Building Positive Relationships with Rep Principals – 8 Tactics to Bring You Closer Together

An independent manufacturers’ representative in the building materials industry must maintain strong relationships with the principals they represent to be successful and profitable. This relationship is critically important with primary principals whose product sales represent a large share of a rep’s business, yet it is also important to build relationships with those secondary, smaller manufacturers, whose products are complimentary to the primary principals. A strategy for building these principal relationships needs to be developed and maintained. To be smart, any independent manufacturers’ representative should always remember the following eight tactics: Agree on a fair contract Maintain regular communications Act as an employee Treat the customer service group as a customer Follow company procedures Aggressively market to architects, engineers and end users Travel with the sales manager Maintain an appropriate number principals These ideas might sound simple, but by putting effort forward in these areas, a manufacturer’s rep is significantly more likely to succeed. I have spent over 40 years as an independent manufacturers’ representative in the building materials industry representing both U.S. manufacturers as well as a few international ones.  Although each manufacture operates differently the common thread that connects them is the importance of building personal business relationships with them as well as with their customers. Most of my career has been representing manufacturers of architectural products.  This has been both challenging and rewarding since it required balance of time and effort marketing to architects as well as handling orders and service with the buying customers. The eight tactics discussed are ones I used over the years from trial and error experiences as well as from discussions with other successful reps during manufacturers sales meetings and building industry conventions and seminars.  These tactics generally work with principals producing commodity products as well as architectural products. Let’s look at each of these tactics one-by-one. Agree on a Fair Rep Contract Most manufacturers in the building materials industry use contracts with manufacturers’ representatives that have a clause stating that either party can cancel the agreement for any reason with just a 30-day notice. Although contracts vary regarding how long a terminated rep can collect commissions, in the real world this is negotiable. Manufacturers might consider how many years the rep has had his contract. Most importantly, the time allowed is based on the rep/principal relationship and how the rep has performed over the years. Because of these one-sided termination clauses, much has been written about rep contracts for the building materials industry as well as many other industries. One of the best sources for additional information is the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA). Maintain Regular Communications As is true in all relationships, the proper level and type of communications is...

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Marketing Building Materials – Will Your Company be a Disrupter

Overview What is “disruptive marketing”? Why is it important for any manufacturer of building materials products to be successful moving forward? Will your company be a disrupter in the building materials industry? At its core, disruptive marketing is a return to the personal with an online twist. It shakes things up by changing customer perceptions about not just the company—but the industry as a whole. Some say that disruptive marketing doesn’t have a concrete meaning because it is always based on the context of the surrounding world. Are companies in the building materials industry prepared to radically change the way they develop and market their products? In a 2015 study discussed in Forbes Magazine, twenty-five companies were considered to be at the top of the list of marketing disrupters. Not one of them was part of the building materials industry or any other part of the construction industry! The construction industry is inefficient compared to most other parts of our economy. Late in the last century while many American manufacturers were adopting lean manufacturing methods, the construction industry, by and large, continued to construct buildings as they had for decades. Some innovative products were introduced, and some new construction methods were adopted; however, none of them were truly disruptive. The article “Is Disruptive Innovation Possible in the Construction Industry” presents an Australian view on this subject. Looking at a concrete example, the digital age brought disruption to the photographic industry. Kodak, however, did not change. In twenty years, they went from the fourth most valuable brand in the world to bankruptcy. As another example, in the 1980s and 1990s, the personal computer put a stop to Digital Equipment Corporation, Wang Laboratories, and other minicomputer makers. There is good news. Disruptive products and disruptive marketing are still in their infancy in most U.S. industries. Companies that continue to market and do business-as-usual are not that far behind yet, but they will fall behind or go out of business soon if they do not begin thinking how they can be disrupters.   Take Action Now Is your company a leader or a follower? Are you prepared for digital disruption or are you planning to be a disrupter? Developing close personal relationships with a high degree of transparency with customers is one of the most important aspects of disruptive marketing. Building material manufacturers must carefully listen to their key customers to learn what these customers need to innovate in their market and quickly develop products or services to satisfy those needs. What manufacturers hear from customers may mean scrapping products that have been a core, profitable part of a manufacturer’s business over the years but will soon become obsolete, if the manufacturer does not...

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Substituting Building Material Products

