To Do or Not to Do: Working with Manufacturers' Reps

Edition: March 2002 - Vol 10 Number 03
Article#: 1182
Wayne Care

To do or not to do, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of missed sales, or by….Wait! Hamlet was a prince not a sales rep.

Each of you has probably received advice to work with manufacturers' reps to increase your sales. Some of you tell horror stories about how such reps lost you a sale or offended a customer. Some of these stories have taken on a life similar to urban myths. With a New Year before you, this is the time to start planning on how you and the manufacturer's rep can best use time and be successful.

Rapport and success are the two most important ingredients in any relationship. When you build a track record with someone, you naturally turn to that person more often. That's why manufacturers are likely to turn over leads or orders to distributor reps who have shown product loyalty and success in the past.

What do manufacturer's reps want from distributor sales reps?
•        Qualified leads.
•        Quality time in the field.
•        Maximum market penetration.
•        Sales of their product line.
•        Sales meeting time.
•        Professionalism.
•        Follow up.
•        Respect for time.

What do distributor sales reps want from manufacturers?
•        Qualified leads.
•        Turn over orders.
•        Exclusivity.
•        Sales closers.
•        Professionalism.
•        Follow up.
•        Respect for time.

These are not all of the expectations, but they cover most of the main ones. You can see that distributors and manufacturers share many of the same ones. So, what is it about this relationship that often breaks down?

Needs One of the most common complaints by distributor reps is that the manufacturer expects too much of their time. Conversely, the manufacturer thinks the distributor rep spends too little time on their product line.
So, what are some of the key needs of each group?

Distributors' needs include:
•        Leads. Distributors believe that because manufacturers attend national and regional physician group meetings, and advertise and generate interest in their products, they should generate valuable leads.
•        Demonstrations. Distributors usually depend on manufacturers to perform product demos for customers.
Technical support. Someone needs to answer those questions that the distributor rep can't handle. According to distributors, that ''someone'' should be the manufacturer.

Manufacturers' key needs, on the other hand, include:
•        Leads. The distributor is the one with the relationships that can get the manufacturer through the door, figure manufacturers.
•        Follow up. Manufacturers need the distributor to keep them abreast of the customer's buying situation. Is the customer ready to close? Have they said they never want the product? Have they put it in a future budget?

Setting the Pattern for the Relationship
The first thing that you (the distributor rep) must do is determine which manufacturer you are going to support. To some degree, the management of your company makes this decision.

Next, weigh the selling time involved compared to the profitable result. Some questions to ask about the product:
•        Does it require a lot of time and expertise?
•        How many gross profit and commission dollars is it worth?
•        Is it a one-time sale?
•        Is it unique? Will it open doors?
•        To how many specialties will it appeal?
•        Is it a commodity that the customer will purchase month after month?
•        Does it have a reagent or supply trail?
•        Is there a spiff or incentive to selling it?

After you answer these questions, don't be afraid to sit down with the manufacturer's rep and make a plan, or explain why you don't think you can devote the time. The manufacturer might provide you with good reasons why you should. If so, set the plan, develop targets, and work the plan.

From its point of view, the manufacturer needs sales. Whether from distributor A or B, that manufacturer still needs to meet quota and move product. To do so, the manufacturer must do each of the following:
•        Provide reasons why the distributor should sell the product – its uniqueness, margins, after-sales market, etc.
•        Identify key players within the sales organization – that is, those who can sway opinion – and work with them.
•        Help distributor reps set reasonable goals for their territory.
•        Turn over leads to the reps who try the hardest on the manufacturer's behalf, when possible.

Cold Calls
Why should the distributor cold-call with a manufacturer's rep? Sometimes the manufacturer has contacts or relationships that you do not have. They just might get you past the glass door. Perhaps the product is unique enough, or has some other property that will make it interesting to a wide number of customers. The manufacturer can also help you with your sales skills. Some might offer you valuable tips on how to improve your presentation, your approach, etc.

Don't waste your time or that of the manufacturer. Look at the product offering and decide with the manufacturer the most effective approach to follow. If the product is not one that would appeal to most customers, limit the calls to half a day, or to some specific accounts in which success is most likely.

Dropping Off Literature
In those cases where you don't get the sale immediately, make sure that all literature has your name and contact number on it. Literature left behind anonymously can be the catalyst for your competitor.

Don't leave literature as if it were a deck of cards. You want to create interest on the part of the customer. The more pieces of different product information you drop at one time, the more diffused is the potential customer's focus. If the literature holds more than one product, mark the one that you think suits them. It is also good to keep in mind that it is easier to sell down then sell up; for that reason, the top model is usually the best pick. If you get an opportunity to speak with your customer, explain why you thought of them for this item. If you don't get to see him or her, leave a note.

For example, you might suggest a Pro-Time machine for the physician who has a lot of geriatric patients. Leave a note to that effect: ''I know some of your older patients must be on blood thinners, so I thought of you when I saw this product. Not only will it pay for itself, but it also allows you to titrate medications more quickly.''

But That Rep Is Too New
Suppose one rep is more experienced than the other. (This can apply to either the manufacturer's rep or the distributor rep.) The one with more experience is bound to ask himself or herself, ''Why should I waste my time? What's in it for me?''

It can be bonanza time! Don't most of you remember those who mentored you? All of us were new at some point. Consider this an opportunity to not only share your knowledge, but to build one of the most intense loyalties around. Critiquing successes and failures can be an effective learning tool for both sides. Remember, critiquing also requires some diplomacy and positive reinforcement.

Developing the Relationship
Business relationships – just like personal relationships – require good faith and nurturing. Favors tend to beget favors. Nowhere is the old cliché ''One hand washes the other'' more true. It seems to be true that those who give leads and orders get leads and orders.
•        Since many manufacturers reps cover large territories today, help them spend productive time. If the manufacturer is traveling to work with you, help them to also set times with some of your peers.
•        Share success stories. In this day of e-mail and voice mail, it is easier than ever to share your success stories.
•        Make sure to include your manager in the loop when you are getting great support from a particular manufacturer's rep.

The advantages of strong relationships between manufacturers and distributors are well documented. Don't ever lose sight of the objective – increased sales for both companies.

Never Disqualify Anyone
One of the best lessons – of the many – that Don Kitzmiller and Scott Fanning (then with Midmark, now with 95% Share Marketing) preached was to never make the assumption that someone would not buy the product. There are, of course logical reasons, based on specialty. For example, selling the latest urine strip to a dermatologist would not yield a sale. But too often, the sales rep thinks, ''This customer would never want this product,'' only to find out later that the customer purchased it from someone else.

Dance with the One Who Brought You
Trust between the manufacturer's rep and the distributor rep is critical to success. One issue that comes up routinely is when a distributor rep finds that a manufacturer's rep has gone into one of the distributor's accounts with a competitor. The best way to deal with the issue is openly. The majority of the time, the manufacturer has done so because the competitor brought the manufacturer into the account, and they have to pay the competitor the same respect they would pay you.

None of us want to go to a dance and have our partner go home with someone else.

Wayne Care
has over thirty years experience working in medical distribution, including companies such as: McKesson Medical Group, Foster Medical, Intermedco and American Hospital Supply. He has worked in all phases of distribution, including sales, sales management and general management. He has taught sales seminars, as well as customer seminars, written numerous articles on sales and management, and had a novel published in 1989. He can be reached at or 757-425-2236