A showroom owner learned the value of reps by becoming one.

For 13 years, I owned a bath showroom in an affluent area of New Jersey. I had bills to pay, a demanding clientele to satisfy and a staff with their own set of problems. Not to mention all the other trappings of a small business. Sound familiar?

Every so often, as the pile of work on my desk reached toward the ceiling, a manufacturers rep would walk in the door to test my patience. "Not another one," I'd mutter. "Here come the fresh donuts and stale jokes." And he wouldn't disappoint as he walked around, shook hands with everyone and was gone in a flash. I'd wonder why the manufacturers didn't give me that 10% they were paying him. Since I worked long hours to get all my work done, I wanted everyone else connected with my business to be a contributing factor as well, including the reps. No one likes to see someone making money for doing very little.

But one day I sold my business and took a job as a rep. The first thing I did was to interview showroom owners on what they needed me to do for them. Most looked at me and laughed. They told me that the manufacturers were wasting their money since most reps rarely showed up, were slow to return phone calls and did as little as possible. The ones that did make the rounds contributed mostly entertainment. They expected me to join the crowd and enjoy the easiest job in the industry. There were not a lot of kind words being spoken on this subject.

I thought that this might be an accurate analysis of some reps but it couldn't possibly be true of most of them. More importantly, why was this the perception and what could be done about it?

Despite my empathetic relationship with my new customers, it became apparent that I needed to bring something more to the table if I was going to prove my worth and make any money at this new job. When I owned my showroom, they all knew me as a good competitor. Now that I was a rep, they didn't expect too much from me. They were also too busy cursing my luck for "getting out of the business!"

It became apparent in my travels that many showroom owners had not given much thought on how to get more out of their reps. It never occurred to them that a rep could contribute to their success. Certainly a rep that does not want to work is a lost cause. But most reps take pride in their efforts and have much to offer. This perception of weak performance is due to a lack of communication, unknown expectations and inaccurate assumptions between showroom owners and reps.

To begin with, showroom owners must communicate their expectations with their reps. Arrange a meeting with each one, much like you would with your employees, and discuss performance. Let them know how often you think they should visit each of your locations and your reasons why. Make sure they understand which personnel you want them to see and which ones they should leave alone. Communicate what you think they are doing well and what needs work, just as you would with your staff. Without this guidance, reps can only do what they assume you want them to do.

For their part, reps need to understand that businesses, like people, are unique and one size doesn't fit all. They need to figure out what works best for each customer. It's certainly a big help if you, as the showroom owner, contribute to this process. This effort on your part can pay big dividends for your business. Otherwise, you are probably losing out on a valuable resource. And in today's marketplace, every competitive edge should be developed and used to its maximum advantage.

This communication must be ongoing. Consider the following scenario: One of your reps is in your showroom and offers an opinion to a showroom salesperson working with a customer. You as the showroom owner interpret the situation as an intrusion into your business. The message you leave in the rep's voice mail leaves no doubt that his presence is no longer welcome. Whether his input was positive or not, if this is the only communication that the rep has received from you in awhile, you just lost a potentially strong resource.

It would be more productive to ask the rep to meet with you to discuss the situation. Better yet, an advance discussion on what you expect from the rep will help avoid these types of negative situations from ever happening.

Expectations, Training
Reps quickly figure out which companies have created an environment that encourages contributions and which seem satisfied with the minimum effort. With so many personalities to deal with on a daily basis, reps must draw their own conclusions as to what they think each showroom owner expects of them. If these conclusions are incorrect, they will stay that way until the showroom owner takes the time to talk to them about what he feels the rep can do to contribute more.

A knowledgeable rep is an asset for those showroom owners who know how to get the most out of him. He can offer both product and sales training, and can be flexible enough to present it when it is convenient for the showroom personnel. Your showroom people need to have a certain amount of technical knowledge in order to properly present their products and answer questions accurately. The rep should know how to teach this in a clear and concise manner so the salesperson can learn and use it.

Some reps even offer sales training. This is a real plus for your business. An outsider's contribution can be quite refreshing for showroom salespeople. Most showroom owners or managers do not have the time, and perhaps patience, to offer consistent sales training. So their most important assets - their people - are often ignored in this important area. Someone outside the company may be better suited for sales training. Reps should be knowledgeable in this area and also be able to communicate what is working elsewhere, without compromising another customer's business.

Offering any type of training to your people shows them that you feel they are worth the investment. Good salespeople understand this and appreciate your show of good faith. Everyone needs a little change to his or her routine now and then. Employees who like their work will have a more positive attitude. Attitude is everything, especially with salespeople who have direct contact with the decision makers in the sale. Your customers won't be eager to buy from someone who needs an attitude adjustment or doesn't know much.

Any newly acquired knowledge will add to the showroom owner's bottom line. Today's sophisticated buyers demand a knowledgeable salesperson or they will go elsewhere to find one.

Problem Solving
Reps should get involved when problems surface. Your salespeople may be good at selling, but that doesn't necessarily make them good at problem solving. Having them spend their time trying to resolve a customer's complaint is probably not going to turn out to be cost effective for your company. Plus they might make the situation worse if problem solving is not their strength.

Getting a knowledgeable rep involved will usually solve the problem in less time, without using up your staff's valuable selling time. If necessary, a good rep can go out to the house to see the problem first hand and determine the real cause of the difficulty. This type of service usually impresses your customer. They will tell their friends how fast you responded rather than how lousy your service is.

This also lets your rep do his job and become the bridge between the manufacturer and your customer. He can also team up with the installer to get the correct parts to complete the process and make the problem go away.

Also, the rep can communicate to the salesperson exactly what went wrong. If anyone in your business inadvertently contributed to the creation of the problem, steps can be taken to avoid a repeat. Not learning from mistakes can be costly.

Once a rep has established his ability and desire to contribute, your salespeople will start using him as a resource more often. When showroom people feel confident that the rep is on their team and can contribute to their success, their self-confidence in selling the products will increase.This is a win-win for you and the rep. It is particularly critical to have good representation for your most profitable lines.

When showroom owners and reps develop a good working relationship with each other, additional benefits will surface, such as better communication between you and your staff. Your salespeople might feel more comfortable speaking with an outsider than with you regarding ideas and issues that concern them. Often a rep can be that outside person and bring these issues back to the showroom owner.

Reps also know what is going on in the "real world." Showroom people spend most of their working time within the same four walls. They need to know the news of the industry beyond what they read in the industry magazines. A rep can share what others are doing, what is working, and what is not. When your salespeople are more aware of what is going on in their trade, it adds to their professional image and gives them the needed self-confidence to write more business.

Good reps can contribute more than just updating binders and passing along a few good jokes. They can put money in your pocket if you make them part of your team. It is in everyone's best interests for you to do so. Make a list of your reps that you feel have the most potential to help you grow your business. Write out what they can do for you and the best way to reach those goals. Then meet with them and share your thoughts. When you do, the benefits of the hard-working rep will come through for your bottom line.