Substituting building material products prior to bid is an important responsibility of the sales team of any building material manufacturer. No matter how effective a salesman is in marketing to architects, it is impossible for him to know all the players involved in writing specifications in an architect’s office on each and every project. In a majority of projects, the architect wants substitution requests prior to bid, because the owner is interested in receiving bids to obtain the lowest price/best value. Additionally, after a bid, it is easier to close sales with a subcontractor, distributor, or general contractor if a salesman’s product is listed in the specification. When a salesman’s product is not listed in the specifications, what is the best plan to become listed? There are effective practices to this process. Here’s what I suggest. How to submit a substitution prior to bid Make the substitution request at least two weeks in advance of the bid date to allow sufficient time for the architect to review the submittal. It is normally more effective to send the request directly to the project architect. Some architects will not review products prior to bid for any number of reasons, but there is normally a better chance for a response from an architect than a general contractor. The closer the relationship a salesman has with the architect, the better the chance of a response and/or approval to be listed. If the salesman is a trusted advisor, the chance for approval is the highest. Respect the architect’s work and work load. Make a complete submittal with the substitution request  to clearly demonstrate that your product is truly equal to the design standard of one of the products listed in the specification. It should be clear and concise so the architect can review it in a reasonable amount of time. Use the form provided in the specification if there is one. If there is not, use the standard AIA form in the General Requirements, normally in Section 01600. It is not practical in many cases to meet the specification item for item, but the submittal must clearly demonstrate that the submitted product fully meets the intent of the specification. Be aware of the type of specification when preparing the substitution request. Whether it is a proprietary, performance, or open specification, submit the substitution request accordingly. If it is a closed specification, do not make a submittal. Any substitution should be made after the bid. Assemble a complete standard submittal package that can be modified to fit the specifics of the job for the sake of efficiency. Review addenda to check if your product becomes listed. If your product is not listed in an addendum,...

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Should Sales Teams use Email, Telephone or Personal Visits?

In the construction industry, it seems more and more communication is by email, whether conversations are interoffice, between companies, or by sales teams with customers. Using primarily email communication may seem to make us more efficient, but that assumption may not hold water. Our inboxes are swamped. One study indicated that the average person across all industries receives an average of 115 emails per day. The study indicated that 57% of people do not even read all their emails! Many are simply trashed. How efficient is that? The use of primarily email communication is led by millennials, but even older, more experienced employees are depending more on emails instead of a telephone call or personal visit. This habit is particularly questionable in many instances for sales teams and customer service. Even interoffice emailing should be seriously evaluated. Either telephoning or a meeting in person concerning a question or inquiry is often a more effective use of time than emailing. For the sales team the customer’s preferences should be the primary governing factor in how we communicate. Developing strong personal relationships is the driving force for generating growing sales. People still buy from people they know and like. Customers are interested in quality products and service from manufacturers more than the efficiency of a manufacturer’s management team. Personal visits for the professional sales person are the most important method of communication, because they strengthen personal relationships. They should be used as often as possible and in-line with a customer’s preferences. Personal visits allow for the clearest understanding of a customer’s needs. Misunderstandings are minimized. How can a sales person interpret body language, learn what makes a customer tick, and strengthen relationships using email? If a personal visit is not warranted or practical, a telephone call is the next, best way to communicate with customers. The customer support team should use the telephone as often as possible rather than email. This is particularly true when clarifying details of an order or solving a customer’s problem. The danger of the trend toward email being the predominant method of communication is that a single email often generates a long string of email exchanges back and forth.  Often, a simple telephone call can solve a problem in a couple of minutes and save time for both parties. Telephone calls also minimize the chance for miscommunications and misunderstandings. Each call is an opportunity to learn new information about a customer to continue developing that strong relationship. One challenge of telephone communication in the current business environment is that it leads to voice mails. Like emails, voicemail has reduced human interaction. With voicemail, the caller never knows when the voicemail will be answered, if at all....

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Communication Begins with Listening

Listening is one of the most important skills of a professional sales person. If a sales person does not fully understand his customer’s needs and problems, there is no way to provide the highest value product and/or service to satisfy those needs or provide the solutions to his problems. To clearly understand his customers, the sales person must listen. To develop and strengthen strong personal relationships, careful, attentive listening is critical. For the majority of sales people, listening does not come naturally. Sales people love to talk, but while talking, one cannot listen. Learning good listening skills is important; honing them is even more critical. Active listening takes concentration and hard work. It is a complex process, and a conscious intellectual effort is required to become proficient. Why are good listening skills essential for a professional sales person? Remember, listening: Aids in the creation and growth of strong, personal relationships. Customers buy from people they like and trust. Sets professional top producers even further apart from their competition. Gives customers a positive impression of the salesperson, because they know their questions and problems are clearly understood. Assists in closing more sales because the sales person can offer the right product or service to satisfy the customer’s needs. Makes selling more fun. A sales person can look to hundreds of books and read online countless lists of what it takes to  become a better listener; however, after 50 years in marketing and sales, here is my list. How to be a better listener: Make a brief outline before each telephone or personal sales call, whether on paper or in your head. When your objectives are clear in your mind, you can concentrate more fully on listening. Clear your head. Do not carry in preconceived thoughts or prejudices. Make brief notes. This shows your customer you want to remember what he is saying. It also demonstrates interest in what he is talking about. Constantly think, “did I hear what he said correctly?” Not only listen to needs and problems to be solved, but listen for solutions. Many times customers indicate how they want their needs met or problem solved. Listen for what is not said or what your customer is implying. For many reasons they may not want to state what exact price they need, but the way words and gestures are combined, they often provide this information if you actively listen. Ask for clarification if it seems there are conflicting statements. Ask questions such as, “If I understand you correctly…” or “Tell me more…” Do not argue or rebut statements. The old adage “the customer is always right” is the best philosophy to employ to actively listen. At the end...

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