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Free help is good to find

Can We Help?

by Frank Hurtte

The word free sets off some crazy thinking in most people. Tie the word to merchandise as in a free TV, iPad or gasoline-powered pogo stick and heads tip from coast to coast. Why? Because most people know the value of the products being offered. When researching distributor services for my manifesto on the topic, we discovered something strange. When services are free, their value is rarely appreciated and seldom valued appropriately. Free services, or at least some form of it, still exists for distributors and, perhaps like others, we don’t place the proper value on them.

One of the shocking stories of our industry is the breakdown between distributor sales teams and the local selling organization of their supply partners. There’s valuable help available, yet most rarely think about how to maximize it. Let’s spend just a few minutes thinking about the topic of free help from our supply partners.

Why are we stiff-arming free services?
There are hundreds of variations to the excuses laid down by distributors and their sales teams. Let’s dissect a few of the most popular:

Arrogance and pride surface often. One permutation went like this, “We know our products as well as our supply partners and take pride in our ability to solve issues without their help.” Later, talking to the same distributor’s supply partners, the story took on a different meaning. The supply partner saw their lack of calls as a sign of not being aggressive in the market.

Some salespeople are control freaks. These are the Lone Ranger sort of sellers who believe no one can do the job quite to their own standards. They’re pretty easy to spot because they are equally reluctant to bring internal resources to bear on their customers. I personally look forward to the day everyone, including these folks, comes to the realization of the importance of team selling; but that’s another article.

Personality issues stand in the way of calling for free help. Sure, the sales guy from your top supply partner can be a jerk at times. Maybe he is a little brash around other sellers. The real question is can he add value?

Trust issues come into play. We saved this one for last because trust can be a real issue, especially when manufacturer’s reps cover multiple product lines. Reps who handle competitive product lines sometime require a little extra thought, but we’ll cover that later.

Paraphrasing Admiral Farragut’s famous quote, damn the excuses; full speed ahead. Here are some ways to harness free help provided by your supply partners. We’ll start with the most common and work our way to uncommon, yet possibly more valuable.

The Garden Variety Joint Call
Anytime a distributor and manufacturer salesperson visit a customer together, it’s a joint call. They happen thousands of times every day. The question is: Do they happen in your business and do they happen often enough?

Rather than jump into the specifics, let’s look at the potential value of each issue and how joint calls can further impact them:

Opens the door for new accounts and customer contacts. This is especially true with major flagship type product lines. Whether distributors like it or not, some manufacturers have more name recognition and clout with potential customers. A joint visit established under the heading of a visit from the factory representative of Acme Anvil can open doors.

Provides additional backup technical skills for newer salespeople. You are called on to sell lots of products; the typical distributor sells over a quarter million SKUs. It’s difficult-to-impossible to be an expert on every single one of them. Newer sellers especially struggle to get a firm grip on the nuances of each and every one of them. Joint calls provide technical support.

Customer-specific product training. In the typical training session, a salesperson learns a broad view of the product and how to sell. Joint calls present an opportunity for the manufacturer’s salesperson to demonstrate the types of questions tied to customer-specific applications and industry issues. Done properly, the distributor salesperson plays a part in the presentation by asking questions which they feel the customer may be too shy to ask.

Demonstrate manufacturer support and commitment. Commitments to handle specific product issues, ability to provide back-up/support inventory through the distributor, extend special prices and reinforce the distributor’s importance to the manufacturer in supporting the customer are all examples of how this works.

Blocks off competitive distributors. Most manufacturers have a policy of only working with one distributor at each account. Bringing a supply partner rep into the customer solidly brands the customer as one of yours. This means new opportunities, leads generated and other commercial benefits fall to you simply because you made a joint call.

What this list does not cover is potentially the biggest yet hardest to measure value of making joint calls with the manufacturer’s local team. It minimizes the time spent with competitive distributors. If the manufacturer’s guy isn’t out with you, they are more likely providing this value to one of your competitors. I suggest keeping them busy making you money.

Joint Call Best Practices
Value is too valuable to be a happenstance sort of thing. Since joint calls are expensive for everyone concerned, the time together must be well planned. Here are a few best practices others have discovered.

