If reps were perfect, they could join their mythically perfect supply chain partners -- manufacturers and distributors - to form a team of mythical superheroes. Unfortunately, all three entities are far from perfect. But reps, like manufacturers and distributors, have come a long way in perfecting their professional skills while building strong organizations. All reps are entrepreneurial "risk takers" and should also be recognized as being among the industry's multi-talented individuals. That's not because they "wanna be," but more important, they have to be! Just think about it. Most manufacturers and distributors have a stable of specialists - vice presidents for this and vice presidents for that. The manufacturers' representative typically is his own multi-functional, multi-tasking, multi-lined, multi-pressured, multi-alarm fireman. This doesn't make him perfect, but it does point out that the rep field sales function is every bit as demanding as any of the other supply chain partners. It also brings to light that the good ones are extremely talented. You may think that this is a bold and brazen statement, but stop and think about it. Reps are typically small by their nature and yet they have to be proficient in a plethora of skills such as being:

  • Productive salespeople
  • Professional people managers
  • Skilled sales managers
  • Talented marketing managers
  • Astute market development managers
  • Technology experts
  • MIS managers
  • Finance managers
  • Business plan makers
  • Forecasters
  • Budgeters
  • Report creators
  • Sales meeting presenters
  • Contract analysts
  • Line acquirers
  • Networkers
  • Good hosts and entertainers

and myriad other stuff. Am I exaggerating? I wish I were. Most reps will tell you that there isn't enough time in their day. They'll also state that they are fierce competitors trying to perfect all of the aforementioned skills. Did I leave out "consultants and advisors?" How silly of me. That's another calling for reps, who are honored by being asked to serve on "rep councils." I think they're great, but to do it right it takes prep time and smarts, not to mention another precious weekend away from family, friends, hobbies and relaxation. Don't get me wrong -- this writer loves helping principals develop more perfect:

  • Marketing programs
  • Incentive programs
  • Performance analysis for reps, distributors and principals
  • S.W.O.T. (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) reviews
  • Great sales meetings
  • Better training tools
  • Performance standards for reps, principals, RSMs and territory visits
  • New products
  • Registration programs
  • Split commission tracking
  • Advertising ideas

If you think this is a long list, remember that many reps are chartered with educating and motivating their network of competing distributors, which means that they have to be diplomatic politicians -- especially on sensitive, competitive distributor business issues. Like distributors, they don't want to offend or upset any of their supply chain partners - and this is not easy!

Limited Line Count
Some naeve industry colleagues believe the perfect rep firm should have only one line (principal) for which it captures 100% market share. In the eyes of the imperfect manufacturer, the rep will work for minimal commissions and the imperfect distributor will expect 100% of the business to be referred to him. Please stop laughing and I'll come back to the world of reality.

Today's rep really does want a limited, synergistic line card for which he can generate a reasonable income and comfortable lifestyle. Additionally, all reps want fair and stable commission rates and no "house accounts." The lower the rates, the more lines a rep is subject to have. The perfect principal understands this aspect of the rep business. The perfect rep does not take on more lines for the sake of it, but only out of necessity. When he takes on additional lines, they are always synergistic with existing principals.

Time Share/Mind Share
The perfect rep creates the feeling that each principal is his most important line and receives the majority of his time. Minimally, each line does receive its "fair share." Perfect reps allocate time for each principal and thoroughly pre-plan appointments with key decision-makers. They are mindful of selling more than just products. They track and communicate all "design wins" and losses. They invite principals into the territory when there is a major opportunity or problem. Perfect reps are proactive and not just reactive. They are time management experts -- they have to be! The perfect rep has a perfect understanding of R.O.T. (Return on Time). Time is the rep's only inventory and each hour must be allocated wisely.

Why is it that the most common thread of imperfection has always been communication? This applies to suppliers (principals), distributors and representatives. The irony is that we now have the best communication technology the world has ever seen, but keep in mind that imperfect people are chartered with the responsibility of using and maintaining it.

The perfect rep is the ultimate communicator. He provides prompt responses to customers, principals and distribution partners. He submits reports and forecasts in a timely manner. His phone is answered by people who care and voice mail is used only during off-hours. He has ample landlines, cell phones, pagers and the soon-to-be-obsolete fax machines. He fully utilizes e-mail and documents everything. The perfect rep informs his partners of problems and issues as they happen and does not wait to document issues and problems in monthly reports. His entire team communicates, although he uses his inside staff for details while conserving precious selling time for the outside sales team.

The perfect rep recognizes the value of e-mail as a communications tool, but doesn't lose sight of the importance of direct, face-to-face contact. This applies to interacting with all supply chain partners -- especially customers! Rapport and strong relationships are developed over a desk, not over cyberspace. The perfect rep realizes that passion and enthusiasm for his products cannot be effectively conveyed via a cold e-mail transmission. Nothing takes the place of "pressing flesh" (handshake) when it comes to assuring a customer that he'll get the right product or service on time and perfect (we hope). Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) was never intended to reduce face-to-face interaction, but to be an effective tool to expeditiously process orders and information. It makes salespeople better informed and more efficient.

