Wholesalers can benefit from the new, expanded role played by reps in the marketplace.

When I owned my business, I resolved to work as hard at developing good relationships with the reps that called on us as I did at developing the relationships with clients. I knew the tremendous benefits that a good rep could bring to the party.

I recently was asked to give a talk on the "Role of a Rep" at a national sales meeting for a large manufacturer/distributor of decorative plumbing products. In preparing for the talk, I was forced to really look at what role the rep should play. It used to be that a rep was pretty much a "peddler," calling on the same accounts, with the same truck full of products. There wasn't much organization or sophistication to the job.

Today's reps have to be more professional, organized and technically inclined. I've never done a scientific survey, but have felt for a long time that 25% of the reps are outstanding, 50% are fairly good and 25% should be doing something else.

Here's a "job description" for a rep who calls on showrooms, since that's the subject I write on.

Professional. The rep should look, act, talk and walk like a professional - all the time.

Considerate. Good reps respect your time and your job responsibilities. They always make appointments - convenient to you. They always have something of importance (business) to talk about. They always are on time and able to achieve their task in the allotted time. And you, likewise, will be considerate of the reps' time - and not keep them waiting. During the meeting you need to give them your undivided attention.

Knowledge. This means knowing their products, policies and procedures. It also means knowing the marketplace, the economy, your business, their competition, your competition and what you expect them to do.

Organized. Good reps are extremely organized with names, addresses, paperwork and schedules. Their cars are neat; their offices also are clean and neat.

Follow-Through. Good follow-through on everything is paramount. This means prompt replies to phone calls, e-mail, correspondence, requests and favors.

Integrity. They should always be 100% honest - in everything they do.

Communicate. They should keep everyone informed - on everything. Certainly they need to develop relationships with the principals of the business, but they need to get to know everyone.

Training. A very important part of the rep's job is an ongoing training program. Product knowledge is very important, but it's not the only thing. Sales training - how to sell - should be part of the training. Also, customers need and want more technical information than ever before.

A Marketing Plan. A yearly/monthly plan on sales, profitability, advertising and promotion, public relations, training and inventory should be developed with all the rep's "key" customers. He should sit with the principal quarterly and review progress.

A Value-Added Package. The rep should develop a list of reasons why a customer should be buying from him - products, pricing, delivery, brand recognition, service, quality, warranty, customer-friendly. Make sure every member of the showroom team knows and can recite these value-added features.

Showroom/Display Looks And Maintenance. Certainly the rep will want to have his display in a key location and always have it clean, complete and up-to-date. The rep also has a responsibility to communicate honestly with the showroom management on the overall look of the showroom. If the rest of the showroom isn't up to par, it will hurt the rep's product.

RGA'S And Inventory. Helping in these important areas is not the most fun part of the job, but it's critical to being a quality rep.

Selling For Profit Margin. This is not just your customers' responsibility - it's the reps' also. Teach salespeople how to improve their margin on sell. The more profitable the reps' products are to the business, the more their customers will want to sell the product.

Enthusiasm. The rep should show enthusiasm for the job, the products, the industry and for life! All this makes a rep more fun and interesting to work with.

Helping Clients Be Customer-Friendly. A rep should share thoughts and ideas on everything that will help make the showroom more successful. The showroom location, the image, what the showroom looks like, how it's maintained, the parking, lighting, restrooms, hours of business are all important. The rep will only be as good as his customers.

Exercising Empowerment. The rep needs to be free to make decisions, delegate, respond and act independently. If he needs to call the home office for every decision or check the showroom owner on everything, then the process will be slow, cumbersome and less effective.

Call On Trade Professionals. The rep should call on the trade professionals, hopefully with the showroom salesperson. He should talk about the quality of the products and services to architects, designers, builders, plumbers and homeowners. This will help increase awareness and revenues.

Be A Problem (Situation) Solver. The rep's customers, and their customers, will have situations that will require the help of the rep. A good rep will jump on these opportunities and make any problems go away as quickly and easily as possible.

Help The "Mom and Pop" Owners Be Better Business People. Encourage small business owners to become more sophisticated and professional in their management styles - everything from financial management to human resources to marketing and sales management. If the smaller business owners don't become better business managers in a hurry, many of them won't survive the evolution that's taking place in the marketplace. Reps can help keep this from happening - by expanding their role and their job description.

The role of the rep has evolved tremendously since my early days in the wholesale business. I hope showroom owners and managers will share this article with the reps who call on them. I also hope that the reps and their customers will continue to work hard at improving and growing their partnerships. <<

Hank Darlington owns Darlington Consulting. In addition to writing several monthly articles for magazines and teaching seminars, he offers a full range of small business consulting services to kitchen and bath dealers, distributors and manufacturers. He can be reached at 2010 Granite Bar Way, Gold River, CA 95670. Phone: 916/852-6855, fax: 916/852-8866, or e-mail: darlingtonconsulting@hotmail.com.