.