Distributors and reps can learn how to work together more effectively by holding regular group councils.

Reps and suppliers have participated in councils for years, and both parties enjoy the contributions these groups have made to the relationship. While the concept of such councils isn't new, the existence and growth of similarly established distributor councils is a recent phenomenon.

Look at the relatively new efforts of two of the buying/marketing groups, Affiliated Distributors, Wayne, Pa., and IMARK Group, Oxon Hill, Md. Their approaches differ, but both organizations are looking to firm up relationships with reps as much as suppliers have done in the past. Add to that the established efforts of WESCO Distribution, Inc., Pittsburgh, Pa., to bring reps closer, and I believe we will see more distributor-rep councils in the future. As distributor-rep councils become more popular, their potential success will owe much to the well-established supplier-rep connection. If an electrical distributor wants to set up a distributor-rep council, he or she should examine some successful rep-supplier councils and find out what makes them tick. Here are some successful ideas from existing rep-supplier councils that distributors can use to develop their own groups.

Use a council to build a better working relationship, not just as a complaint session. Councils have been a valuable strategic planning, marketing and communications tool. They should continue to grow in importance as long as manufacturers, distributors and independent reps recognize their value to the electrical marketing channel. Councils can help break down walls of antagonism and non-cooperation, and foster a "let's-go-to-market-together" mentality.

After a rep-supplier council that I recently attended, the participating reps and I came away with positive feelings, and the manufacturer was left with the impression that reps were now on their side, and were not the enemies, as is sometimes the perception. The manufacturer recognized that the relationship had gone beyond the, "I do this, you do that" stage, and had been replaced by one in which common goals were developed, with the ultimate goal being that all parties were committed to going to market together.

Do homework before attending a council. To get the most out of the effort you invest in a council, spend adequate time preparing for the event. It will help to carefully prioritize the most important points you want to discuss.

This would have helped the reps and manufacturer at another council that I attended. Many of those in attendance hadn't done much to prepare for the meeting. The session could have been more fruitful if the participants had done their homework. It's one thing to have eight or nine reps meet with a major supplier, each struggling to have his voice heard, and quite another to maximize the exercise. That's where the proper preparation comes in.

Handle any company-specific problems in a separate meeting. This isn't a matter of reps ganging up on a distributor or manufacturer. It's about recognizing and identifying those issues important to all participants. Deal with any issues concerning a specific company at another time.

Consider an invitation to serve on a council as an honor, not an unwanted obligation. I often hear reps complain that they have been asked to serve on too many councils. Instead of looking at such requests as an imposition, consider it a compliment. After all, if distributors or manufacturers are really serious about their councils, they only ask the very best companies to serve on them.

Make sure messages are communicated clearly. For truly effective communications, the message must be sent-and received-accurately. Too often, we only hear about the sending part of the equation. Councils provide the perfect environment for receiving messages. Once the sending and receiving is completed, all participants are responsible for bring back the messages they received to their companies to inform other employees.