Contractor’s Corner: What makes an effective mill rep for the commercial dealer - Oct 2020

By Dave Stafford

Mill dealer reps are an integral part of the manufacturer’s sales function; they’re the person on the front line who convinces a dealer or an installing contractor to use their product rather than another company’s. They also are the manager of that relationship when it comes to the local territory, special pricing, spiffs, credit lines and product claims. A good rep can make you money or cause significant grief. Experience helps, but overall, what makes one rep more effective than another? I believe there are four main criteria.

I’m sure you get a sense about people, just like I do. I recall one busy day when I had two mill reps drop in to introduce themselves. One newly minted rep started out with, “I just know you’re gonna like my line, so sit back and let me show you how it works.” It turned out to be a very short meeting-not the full-blown demo that he’d hoped for-during which he certainly didn’t do himself any favors. The other rep did a one-minute introduction, asked about how to arrange a presentation time, left his card and was out the door in under five minutes. I was impressed.

Here are some of my tips.
• Call ahead for an appointment and explain what you’d like to accomplish in the meeting. Don’t just drop by. Be on time for that appointment; don’t show up 30 minutes early or 20 minutes late.
• Know your line thoroughly. If I describe a potential application, you should be able to provide several options, price points and explain why each should be used.
• Be candid about those areas in which your mill excels. You might as well tell me the deficiencies, too. “We are running production flat-out, and custom-colors are being delayed.”
• If you are doing a presentation for our sales team, do your homework. That means present groups of products that fit with our overall product sales rather than a number of dissimilar items that you happen to make. Tailor your comments to solving problems and leave plenty of time for answering questions. Present fewer products for dramatic impact. Explain how you can help us close some sales. Put some fun into that dry presentation; bring food or candy. Ask questions to see if we’re paying attention and provide a reward in the form of prizes or spiffs.
• You’re in the fashion business; look the part. Ask for the business and be appreciative.

It can be frustrating, and at times infuriating, to wait for a phone call that doesn’t come, yet some mill reps don’t return phone calls if they are trying to dodge an uncomfortable question.

When I was a green commercial rep working on a state bid, I was assured that “project pricing” was going to be provided. I worked most of the night to assemble all the components. But the mill rep left me to twist slowly in the wind with no pricing, and I was humiliated because I could not turn in a valid bid. When confronted, he said, “I just decided that I had to restrict pricing to support my dealers.” Good reps make a practice of quickly returning phone calls, and I’m willing to pay a little bit more because I can always count on them in a pinch. If I place a phone call in the morning, I always expect a return call by the afternoon.

Another rep was always willing to please and was quite charming. However, he could not remember the details of projects and the prices he quoted. The final straw for me was a bill for an additional $1,000 on a large job. When I told him of the error, he said, “Well, I must have made a mistake. Tell you what-you go ahead and pay the bill, and I’ll make it up to you on another order.” I refused and went to his boss, explaining why we wouldn’t be doing any business with them. The result was a charge-off for the mill.

For all the bad ones in the business, there are reps like Curt. He’s what I call the “gold standard” among experienced, influential reps. He knows his products-both strengths and weaknesses-and what is saleable. If I place a call to him, I’ll hear back in two to four hours or by email. Ask for pricing help on a job, and he’ll grill you on its parameters. He also has many sources of information about what your competition might be. “Word on the street is that a competitor is low-balling some bids to get some cash flow moving. Watch out.” Or, “Hey, Dave. I heard Bob Roberts just left one of your competitors. I know you were looking for an experienced commercial guy; you might want to give him a call.”

We were in the middle of a large flagship high school project in July, and a mill couldn’t deliver the specified carpet due to a yarn shortage. I was desperate. I talked with several mills about their stock, and while they would have been glad to take the order, they couldn’t guarantee delivery. I contacted Curt, and he responded, “Are you flexible on color, and can you take all 7,000 yards in one shipment?” The facility manager was willing to make minor color changes, but we needed it to be on time. Curt said, “I have a firm commitment on yarn with the head of production, so yes, I will guarantee delivery, and we will have a dedicated truck.” I don’t know how Curt did it, but he must have called in some favors. The carpet arrived on time, was first quality and brought me good will with that client for some time.

Any mill rep, no matter how impressive initially, needs to be seen by you over a period of time. Do they phone for an appointment and value your time? How well do they know their line, and do they make an effective presentation? How well do they handle customer service issues, claims, returns or front-office snafus? Do they seem to be in control of their territory? How many key dealers do they have, and are they compatible?

What is the mill’s method of pricing? Is their pricing segmented into list price, dealer price, key dealer price and project prices? If not, why? Other than consistent product quality, the pricing issue is perhaps the most important conversation you’ll have. What you want is for the mill rep to aggressively manage pricing according to market conditions, not try and be a friend to everyone. There are differences between residential pricing and commercial pricing mostly due to type, scope and quantities. A sure way to turn off the commercial dealer is to give him a one-size-fits-all price list. Why would he ever specify your product?

I don’t expect to educate a rep on how to price their line in my market area; they and their manager should already be aware. If I’m specifying a job or in the position of supporting their specification, then I should have every advantage possible; a project price level, longer discount period, better terms, freight consideration or other rebates. Without that inducement, why should I spend the effort just so a “bid house” can take the job?

I expect reps to keep meticulous notes and remember our conversations, even the uncomfortable ones. “Yeah, I remember you asking for project pricing, but you were unable to give me any project details at the time. I believe you were just ‘fishing.’ Here’s the best I can do on that quantity.” To some degree, all of this pricing scenario is like a dance; just be careful not to step on each other’s toes too frequently.

There is no substitute for being honest and candid. I may not want to hear it, but I’m all grown up and can take rejection. The mill rep you need is the one who gains your respect over time. He may not give you the best pricing or terms every time, but you can count on him to return phone calls, update prices, send samples and know who to call to resolve mill defects or installation challenges.

After installing some 2,000 yards of carpet tile, we started getting complaints about the surface appearance. The mill rep quickly scheduled a site visit and was accompanied by a 30-year technical expert. After a cursory inspection, they explained there was a manufacturing problem having to do with uneven tension in the carpet tile backing. It could be fixed and was handled as a priority the next week. The situation would not have been handled with such alacrity had the mill rep not treated this as a “five-alarm problem.”

In another instance, we lost a bid at a school. We put that loss behind us, or so we thought. However, once the kids were back in class, and the cafeteria was in use, problems began to show up. The first call was from the facility manager who told us, “That product you sold us is beginning to develop lumps and ridges, and the tile is coming up.” When we gently reminded him that we had not done the job, his next words were, “Well, can you help us figure out what went wrong? The other company isn’t returning our call.”

Now, we were in a bit of a quandary; we had specified but not sold the job. Under the circumstances, though, the mill rep jumped into action because his product quality was being blamed for a high-profile problem. He and his tech expert did an exhaustive analysis and found myriad problems, including improper floor prep and cleaning, leveling compound with no surface priming, substrate moisture and high pH levels. It was a real mess that could only be corrected with total project replacement. The school sued the general contractor, and we ended up doing the job.

What makes an effective mill rep for the commercial dealer is how that mill rep decides to conduct business every day.

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