High-Tech Reps
Today's perfect rep is a high-tech organization with slick software systems that track opportunities, have account management, sales analysis, create RFQs, quotes, sample requests and even do databasing. If you don't have it yet -- think about it! If you don't get it -- shame on you! If you don't care -- you're in the wrong business! If I sound harsh, sorry -- but this is the 21st century and the era of the computer. If you don't know what I'm writing about, your electric company may have already turned off your lights.

Selling Products Vs. Relationships
The perfect rep in the 21st century will primarily focus on selling relationships and offer product solutions second. Product knowledge is easily accessible from the Internet and ironically, reps are no longer essential to disseminate product information. The perfect rep understands and masters account culture and has strong relationships with the "movers and shakers." He has a clear view of his own relationships and that of competition. In regard to products, he has a firm grasp of his competitors' advantages as well as his own. He remembers that products become obsolete and relationships last forever.

"Can Do" Attitude
The perfect rep believes that he is in control of his own destiny, even though he is interdependent on his principal. He does not have frivolous excuses for losing the business, but a "game plan" to win it the next time. He feels that he is in command of both his business and personal life. He is keenly aware of his limitations and takes responsibility for his actions. He sets goals and has a strategy to achieve them. He collaborates with distributors, principals and customers. He does not try to control them -- only influence them in the best interest of all parties.

Advocacy For Manufacturers And Distributors
The perfect rep is the ultimate advocate for his principals. He tells and sells their customers on the fact that their imperfect principal is indeed "perfection personified." Is this a bad thing? No, that's precisely what professional reps are paid to do. The perfect rep also promotes and advocates distributor participation in as many transactions as possible, if distributors are part of the supply chain in his territory. The perfect rep understands the distribution function as well as his own. However, the rep should receive the same degree of advocacy from the distributor and principal as he gives. It's called reciprocity, or more simply stated -- mutual respect!

There doesn't seem to be as much loyalty in our great industry as there was in the past. Relationships are seemingly not as important as the "bottom line" -- not good! The perfect "superheroes" are truly loyal and respectful to their supply chain partners. Open and honest relationships must be promoted, honored and valued. Good business ethics must be the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure). Perfect reps realize that in order to thrive they must strive to work together and build solid and loyal partnerships.

Line Conflicts
The perfect rep has no line conflicts, but in the real world minor conflicts occur. Nonetheless, conflicts develop as a result of the product line expansion of some principals. The perfect principal understands these situations and does not make major issues of minor conflicts. Major conflicts obviously have to be dealt with in a non-emotional, businesslike manner. The perfect rep reports line conflicts, regardless of degree, as soon as they happen. The perfect principal is reasonable and does not overreact. There is never a question of integrity regarding product line conflict with the perfect rep.

Market Awareness
Just because the rep resides in his own territory doesn't mean he has market awareness. However, the perfect rep has a keen knowledge of where to sell his principals' products. He knows the potential TAM (total available market) and the SAM (served available market). The perfect rep maintains a database of this information to share with his perfect partners - principals and distributors. I hasten to add that the reverse is also true in a perfect business world. The marketing trio doesn't keep secrets -- they share their "marketing awareness."

The All-Star Staff
The perfect rep has an all-star team -- that means each team member is perceived as the very best in his or her prospective marketplace or account. Principals and customers view them as "the best" and wish they employed the same caliber of individuals. They are respected throughout the industry and sought after by competition. The perfect rep is humble, competent and confident, an all-star on the business front as well as with family, community and in religious faith. The perfect rep is honest and ethical to a fault.

Supply Chain Logistics
Distributors and manufacturers have requirements that are becoming a major focus of electronic commerce and supply chain planning. The question is, "Does that include the representative?" I say yes! The perfect rep should be able to plug into the principal's sophisticated EDI systems and provide instant customer support functions, as well as application and design assistance.

The perfect rep plans for succession -- not too early and not too late. The principal/owner of the perfect rep firm has hired people with the "right stuff," who are capable of taking the organization forward after his retirement. If he made the correct choices, the agency will continue to grow and flourish. If he made the wrong choices, the destiny is clear -- the agency will flounder and perish. The perfect rep firm principal/owner prepares successors with education like CPMR (Certified Professional Manufacturers' Rep-resentative) training.

The perfect rep must master the skill of negotiating -- with principals as well as customers. Most reps are proficient in their selling skills, but sometimes fall short on the important matter of negotiating. This especially applies to contracts and commission rates. Remember the Chester Karrass mantra, "In business you don't get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate." The perfect rep remembers this and is not negatively predisposed. He presents himself as a professional businessman and not just a salesman.

Last, but certainly not least, perfect reps are the exceptional performers. They have spectacular selling skills. They get to the ultimate decision-maker and make the perfect presentation for the perfect product and service that they sell. They personify professionalism. They overcome objections and ultimately close the sale at a price that the customer feels is fair and makes their principal happy. What more can you ask? The obvious! The perfect rep has perfect principals, who will ship perfect products on time through perfect distributors.

As businesspeople, we all realize that if we do not continue to improve, we fall behind. Personally, striving for perfection is my goal. Have you given any thought to how imperfect you and your company may be? This author, albeit imperfect, strives to be the perfect rep.