Reps are more pragmatic than philosophical, but they've figured out an ultimate truth.

The Greek philosopher Socrates devised a method of philosophical inquiry that has come to be known as the “Socratic Method.” It involves seeking answers to life's mysteries by constantly asking questions. An example reported by Socrates' pupil, Plato, was a question posed by another student asking, “Can virtue be taught?” Socrates then asked, “Can you tell me what virtue is?” The conversation went on through a series of questions and dialogue that probed the essence of virtue and knowledge.

If you're wondering what conclusions they reached, it shows you don't understand much about philosophy. This is perfectly okay, because ours is an industry of doers much more than philosophers, and when you really think things through, getting things done is more important than merely thinking about them. However, I would like to bear witness to a recent industry gathering in which the Socratic Method was used to uncover an important ultimate truth.

This year's mid-April AIM/R Management Conference in Orlando included the group's traditional open-mic discussion on a Saturday morning, in which members were invited to let their hair down and speak out about anything under the sun. The annual open forum usually amounts to little more than a gripe session that allows members to let off steam. However, this year's program came closer to achieving something substantive than any previously witnessed by this reporter.

It proceeded pretty much in accordance with the Socratic Method. I won't betray confidences by identifying individual speakers, and what follows is not an exact rendition of the words spoken. However, the statements quoted below are a reasonable approximation of the line of inquiry that began with someone reciting the familiar gripe of reps everywhere - added demands put on them by their vendors without a corresponding increase in commissions. Reps, for example, increasingly are asked to be the market research arm of manufacturers, and in many cases serve as their front-line customer service contacts.

“How do we go about getting paid for all the extras we are being asked to provide?” the original speaker asked, more or less.

“Do they really need all the stuff they ask of us?” another rep wondered.

Then ensued a discussion of why manufacturers ask for so much information and service. A consensus developed among the group that manufacturers did indeed have legitimate business reasons for requesting all the stuff they do.

“Who's in the best position to provide these services?” someone followed up.

The conversation then led to the logical conclusion that reps are the ideal link between manufacturers and the marketplace. One voice from the audience scornfully pointed out that factory-based customer service often gets done by low-paid CSRs who barely can describe what their employer makes. Someone brought up wholesalers and spoke in sympathetic fashion about the challenges faced by this channel, and why they weren't in a good position to provide some of the services being passed on to reps.

“Doesn't it enhance our value to be able to provide these services?” came another Socratic inquiry.

“Yes, but doesn't that mean we should be compensated for them?” someone else responded.

Heads nodded, but voices also spoke up urging the audience to look at things from the manufacturers' perspective. They, too, have their backs against the wall. One rep referred back to the mesmerizing presentation made two days earlier by PMI President Todd Talbot, in which he detailed the daunting challenges facing American manufacturers. (See AIM/R news story on page 4.)

“Everyone is being asked to provide more for less nowadays,” a rep in the audience opined. “We must learn to operate more efficiently and keep increasing our value,” he concluded.

As noted, this is a simplified version of the wide-ranging discussion that occurred among AIM/R members at this early morning session. But it captures the essence of their deliberations.

Almost magically, what started out as a gripe session ended with empathy for all segments of the supply chain. The mood turned from resentment to a philosophical acceptance of their lot in life, which most reps concluded wasn't all that bad.

Socrates would be proud. And this story has a happier ending than his. Nobody was forced to swallow any hemlock. <<