Joint calls need a mutually agreed upon plan or purpose. This needs to be discussed ahead of time and choreographed with both parties sharing responsibilities for the call. If the call is to discuss a product, ensure the manufacturer’s person has the right literature, samples and background to properly serve the customer. Even personal introductions should be discussed ahead of time.

Appointments are a must. The No. 1 complaint of factory salespeople traveling with their distributors is the lack of appointments. Getting an appointment can be rough. If you (the distributor) can’t get a solid appointment, talk to the manufacturer and see if they are able to make one for both of you.

Post-call follow-ups are required. Things work better and are more effective with the customer when the distributor takes responsibility for as many of the follow-ups as possible. If there is something that only the factory person can answer, set a due date and the extent of the follow-up action. Document this in an email to the manufacturer’s salesperson and don’t be shy about reminding them several days before the customer due date.

When things go exceedingly well, report the success and manufacturer’s seller to your boss with a copy to everyone who assisted on the joint call. Ask your boss to forward your email to the manufacturer’s sales hierarchy. Nothing drives the willingness to help you in the future like positive feedback today.

Despite the best-laid plans, sometimes things don’t go well. We could fill a volume of the Encyclopedia of Negativity with war stories of factory guy failure. The second volume could easily be titled Dumb Distributor Tricks Illustrated. Instead, let’s talk about what to do when it happens.

Documenting the issue is the first step. Was the problem a one-time screwup or another journal entry in a bad actor’s rap sheet? Specifics work better than generalities. For example, “Bob is always late” doesn’t mean the same as “Bob was late for our important meeting with Acme Anvil this week, late for our appointment with Road Runner Rivets the week before and didn’t even show for an important meeting with Mr. Coyote at Wylie Corp.”

Salespeople should not be the ones to deliver criticism to the seller. Instead, the distributor sales manager needs to play the heavy. First, by way of a fierce conversation with the supply partner salesperson. Should this not be effective, then with the supply partner’s management team. Again, specifics speak louder than generalities.

A word about Sales Agencies
Agents and reps (they are called different things across the industry), sometimes present special issues. Since they represent multiple manufacturers in their market, they usually have products which your organization does not sell. This makes them simultaneously a sales ally and competitive enemy. When this situation takes place, we see distributor organizations who hold them at arm’s length; we coined the term Rep Disconnect to describe the situation.

While this phenomenon might actually justify not using the rep, sales must continue. Conversations with the regional managers of many manufacturers indicate they are sensitive to this situation. Further, their solution seems straight forward and reasonable. They are willing to offer up a safety valve for making joint calls. Whether it be calls made directly by them or via a marketing person from their headquarters, they want to grow the mutual business. Communication is the key.

Rapid-fire positions to think about
Depending on the size and organizational structure of the supply partner in question, there are dozens of other valuable and free resources available. Time doesn’t allow coverage in this article, but here’s a rapid-fire list of a few to think about:

Field-based marketing managers are growing in popularity. It’s easy to think of these people as you would a distributor product specialist. They are technically savvy and can help provide the expertise to push a technical sale forward.

Product marketing types are often overlooked. They have a burning desire to see what customers think of the products they are responsible for developing. Their trips are often research-oriented and must be focused, but when they make a connection, good things happen.

C-Suite guys from the manufacturer are the big guns worthy of assisting with bringing in a giant corporate commitment. Getting them involved shines a bright light on your organization and can often be leveraged for future favors; think fancy expediting or emergency shipping.

Finally . . .
We recommend distributor leadership manage the use of these resources. Setting management goals for the numbers of joint calls made and actions needed to improve the quality of the call has become an essential part of driving sales productivity. The value of these actions is too great to leave to chance.

If you are interested in guidelines for using the folks mentioned in our rapid-fire section above, shoot me an email and I’ll send you an addendum to this article with all the actions and values listed.

Frank HurtteStraight talk, common sense and powerful interactions all describe Frank Hurtte. Frank speaks and consults on the new reality facing distribution. He has a new book out – “Plan on Breaking Through – Strategic Planning for Accounts.” Contact Frank at, (563) 514-1104 or at

This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2019 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2019, Direct Business Media.


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