Following the AIM/R 48th Annual Conference and Virtual Meeting , which took place on October 22 and 23, Supply House Times held its annual RepCouncil roundtable discussion via Microsoft Teams, and was able to chat with Conference Chair Michelle Lewnes-Dadas, CPMR, vice president of sales at Preferred Sales Inc., about the behind-the-scenes of the event.
Lewnes-Dadas says the decision to go virtual was made in March, and the extensive planning process began in May.
“When COVID-19 first hit, we began weekly board meetings, quickly realizing we needed to think about options for postponing our September event,” she says. “I think I was the first person to say, ‘Why don’t we do it virtual?’ And from that moment on I became Conference Chair.”
This was the first year AIM/R had an entire Conference Committee to put on the event, as opposed to just a singular Conference Chair.
“I realized immediately I needed an army of people to help pull this off,” Lewnes-Dadas says. “Every member of the committee had great ideas; there’s a piece of each person within the conference and they truly left their mark.”
The Conference Committee worked with its management company, CM Services, in order to plan the virtual event. Lewnes-Dadas says she wouldn’t have been able to tackle this project without Stacey Woldt, executive director at CM Services and Kaitlin O’Brien, association coordinator, or her Conference Committee.
When deciding what this virtual conference should look like, and what elements of the usual in-person conference needed to be included, Lewnes-Dadas says the committee relied heavily on survey feedback from years past.
“Members consistently provide positive feedback about the level of engagement within the annual roundtable discussions,” she says. “They also note they benefit and learn the most from each other, rather than the paid speakers.”
This is how the idea to do something a little different, and include updates from major national distributors, came up. The AIM/R virtual conference included addresses from Hajoca, Ferguson and Winsupply.
“We thought this was a good opportunity to give our members access to the executives of these major distributors, which is something they don’t ordinarily get,” she says.
Throughout the live sessions, members could take advantage of the chat feature, and conversations were flowing constantly.
“We wanted members to be able to discuss, ask each other questions and learn from each other while listening to the speakers, and that’s exactly what they did,” she says.
Lewnes-Dadas notes the core values of AIM/R proved strong through the conference itself and the months leading up.
“Those weekly board meetings were like therapy to me,” she says. “We are all volunteers and run businesses in addition to this. With the unknowns this year it was vital to talk with members from all over, asking how they’re handling things and what’s going on in their areas.”
The AIM/R 48th Annual Conference brought in 390 attendees – 265 reps and 58 manufacturers. Those attendee numbers are relatively close to those of an in-person conference; Lewnes-Dadas says the conference usually brings in 350-450 total attendees.
Feedback from the virtual conference confirms members are after engagement, connection and the ability to learn from each other.
“Based on our surveys after the conference, attendees say the content they wanted was there and they appreciated the ongoing interaction between members,” she says. “Some people said the virtual roundtables might be the best roundtables they’ve ever attended.”
Lewnes-Dadas says AIM/R Chairman Mike Mullen, CPMR has many plans to keep the organization connected and the momentum from the conference going throughout next year.
“Plans for our 2021 conference in San Diego are in full swing,” she notes. “The goal of the board is to continue with the 365, 24/7 value proposition; we want our members to constantly have access to best practices and communication.”
Throughout this year, manufacturers’ reps have had to adapt to industry changes, a halt on outside sales calls, work-from-home initiatives and so much more. This year’s RepCouncil included six active AIM/R members who have each learned things about their companies and quickly adjusted business operations in order to continue to serve customers.
Relationships with wholesale-distributors
Benn Freeman, CPMR, president of Orlando, Florida-based The Spirit Group says the pandemic’s effects have resulted in quicker response times across the board.
“We’ve been able to respond to inquiries from distributors and manufacturers faster because we’re always behind our computers,” he says. “We’re also receiving quicker responses from manufacturers; we aren’t having to wait until people are done traveling and back in the office.”
Vice President at Washington-based Synergy Sales, Benda Cashdollar, CPMR agrees, “We are talking on a day-to-day basis with distributors and manufacturers because there’s an enhanced level of availability.”
Better response time and more availability translates to interacting with customers. Jessica Kolaitis, CPMR accounting and operations manager at Tim Morales & Associates says the customer services team never stopped.
