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March 1, 2004
The simplest advice sometimes makes the most sense. During a panel discussion at the recent annual conference of the National Electrical Manufacturers

The simplest advice sometimes makes the most sense. During a panel discussion at the recent annual conference of the National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association (NEMRA) in Philadelphia, Tom Cloud, CEO of United Electric Supply Co. Inc., Wilmington, Del., offered reps some advice that I believe applies to everyone in the electrical wholesaling industry.

He urged independent manufacturers' reps to plan their visits to electrical distributors more carefully so they meet with everyone at the company who touches every facet of any business transactions for the lines they represent.

It's Sales 101 to call on the people who have the most buying influence at a customer. But as Cloud said at the panel discussion, some reps walk right past key people who are part of the buying equation at his company — often the folks at the counter, in the inside sales department, or in the warehouse handling returned goods. “Our people know which reps do and don't do that,” he said.

Some of those same folks working at the counter, in inside sales, or in the warehouse or bookkeeping departments today, will be among the next generation of managers. These sometimes “forgotten” employees will remember the salespeople who breezed past them on the way to visit the purchasing agent or company owner. More importantly, they won't forget the salesperson who took the time to visit with them.

Bob Benton, the recently retired president of RB Sales Corp., Marion, Iowa, and winner of Electrical Wholesaling's 2004 GEM Award for Independent Manufacturers' Reps (page 35) is another big believer in building relationships with “the little people” at electrical contractors and other end users, electrical distributors and electrical manufacturers. Benton and son-in-law Bill Devereaux, RB Sales Corp.'s chief executive officer and president, make sure inside sales personnel at all the manufacturers they represent get to know RB Sales' inside sales personnel, and when practical, take them out to dinner. They also spoil them rotten come the holiday season.

It reminds me of a lesson I learned from a college professor who taught public relations. Dr. Bagin was a public-relations advisor for principals and superintendents in public school districts and college deans at universities. Bagin gained notoriety for teaching educators how to build simple but effective communications networks in schools and colleges.

The networks consisted of handpicked groups of people in the school district or college community who were “key communicators” — those people who always seem to know what's happening and are respected and listened to in their communities. Administrators use these networks to get information out to the community in an informal but timely manner, and as an early warning system that catches trouble around the bend.

More often than not, Dr. Bagin found that these people worked at jobs that could easily be overlooked. In the educational world, a key communicator is often a chatty janitor who cleans teachers' rooms after school and likes to shoot the breeze with them about how the day went; the secretary in the front office who handles attendance records and talks with parents, students and teachers; or a school board member who is an opinion leader in the community and has the respect of parents, teachers and other community leaders.

Along with having a lot of influence on buying decisions, the “little people” at electrical contractors, a local industrial account, or any other customer often play the role of key communicator. Think of it the next time you are talking with the office help at an electrical contractor or the receptionist at a larger account. These people often act as “gatekeepers,” and control access to the people you want to see. As key communicators, they control access to information you need, such as the boss' schedule for the next few weeks, or upcoming but not yet publicly announced bid dates.

It just goes to show that you don't need an MBA to develop a simple-but-effective communications strategy for your business.