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Free Help is Good to Find

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? Most people know the value of the products being offered. When researching distributor services for my manifesto on the topic, however, 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 them, still exist in distribution and perhaps we don’t place the proper value on them.

One of the shockers in our industry is the breakdown between plumbing wholesaler 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, while talking to the same distributor’s supply partners, the story took on a different meaning. The supply partner saw the 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 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 a topic for another article.
  • Personality issues stand in the way of calling for free help. Sure, the salesperson from your top supply partner can be a jerk at times. Maybe he/she is a little brash around other sellers. The real question is, can he/she add value?
  • Trust issues come into play. We saved this one for last because trust can be a real issue, especially when manufacturers’ reps cover multiple product lines. Reps who handle competitive product lines sometimes require a little extra thought, but we’ll cover that later.

To paraphrase Admiral David Farragut’s famous quote, damn the excuses…full speed ahead. Here are some of the ways we can harness the free help provided by our supply partners. As we move forward, we’ll start with the most common ways and work our way to the uncommon, yet possibly more valuable ways.

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:

  • Open doors 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.
  • Provide additional backup technical skills for newer salespeople. We are called upon to sell lots of products; the typical distributor sells more than 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.
  • Offer 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 that the customer may be too shy to ask.
  • Demonstrate manufacturer support and commitment. Commitments to handle specific product issues, ability to provide backup/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.
  • Block 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 rep isn’t out with you, he/she is likely providing these kinds of values to one of your competitors. I suggest keeping him/her busy making you money.

Joint call best practices

Value is too valuable to be a happen-chance 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 rep has the right literature, samples and background to properly serve the customer. Even personal introductions should be made ahead of time.
  • Appointments are a must. The number one complaint of factory salespeople traveling with their distributors is the lack of appointments. Getting an appointment can be tough. If you (the distributor) can’t get a solid appointment, see if the manufacturer can schedule one for both of you.
  • Post-call follow-ups are a must. 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 a question that can only be answered by the factory person, 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 sending a reminder 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 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. Trust me, 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 log in a bad actor’s rap sheet? Specifics work better than generalities. For example, stating Bob is always late doesn’t mean the same as stating 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 converse with the supply partner’s management team. Again, specifics speak louder than generalities.

A word about sales agencies

Agents, reps—they are called different things across the industry, sometimes present special issues. Since they rep-resent multiple manufacturers in their market, they usually have products that your organization does not sell. This makes them simultaneously a sales ally and competitive enemy. When this situation arises, we see distributor organizations who hold them at arm’s length; we coined the term “rep dis-connect” 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 straightforward and reasonable. They are willing to offer up a safety valve for making joint calls. Whether they make calls directly or via a marketing person at headquarters, they want to grow the mutual business. Communication is 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 for complete coverage in this article, but here’s a rapid-fi re 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.
  • The manufacturer’s C-suite personnel are worthy of assisting with 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.


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