Change and adaptability are two words that come up often when speaking about the past 18 months. Specifically, the role of manufacturers’ reps has shifted as the industry adapts to COVID-19 protocols and an evolving digital age. According to Bob Mycoff, president of Florida-based rep firm Harry Warren, there is more involvement than ever between manufacturers and their reps.

“We’re sharing more data and information to each other than ever before,” he says. “Right now, our manufacturers are making massive decisions every day, so any intel we can provide them to help is essential. We’re all working together to create a better marketplace.”

From the manufacturing side, Rick Hawk, vice president of wholesale sales at A. O. Smith, says with products becoming more advanced, the rep role is increasingly important.

“Our relationships with our reps is more important than ever,” he says. “A. O. Smith continues to create new products with new technology and innovation and our sales staff alone cannot reach and train all of the contractors that need to learn about our products.”

Hawk points out that as the market changes to meet demand and new customer needs, rep agencies must change as well. “Our reps are doing a phenomenal job keeping up with market changes. They are both our sales force and our training force. As products become more complex, our relationships with reps will continue to become more important.”

As the industry faces current supply chain disruption, it’s vital for reps and manufacturers to be more aligned. Chuck Dean, regional vice president, west, for A. O. Smith says reps are an extension of the company’s management team.

“We rely on them to be our eyes and ears out in the workforce,” he says. “Reps help us hear the voice of the customer and their feedback truly helps us with decision making and the overall direction of the company.”

In addition to as stronger partnership than ever before, Bob Saylor, president at Arizona and Southern Nevada-based PIR Sales, reaction time is quicker on all ends. “Everything is happening at a faster pace these days — whether it’s new products coming out or a change in specifications for a job — everyone must react quicker,” he says. “And it’s not just one key person from a rep agencies that’s involved. It’s our customer service team and salespeople that are all communicating with our manufacturers on a regular basis.”

Similarly to the constant communication with manufacturers, Saylor says the flow of information must reach distributor partners as well.

“Distributors are dealing with a lot right now and are very busy, but it’s still important that we get our product information to them one way or another,” he says. “This is still a people business, so we’re doing everything we can to stay in communication with our wholesalers.”

Throughout the challenges of COVID-19 and the current supply chain issues, both the reps and A.O. Smith agree that there is a mutual respect among all parties.

“The conditions we’re working in right now are stressful, so having a mutual trust and respect between the rep and its manufacturer as well as between the rep and distributors is key,” Mycoff says. “A lot of things are thrown at us in a day, but it all goes back to providing solutions. We try to remain as calm and collected as possible so we can focus on getting information flowing and ultimately helping the contractor do their job.”

According to Hawk, a good rep agency can help manufacturers manage any disruption that comes up. “Our rep agencies are there to help manage this disruption every day, and they succeed in doing so,” he says. “I truly believe that as a manufacturer, we do not have enough people to manage disruption completely on our own; we need our reps to do that. They cover for us and their other vendors during a time like this.”

To listen to our exclusive interview with Rick Hawk and Chuck Dean on the And So It Flows Podcast, click here.

The training force

Training has seen a multitude of changes over the past year and a half, adopting a virtual format in many cases. Saylor points out that PIR Sales is taking a hybrid approach. “We’re offering a little bit of everything when it comes to training,” he says. “In some cases we’re able to do in-person trainings and in others we’re planning virtual. Thankfully, A. O. Smith has a wonderful virtual training platform of their own, so that’s been great to have.”

Mycoff agrees, saying A. O. Smith was truly ahead of the curve, offering both live and on-demand virtual training prior to the pandemic. “We’re able to tailor A. O. Smith’s training options to contractors or distributors,” he says. “Kudos to them for the training investment they made years ago that positioned all of us to be prepared for a virtual training world.”

Hawk points out that A. O. Smith loves to bring people into its in-person Ashland City, Tennessee training facility, but there are just too many people the company wants to train, so investing in the virtual options and live-steaming has been beneficial to both A. O. Smith its reps.

Dean adds that reps provide technical knowledge and support that supports A. O. Smith’s training program. “Products have become more complicated, such as high-efficiency products, that require more training,” he says. “A lot of our reps have certified plumbers on staff that are prepared to share knowledge and train customers on these new products.”

Continuous improvement with AIM/R

When it comes to building and maintaining strong relationships between reps and vendor partners, both parties agree involvement with AIM/R is key. AIM/R’s 49th annual conference will take place in person Sept. 28 through Oct. 1 in San Diego, and A. O. Smith is co-sponsoring the keynote speaker along with Supply House Times.  

AIMR Annual conference

 

Hawk says one of the most valuable things AIM/R offers its rep members is personal development. “At A. O. Smith, we believe in continuous development — we work to develop our people all of the time,” he says. “So it’s important for our reps to do the same. We work to develop our rep teams as it related to our products, and AIM/R helps us do that.”

Dean adds that AIM/R provides opportunity for reps to become better agencies in many ways, such as working on succession planning and through its Certified Professional Manufacturers’ Rep (CPMR) program.

“Nothing is more satisfying to me than seeing a rep agency succeed in succession,” he says. “AIM/R helps them do that by teaching them how to run an agency with longevity. It’s incredibly important to us as a manufacturer that our rep agencies be sustainable, and that they don’t just revolve around one or two people. AIM/R truly helps agencies grow and develop.”

Mycoff echoes the importance of AIM/R’s CPMR program. “This program allows the individual to dive deep into that professional position, become more effective sales-wise and learning all aspects of the supply chain,” he says. “Not only does it provide professionalism, but it’s a peer group where we are able to discuss issues or concerns in a non-invasive manner and learn from other reps.”

Saylor adds that there is much more to a successful rep than just selling product, and AIM/R helps its member simply run their businesses better. “Whether it's insurance needs or personal needs, AMR/R helps develop and teach its members,” he says. “When you’re involved in AIM/R I believe the manufacturers look at you in a different position — they know you’re a professional organization that’s constantly working towards growth and better business practices.”

An ever-changing role

Both manufacturers and reps agree than staying proactive with industry changes and adapting to customer needs is how rep agencies will remain strong.

“We need our reps for so many things, and there are many things our reps do that go unnoticed,” Hawk notes. “This isn’t going to change; we will always need our reps. There is a lot of longevity there and I see the role of the rep becoming more important to manufacturers, not less. They will continue to provide competitive intelligence for us and their relationships are decades long, so that continuity is extremely important to us.”

Dean points out that like the remainder of the industry, reps should be focused on bringing in young, new talent into their agencies. “We couldn’t do this without our reps,” he says. “We don’t leave it all up to the reps by any means, but their longstanding relationships and industry knowledge is a huge deal for us. They’re the glue that holds us together.”

Mycoff says he looks forward to continuing to reconnect with both friends and business associates throughout the remainder of the year. “We’re really good at relationship selling and we are excited to be getting back into that,” he says. “Our goal is to grow and expand; always be evolving and be better today than we were yesterday.”