Mail customized mailings to every electrical contractor in your market area as part of a new marketing program from a manufacturer. Check.

Send two salespeople to a three-day trade-show to represent another manufacturers' line. Check.

Drive 200 miles on a sub-zero January day for a 10 a.m. appointment with an electrical supervisor at a factory to demonstrate yet another manufacturer's new product. Check. Oh, and by the way, juggle the ever-increasing daily demands of running a rep agency. Huh?

As manufacturers continue to download new marketing responsibilities to independent manufacturers' reps, the juggling act reps perform becomes more complex. On the one hand, many reps will readily admit they don't always do a great job marketing their vendors' products because they have more balls in the air than ever before. But reps know effective marketing has become a core competency they must master.

When he considers the effectiveness of some of the more popular rep marketing efforts, Henry Bergson, president of the National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association (NEMRA), Tarrytown, N.Y., poses an interesting question: “Who brought the donuts?”

Whether it's the time-tested training seminar, new-product introduction, counter day or participation in a trade show, reps arrives donuts in hand. But Bergson asks, “Does the distributor believe the rep or the manufacturer he represents provided the ever-popular donuts or other refreshments that usually accompany such events?”

He says they should ask this question because they must prove through their performance and marketing efforts that they are the value-added providers in the marketplace.

“The lines the rep carries can come and go, but it's up to the rep to know the territory, own the customer, and always be there to serve the market. There is real value in the rep performing as an effective marketer. But to do so, he's got to constantly ask himself, ‘Am I being a true marketer, or just a salesman? Am I implementing my agency's marketing program or someone else's (i.e., the manufacturer) program? Am I promoting myself as the solution provider to my customers?’”

Bergson says reps without comprehensive marketing programs are making a mistake. “At the end of the day, a well thought-out marketing program can be one of the most rewarding steps a rep can take. Reps following that course can enjoy a much better return on investment than others efforts provide.”

Reps can get so preoccupied with the many responsibilities of running a small company that they tend not to have the time for marketing, says Gene Biben, principal, Joseph E. Biben Sales Corp., Philadelphia. “We anticipate our manufacturers do the marketing. We perform fairly well as a marketing company, but we need to continue to improve. Our approach is that we'll continue to assume the manufacturer is not doing the marketing. We'll take on that responsibility. If I'm wrong and the manufacturer is already doing a good job — that's fine. There's no harm.”

Biben Sales' marketing activities include communications with customers via e-mail; direct mail; telemarketing and regular contact by inside sales staff; and the creation, maintenance and use of a comprehensive database of distributors and the distributors' customers.

“All of us have to do the marketing in order to be successful,” he adds. “It can't be just the distributor or manufacturer. We've all got to be holding up our end. We're guided by a marketing philosophy that allows us to be in charge of our own destiny. If we do what we're supposed to do and communicate constantly, we can control what the futures holds for us.”

Greg Reynolds, Flynn and Reynolds Agency Inc., Lowell, Mass., praises his rep peers in New England for their marketing efforts, but tempers that praise for reps in other areas of the country.

“In New England I see a considerable amount of good marketing on the part of reps,” he says. “Nationally, however, there's less effort.”

His agency's marketing efforts include:

  • The agency's Web site (www.flynn-reynolds.com).

  • A brochure for manufacturers and customers acquainting them with the agency and its services.

  • Efforts to gain exposure in the industry press.

  • On-hold phone messages for manufacturers, contractor and distributor customers.

Reynolds adds that while it can be tough for reps to find the time for marketing, it's important they include manufacturers in their marketing efforts.

“That includes not only the manufacturers we currently work with but others with whom we might like to develop business relations.”

Byron Brewer, chairman, Northeast Marketing Group LLC, Wallingford, Conn., says marketing skills don't “bubble up to the top” with agencies because reps are “always in the middle of fire drills with manufacturers.”

“We're putting patches on the big tires we all operate with,” says Brewer. “We don't have the luxury of being able to look at the total concept of the agency's marketing efforts. It's a little like flying over at 25,000 feet and not being able to see all that has to be done. As a result, much of what reps do becomes more of a knee-jerk activity. We're pulled in too many directions.”

As chairman of his Connecticut agency, he's able to carefully study the firm's marketing efforts, but he realizes “the guys in the trenches” can't do that because they simply don't have the time. While Brewer says most reps can't afford to hire a professional marketer for their agencies, they can learn many of the tricks of the marketing trade through the rep networking groups to which many of them now belong. “You can pick up a lot of tips that will take you away from the traditional shotgun approach to marketing,” he says.

