Well, I've stirred up a little bit of a controversy - and we need your (the readers') help to resolve it! I'll summarize the situation for you - but if you really want all the facts, refer to my article on manufacturers reps in the SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES December 2005 issue, page 71. Then dig out your January 2006 issue and read the letter to the editor from Bill Freeman, president of AIM/R (Association of Independent Manufacturers'/Representatives).

The theme of my December article was how to make manufacturers reps more valuable to your business. It was directed toward showrooms, but would certainly be applicable to the wholesale side of your business as well.

In the article I said that I had developed a Vendor Rating Form that showrooms (and wholesalers) could use to rate their vendor partners. It's a two page form and it lists 26 different criteria that can be used to rate a vendor. The purpose of the form is to identify the stronger and weaker areas as it relates to your working relationship with that vendor. Identifying the weaker areas then enables you to sit with the vendor and try to improve the relationship. It's a win-win for all involved. The form can also be used to analyze any new vendors you might be considering. One of the criteria involves the rep that calls on you.

I offered to e-mail a copy of this form to anyone who wanted it. I received more than 350 requests for the form. Many of the requests included a note complimenting me on the article. (If you didn't ask for a copy of the form, and would still like it, please send me an e-mail requesting it).

Now for the part of the article that created the controversy. In the first paragraph I suggested that my personal experience was that 25% of all the reps out there were good, 50% were average and 25% were poor. Please know that my experience includes 40 years of working in the industry, owning and operating my own showroom business, giving talks and seminars all over the United States and Canada and for the past 10 years doing a considerable amount of consulting for wholesalers, manufacturers and independent kitchen and bath dealers. Before I wrote the article I called about a dozen owners of showroom businesses and asked their opinion. They agreed with my numbers. In the article I did state that my “survey” was not very scientific.

All the e-mails and calls I received after the article was published (most people requesting the vendor rating form) were positive with the exception of one. I received a phone call from Bill Freeman, a rep in Florida and the 2005-2006 president of AIM/R. He took exception to my numbers. He kept saying that I was stating as a given fact that 75% of all the reps out there were average or worse. I countered that I was not stating a fact, but relying on my personal experience and the input from a relatively few other business owners - and that I was saying that 75% of the reps were average or better. The old adage of “is the glass half empty or half full?” crosses my mind. We had a very courteous and spirited conversation. I said I wasn't surprised that someone from AIM/R responded in defense. I would have been disappointed if they hadn't. In the end, neither of us was willing to budge on our feelings. I suggested that he write a letter to the editor of SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES to express his opposing views, with the hope that it would open up continued dialogue that might produce positive results for both the showrooms and the reps. He did write the editor and it has given me an opportunity to respond.

In his letter to SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES Mr. Freeman suggests that my personal experience of owning/operating a three-location business doesn't give me the qualifications to “gauge manufacturers representatives' value proposition for the industry nationally.” I've already elaborated on my “qualifications” for making this statement.

Mr. Freeman also infers that my “comments (and statistics) likely were crafted” for my own self-serving interest. I resent that inference. For the past 13 years I've written a monthly article for this fine publication. My total commitment and goal has been, and always will be, to help the industry that I love do better in running its showroom operations.

Back to more positive comments. Mr. Freeman does state that there was “one positive” in my December article - and that was the 26 point manufacturers rep job description. He overlooked the Vendor Analysis Form that some 350 readers requested.

One more comment on the 25% good, 50% average and 25% poor comment I made to which Mr. Freeman takes exception. In February of this year I had the pleasure of giving a talk to about 450 wholesale members of the Omni Buying Group. I mentioned to the group that I had ruffled some feathers in the manufacturers rep side of the business. I recited the 25%-50%-25% numbers and asked how they felt. With a show of hands there was an almost unanimous indication that my numbers might have been too generous…that the average to poor group might be larger. The size of my survey grew - but I admit it still isn't “scientific”! You might think I felt good that I received support for my side of the story. I don't! It bothers me tremendously that a very important part of our industry, our reps, may not be perceived as adding the value that they should to the vendor-wholesaler showroom relationship.

Whatever the “real” numbers might be, a lot of people seem to agree that there's room for the manufacturers rep to improve. So how does this happen? Is this left totally up to the manufacturers? Certainly a large part of it is their responsibility. How many manufacturers have formal, written job descriptions for their reps? If you don't, use my 26 point list in the December article as a starting point. How many manufacturers have a formal, written policy and procedures manual for their reps? How many do regularly scheduled (at least once a year) job performance evaluations with each and every rep? How many manufacturers “survey” their wholesaler partners to find out how their reps are doing and is there anything the “home office” can do to improve the partnership? How many manufacturers have a formal, written training program - that starts day one, and never ends? How many manufactures have taken the time to sit with their wholesaler showroom partners and asked them what they'd like to see the reps do to create a win-win for both parties? Yes, there's a whole lot that manufacturers can and should be doing to help raise the percentage in the “good rep” category.

But, it's not only the manufacturers' responsibility. There's a whole lot of room for the wholesalers and showrooms to be proactive in helping the partnership, too.

As many of you know, I'm a huge proponent of doing written, detailed job descriptions for each employee. In the December article I took a proactive step and outlined a possible job description for a manufacturers rep. I also believe strongly in doing at least once-a-year job performance evaluations. I believe that EVERY employee deserves to know what's expected of them and how they're doing. With that thought in mind, I have included a Manufacturers Rep Job Performance Form. This is a form that showroom managers can use to rate the reps who call on them. It can also be used on the wholesale side. If you would like a copy of this form, please e-mail me and request it.

I think it is only fair that I should offer a Showroom Performance Evaluation Form also. Manufacturers reps can use it as a guideline to rate the showrooms. E-mail me and put in a request for it.

Now, as to how you, our readers, can help. Please e-mail Pat Lenius, the managing editor of SUPPLY HOUSE TIMES and an impartial party, on your perception of the quality of the reps who call on you. Just fill in the blanks and fax to: 248-786-1371

I believe that _________% of the reps who call on me are:

  • Good _______%

  • Average _______%

  • Poor _______%

    We'll report the results in the next issue.

    I would like to challenge the many manufacturers out there, AIM/R as an association AND the wholesalers to develop a forum to take this topic to the next level. I might be sticking my neck out, but I'd be willing to participate. I believe there's an opportunity to improve an area in the industry that too many people have complained about for too long. Let's stop complaining and do something about it.

    Thank you, Mr. Freeman and AIM/R, for writing your letter to the editor. I'm betting that our philosophies and goals are a lot more similar than they may appear.