By Jim Babbitt
While decorative hardware and plumbing professionals have many potential avenues for strengthening and growing their businesses, one of the easiest ways to add value to their showrooms is to take advantage of the knowledge of manufacturers' representatives. Partnerships are invaluable in any industry, and they are particularly important in the case of the showroom, where the decorative plumbing and hardware professional frequently carries a multitude of lines that are constantly changing and evolving.
Earlier this year, a discussion posted on the DPHA Web site found that one of the largest impediments to a rep's ability to create value is a misunderstanding of expectations. In fact, "expectation management" is critical to creating successful partnerships between manufacturers, representatives and showrooms in the decorative plumbing and hardware industry.
Creating a common understanding requires effective communication. According to Steve Bates of Bates & Bates, "Representatives not only represent the factory, they also represent the dealer in many situations. The good representative can balance both and make it look easy."
While it may seem that a rep's primary job is to expand a product's presence in showrooms, in a successful partnership, the rep's job is far more complex than that. Showroom professionals have any number of products to choose from; what they really need from reps is not just more products, but quality products backed by solid information about how the product works, what makes it unique, and how they can use that product to enhance their overall sales. Finally, if a rep is to be a true partner to the showroom manager, he or she must become and remain a source of reliable and dependable assistance should problems arise.
Training is key
Clearly, representatives are increasingly being called on to drive business to the showroom. For that reason, training is essential.
Rod Denhart of Legacy Brass understands the importance of training at all levels. He explains, "Sales-people [and other showroom personnel] have to be comfortable with a product and know that if there's a problem, it will be taken care of with minimal effort on their part."
As Ron Raffel of Raffel Sales notes, "A rep also needs to work with warehouse staff and others in the company who take delivery of products. They need to know how goods are packed and shipped, how to process return goods authorizations and what to do if goods are damaged or defective at delivery." In addition, many distributors and dealers have their own customer service departments. Forgetting to train all of these people can lead to substantial problems.
One of the continuing struggles for decorative hardware and plumbing professionals is keeping up with the constant influx of new products and changes to existing lines. Representatives can create value by educating those who specify, sell, ship and install decorative products.
This process must be woven into the fabric of daily operations due to the dynamic nature of the industry. When change occurs, information flows from the manufacturer to the representative who, in turn, passes it onto the showroom, staff and specifiers.
"It's not sufficient to simply to update binders," states Debbie Stehr of Stehr Enterprises. Stehr recommends representatives regularly schedule appointments with showroom staff to explain new products, describe how they can be used and offer pricing suggestions.
Invariably. these sessions are win-win. Not only can showroom staff get questions answered face-to-face, which can help them sell product more knowledgeably and effectively, but input from showroom professionals can also help reps and manufacturers identify and resolve any problems and glitches they may have been unaware of on their end. Additionally, regular face-to-face interaction with customers enables reps to troubleshoot problems and lets showroom personnel know that the products they sell have the support they expect and deserve.
Because showroom professionals rely on reps for accurate and timely information, it is essential that reps be able to provide them with whatever product information they need from the basic FABs to the nuances that those who don't know the product intimately might overlook. After all, you can't successfully sell a product if you don't know how it works.
Many manufacturers encourage reps to participate in a factory tour at least annually to experience the manufacturing process firsthand, explain how products differ from competitors and spend quality time face-to-face with customer service personnel and others with whom reps need to interact regularly.
Avi Abel of Watermark Design believes factory visits from representatives are extremely valuable. "It serves for great relationship building between the manufacturer and the representative, [which then] establishes a better relationship between the manufacturer and the customer."
Jeff Robboy of Baci by Remcraft agrees: "When representatives visit us, we cover the entire manufacturing process. They gain a better understanding of who we are and what we do [which they can then use to help showroom professionals succeed in their sales goals]. One of our reps had a difficult time understanding the difference in our price point versus our competitor's. Once he saw our manufacturing process, he understood and appreciated the differences, and [he was able to convey this to showroom professionals so they could be better equipped to overcome price objections from their customers]."
For Jason Hamlin of J. Hamlin & Associates, the most valuable training he receives is spending time in the field with regional and national sales managers of the lines he carries. "Traveling with national sales managers allows me to spend time with someone who lives and breathes one line passionately. Follow this up with a regular schedule of showroom training and architectural presentations and you have a formula for being [a successful partner to showroom professionals]."
Jim Tomafsky of Mountain Plumbing Products agrees. "I spend half of my time on the road with my reps, learning how to improve our business with showrooms." The knowledge he gains from this interaction allows him to better understand his customers, and his customers' customers, which makes him better able to truly partner with showroom professionals.
This level of knowledge is key, as busy showroom professionals must increasingly rely on their reps to help educate them about an ever-growing and ever-changing array of product choices. Additionally, a shortage of qualified personnel means many showrooms must hire less experienced personnel than in the past. That means showroom managers need reps who can educate the different experience levels and expertise of their showroom staff. Reps who can familiarize new showroom personnel with the basic operations of components and explain unique design characteristics become invaluable to both the showroom and the manufacturer.
Reps and showroom professionals may also create a strong, win-win partnership by building relationships with secondary markets represented principally by architects, interior designers, remodelers and homebuilders. Often, architects and specifiers are receptive to offers to provide literature and/or training and this, in turn, can help build and strengthen partnerships between showroom professionals and allied pros.
Stehr explains that it's not difficult for a rep to get his or her foot into the door of a designer's office. Many are aware of the wide array of high-end products available on the market. Reps can build this market by asking showrooms which designers are their customers. Providing those agencies with binders and literature helps the designer understand the products that are available in their region and where to find them. This can save time for the designer and lead to sales for the manufacturer and showroom.
Working with showrooms to host events for designers and specifiers can also help drive business to showrooms. Showrooms, however, may be reluctant to serve as hosts because of fears that no one will attend. This obstacle can be overcome by partnering with a local AIA, ASID or NARI chapter. It's not difficult to receive a positive response, because these organizations are always looking for programs to offer to their memberships, especially if they're available at little to no cost.
As Marilyn Hermance of Westheimer Plumbing & Hardware notes, "I find it shocking that the majority of representatives in our industry do not call on architects and designers. It is really wonderful to see that this trend is changing, however."
By partnering with their reps, decorative plumbing and hardware showrooms can increase sales and drive business to their showrooms. However, to capitalize on value-creating opportunities, there must be effective communication, common understanding of expectations and relationships built on trust and professionalism between all three segments of the industry manufacturer, representative and distributor/dealer.
Just as showroom professionals continue to expand their responsibilities and knowledge base, so, too, is the role of the rep continually changing and expanding. To that end, strong partnerships between decorative hardware and plumbing showrooms, manufacturers and distributors will create value in the marketplace for all the players involved to the benefit of all.
Jim Babbitt is a founding principal of Howell-Babbitt Sales, a manufacturer's representative headquartered in Glenview, IL (Chicago) and serving the Midwest. Howell-Babbitt sales is a charter member of the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association, where Jim serves as one of five members on the DPHA Executive Committee.