What a rep should be
A long time ago, I worked for a rep for 19 years and that was my basic training. I was in their customer-service department for a bunch of those years, and I probably took 100 calls a day. No one ever called just to say hello, and nearly all the calls that I took were from crazed New York wholesalers who were either looking for their stuff, or asking me to identify some antique part. Calls from homeowners were unheard of, and I hardly heard from the contractors. We sold to the wholesalers. They were our customers. It was a simple time.
After a while, my boss decided to send me out on the road to talk to the hundreds of Mom-and-Pop fuel-oil dealers that dotted the Isle of Long. These folks bought from the wholesalers, and we weren’t very close to them. My boss figured that if I could make these people feel good about us by teaching them for free, they just might ask for our stuff by name when they went to their wholesalers.So I knocked on doors and told the oil dealers about what we had. I’d take stuff apart and put it together. They, in turn, would tell me what they thought about what we had, how it was working for them, why they bought, or didn’t buy, and that’s how I learned about the real world.
I’d talk to their techs off the backs of pick-up trucks in oil-soaked garages, over cold pizzas and beers. I know I learned more from listening to those techs than I was teaching them. As I went from place to place, I shared what I had learned from those techs with these techs, and this is how I came to be a teacher.
I wrote stories about these people in a newsletter we called, “The Problem Solver.” We sent it to more than 5,000 people each month. They liked it, and this is how I came to be a writer.My buddy at the manufacturer was telling me how busy they were, and how their arms were getting sore from picking up the phones all day long. “Seriously,” I said, “who’s calling?”
“Everyone,” he said. “They’re all calling!” That seemed so strange to me.
“What about your reps?” I asked. “Shouldn’t they be taking those calls? When I was a rep, the scariest thing in the world for us was the thought that a customer might call the manufacturer. If the customer was calling the manufacturer, why would the manufacturer need us?”
He nodded, but had nothing more to say about this.
When I was a rep, our customer was the wholesaler, and we were hell-bent on pulling through sales to those wholesalers by helping and teaching the contractors for free, all in the hope that the contractors would do the right thing and ask for our stuff by name. And it worked.My old boss used to pound into my thick skull the truth that we had two categories of customers: the wholesalers and the manufacturers we represented. Our job was to delight them both. We delighted the wholesalers by bringing them business that they may not have gotten, were it not for the help we were giving their customers, the contractors. We delighted the manufacturers by meeting or exceeding our quotas, and by making sure that the wholesalers (or anyone else) never, ever called them.
Today, manufacturers’ Web sites and their social networking, along with their toll-free numbers seem to be changing things. I think the reason why we’re seeing this is because many manufacturers are starting to wonder about their reps. Are the reps adding the value they used to add? Should we be paying them as much as we’re paying them?
I think that any rep that encourages his customers to call a factory has lost his mind, and that rep will probably also lose that manufacturer as a customer.But there are the exceptions, and I am always delighted to run into one of them.
The Lovely Marianne and I were in Timonium, Maryland last fall, doing the Dead Men’s Steam School. A few days before we left home, N.H. Yates, Inc. invited us to stop by their place for a visit. They were sending five people to the seminar and were within walking distance of the hotel where we were staying, so we accepted. The more you visit people, the more you can learn.
Jim Yates, who is the president of this magnificent, old-school rep firm, spent a couple of hours showing us around and just chatting with us. That touched me because I’m sure that Jim had other things to do that morning. I tend to ask a lot of questions and drag out conversations because I’m curious and I really like people. I was taking lots of his time, but I’m also a good listener. When stuff goes into my head, it churns around with other stuff that’s already in there, and what came out of our visit to Yates was this thought about reps and what makes for a great one.
Jim was telling me about other people’s problems, but not in a complaining way. He was talking about hydronics in a way that made Yates’ broad offering look like a delicious, problem-solving smorgasbord. He was bubbling over with enthusiasm.
There’s a narrow doorway that a lot of equipment has to fit through. No problem. Yates sells all of that equipment, and they can pipe it onto a rack at their place. They’ll put the rack on wheels so that it glides through the door. Send the wheels back when you’re done. Once you have the package in place, all you have to do is add the pipes and the wires. Your problem is solved and their business grows. So does yours.
That’s what a good rep does.
Jim’s attitude is that everyone else’s problems are Yates’ opportunities. He doesn’t just have the products; he also has these passionate people and that wonderful, old-school attitude that says there’s no need to call the factory; we have everything you need right here. Everything.Jim talked and I listened and asked more questions. He’s good with a story. He told me about these 336,600-GPM, post-Katrina pumps that now serve New Orleans, and he told me about custom-made toilet partitions. How’s that for range?
As I listened, I kept thinking about my old boss. Jim Yates reminded me so much of him, as he was 30 years ago – smart, enthusiastic, and so sure of his company’s capabilities. So certain that within every problem there is a business, and there is never a need for any customer to ever go anywhere other than right here because we know what to do and how to do it.
That’s old school.Somewhere during the two hours, I mentioned to Jim Yates about the manufacturer who was getting all those phone calls. Jim shook his head. “That’s not good,” he said. “That’s our job.”
Made me remember what a rep should be.Should be like Yates.