Brewer says one of the biggest challenges for electrical reps is designing a package of complementary product lines.

“In putting together your line package, you've got to look at it from a design standpoint. You've got to consider how all the pieces of your line fit together and how all those pieces make you stronger in the marketplace.”

John Roth Jr., principal, Roth-Mooney Electrical Agency, Indianapolis, Ind., has a dedicated full-time marketing position. He believes his rep firm is one of the few agencies with a vice president of marketing.

“While marketing doesn't always appear in the standard definition of the rep's job, the rep can't do his job properly without filling that role,” he says. “That we have devoted a company position to marketing is hardly a luxury. It's more of a necessity in that we do a great deal on our own. At the same time, we need someone in place to manage and coordinate all the manufacturers' programs. Manufacturers make so much available to our mutual customers. But nothing will be effective unless it's managed properly.”

Mooney adds that the coordination of programs aimed at national chains, buying groups and large customers is one of the biggest challenges facing the rep today.

Another agency with an employee dedicated to the role of marketing is C&O Electric Sales Co., Overland Park, Kan. Doug Carlson, the company's president, says few reps are born marketers. He believes it's easier for them to be effective marketers if they have personal experience in marketing or have gained that experience through their association with aggressive manufacturers involved in effective marketing practices.

“We've become better marketers by paying attention to the details of marketing,” he says. “That entails participating in promotions that manufacturers have placed in the hands of customers. Sometimes we'll implement our own efforts. We also gauge how well our distributors will receive a piece of marketing information. If we know a customer better than the manufacturer does, then we're the ones putting the spin on the program. That way we're assured of a much better chance of it being accepted.

“I'm not sure the marketing job of the rep is any more challenging than what manufacturers or distributor must get accomplished. We all have the same hurdles to overcome. The major hurdle is trying to make something attractive that the audience will respond to.”

He says the most important consideration in marketing for reps is for them to use their customer expertise to gauge the potential effectiveness of any marketing effort. “The rep is the one who knows the customers best. Manufacturers' marketing efforts are geared to reach 1,500 to 2,000 people. When reps undertake an effort, we try to reach 85 to 90 people. We know who they are, what their needs are and how best to communicate with them. We have a much better idea of what they need and what they want to see.”

Don Kaminski, Allied Group Sales Inc., Phoenix, Ariz., also dedicated a person to marketing. Before making that investment, he says his company had the same trouble with marketing as many other reps. “She works on all the counter days we conduct with distributors, and in general keeps tabs on all the marketing efforts we conduct with manufacturers,” he says.

Kaminski adds, to be effective marketers, reps must know all manufacturers' programs “inside and out.” “You've got to know their planograms, counter displays, and how to get funds from them and how to use those funds effectively,” he says.

Creating and maintaining an effective database so the company reaches the right market is a key marketing concern of Dennis McDonald, principal, McDonald Associates Inc., Arlington Heights, Ill. McDonald, who also has an employee focusing on marketing, says in addition to marketing their products and services to end users and distributors, agencies must market the rep function to manufacturers.

“The rep must continue the effort day-in and day-out to communicate to manufacturers that the independent rep is the smart way and the most efficient way to go to market, in good times and bad.”

One Canadian rep is quite proud of his company's marketing efforts. “I don't know about anyone else, but we are an effective marketer,” says Chuck Cartmill, C.S.A. Enterprises Ltd., Halifax, Nova Scotia. “We're effective because all of our efforts are focused on marketing. For instance, we don't process orders. We insist that the distributor place the order directly with the manufacturer. We operate that way because we don't add value to that part of equation. The sales system we've put in place keeps us focused on the end customer and on creating demand among those end-users. We've designed our sales system around the needs of the customer, and we measure our performance in that area.”

Cartmill says many reps don't spend enough time marketing to end users. “Too many reps get carried away with their efforts at the distributor level and in doing things that don't bring value. That takes them away from effective marketing. Most principals want us to create demand, but their programs drive you to the distributor. They aren't geared to creating demand among customers. It's critical the rep recognizes what manufacturers want the rep to do and what they need the rep to do can be two different things.”

He says his agency philosophy is to “sell through distribution, not to distribution.” This philosophy results in marketing efforts geared toward developing demand among end-user customers.

“That's where we spend our time,” he says. “We'll work with distributors on counter days and other activities, but our goal is to take it right to the customer.”