“We’ve always had a heavy emphasis on customer service, so our top goal was to make sure our customer service was never interrupted,” she says.
All of this enhanced communication has led to more in-depth relationships between reps and distributors. Principal at The Morgan Group and AIM/R Executive Committee member Brian Morgan says, “We’ve developed a closer relationship with our distributors and have learned what their pain-points are.”
“We’re all trying to get to the end customer, so we’ve been able to feed off of each other to look after customers from both a technical standpoint and a material on-site standpoint,” Morgan adds.
David Hawthorne, vice president of sales for Charlotte, North Carolina-based Snider Inc. agrees that relationships have stayed strong and communication is more frequent than ever.
“We’ve seen growth in the service contractor side, which has kept our distributors extremely busy this year,” Hawthorne says. “Them being so busy has led to more interaction with us, and we’ve had to be creative with how we interact due to COVID.”
“Rather than being on the road, people are at home wondering what is going on in their areas,” he adds. “We’ve taken it upon ourselves to stay in constant communication with our manufacturers to let them know what and how we’re doing.”
Tom Gallagher, vice president of sales at New York-based firm, Altherm, brings up an interesting point about the work-from-home atmosphere.
“I think we’ve gained a mutual respect for peoples’ schedules,” he says. “We are all trying to stay in touch while some are supervising at-home school or caring for an elderly family member; there’s a bigger picture to what’s going on and I’ve seen adaptability in accommodating peoples’ lives when trying to stay connected.”
Sales processes have changed
Many reps and other businesses faced the initial challenge of making sure doors were able to stay open and employees were able to continue work early on this year. After crossing that hurdle, the sales process for reps has drastically changed.
“Everywhere our team goes, we’re guests. So we not only have to set up rules for our employees and how we want to do business, but we’ve had to conform to the safety precautions of our customers.” Morgan says.
Across the board, outside sales reps have turned windshield time into screen time, which presents its own set of challenges.
Morgan notes he’s focused on helping sales teams adapt to this change. “Our sales people love to be face-to-face and love to be on the road, and since there’s still a lot of apprehension about visiting warehouses in person, they’re having to adapt to new way of selling.”
Hawthorne raises another point about increased screen time.
“We have sales people who are used to being out and about five days per week now working at home with no in-person interaction,” he says. “We want to make sure their mental health is okay; it’s a huge change and we have to stay engaged in the market.”
Retail stepping into the pro side
National retail chains continue to try to connect with the contractor, competing with the strong contractor relationships reps and distributor have built.
Cashdollar says when the pandemic first hit and some local counters closed, it did force contractors’ business into the retail stores. “Contractors don’t always have time to call ahead and wait for orders in their car; it was easier just to walk into the big box store and instantly get what they need.”
Hawthorne agrees, explaining that home centers are creating “For the Pro” segments and going after commercial and residential contractor business.
“Historically, these products where strictly sold through wholesale-distribution,” he says. “Retail stores are open on average an additional 30 hours per week more than distributors. These national companies also have the capabilities to enhance ecommerce and online service options.”
Chashdollar says responding to this challenge is about protecting customer relationships. Gallagher agrees, “It goes back to service. In the beginning of this, our sales force was out and about delivering price books to front doors and sending emails letting customers know we were still there.”
Avoiding a training overload
Virtual training has truly taken off in 2020, and there are a multitude of options for contractors and distributors. Reps agree it’s key to avoid a content overload.
“We started virtual trainings and received feedback from distributors saying the presentations were too long,” Kolaitis says. “So we dialed them back to about 15-30 minutes; they might be an intro to a product or highlights on what products we think will work well for their business.”
Freeman says at this point, many have sat through a lot of virtual trainings and might be hesitant to attend more. “There’s a way to incorporate training into your meetings, but if you call it a training you’re going to get resistance,” he says. “You want to talk about their business and take a few minutes at the end to present training follow-up options if they’re interested.”
Reps are working diligently on digital presence this year. Morgan says The Morgan Group hired a digital marketing company. “They’re experts in this area where we aren’t, and we’re working with them to be more targeted with our digital marketing,” he says. “Everyone is facing a lot of requests to engage online, so we’re focused on presenting content on specific situations where we can offer solutions to fix problems.”