Bob Benton, R/B Sales Corp., Marion, Iowa, says a major reason reps aren't always on top of the marketing game is because they're too turned on to the sale. “Getting the order and running their business remain priorities,” he says. “As a result, independent reps often don't think in terms of marketing their firms to the industry.”

One of the prime marketing efforts for R/B Sales is the agency's Web page (www.rbsalescorp.com). “What we've accomplished there, besides just telling visitors about our agency, is to extend the presentation to feature pictures and background information of all of our people,” he says. “Customers can request product literature. We have a new-products section, and an interactive section where customers can promotional items. With the information contained there, our goal is to drive people to the site.”

Along with maintaining its Web site, R/B Sales has taken over some of the marketing in its territory for many of its manufacturers. “The company is compensated for the effort,” he adds.

R/B Sales is also using the celebration of its 25th anniversary as a year-long marketing promotion. Part of the celebration entails a unique scratch-off game where customers can win prizes such as fishing trips, golf packages and Las Vegas trips. “We've been able to get many of our manufacturers to participate in our activities,” says Benton. “They're more than willing if you are providing good professional programs.”

Kurt Nelson, principal, Nelson and Associates, Sante Fe Springs, Calif., says a few select reps in every market area are what he would call good marketers.

Reps should never feel they are alone in building their marketing efforts, he says, because there's “an abundance of wisdom and counseling available from rep peers and even business owners from other industries.” To bolster his own company's marketing efforts, Kurt Nelson and his brother, Todd, have found the following resources to be helpful:

  • Constant outside reading and research aimed at discovering “best practices” from other industries.

  • Participation in industry networking groups.

  • Establishment of a strategic alliance with another West Coast rep agency to share business ideas and best practices.

  • Participation in NEMRA's Certified Professional Manufacturers Rep (CPMR) program.

  • Continued education via attendance and participation at NEMRA and Electronic Representatives Association (ERA) conferences.

As with so many things in business, the simplest marketing efforts can sometimes pay the fastest dividends. Nelson says his company's marketing efforts begin when customers phone the agency. “We get at least five compliments a week regarding the way our receptionist answers the phone and treats callers,” he says proudly.

EXECUTING A FULL-COURT (MARKETING) PRESS

When George Hayward, president, United Sales Associates (USA), Cincinnati, says, “People don't buy from companies, they buy from people,” he is not just parroting a well-worn marketing truism. It's a concept that's at the core of his company's marketing efforts.

Although Hayward is not an electrical rep, he does head a 20-year-old successful independent rep firm, and he is very familiar with the workings of distribution as he serves the needs of the industrial safety products market. In addition to its Cincinnati headquarters, USA has branches in nine locations covering eight states.

While he sells outside the electrical industry, Hayward agrees with the electrical reps quoted in this article that relatively few reps are born marketers who enjoy thinking strategically and mapping out a marketing strategy. Instead, they would prefer to get out of the office and sell. “Some reps are better at marketing than others,” he says. “But whether we like it or not, we've all got to be marketers in addition to being salesmen. If you do it well, you're going to be able to successfully differentiate yourself from the competition.

“I view what we do this way: selling is what we do for our principals. Marketing is what we do for our customers. And the marketing I refer to is a combination of efforts. It's not just one thing, it's a combination of everything we do.”

United Sales Associates' marketing efforts include:

  • A full complement of newsletters aimed at distributors and end users.

  • Communication programs including printed and fax bulletins and training videos.

  • A ‘Blu-Lite Program’ for distributors to list excess inventory available for sale.

  • Local and regional trade shows.

  • Distributor and/or end-user seminars and training sessions.

  • In-plant surveys.

  • Regularly scheduled sales meetings.

  • A regular flow of press releases, advertisements in trade publications and direct-mail programs.

Whatever programs the agency has put together over the years, Hayward maintains the rep has always got to keep in mind that “the only person who can fire you is the customer.” “In our case that's the distributor. A few years ago, we lost our largest line, but we never lost a customer. Our strategy was to replace that line with the manufacturer's largest competitor. We did that and now we're doing better than ever. The customer never suffered.”

Hayward believes the rep's true value in the marketplace should be contained in his or her Economic Value Added (EVA). “Our marketing efforts strive to prove our EVA for both customers and principals. Everyone should have an EVA. If you have a rep in your agency that everyone loves, but he brings no economic value to the agency or the customer, you've got to change. It's up to us to prove our EVA on a daily basis.”