Picture the ultimate independent manufacturers' rep agency: A passionate group of road warriors who know their products and can flat out sell. Nurtured by the occasional bird-hunting expedition or tailgating party at a sporting event, they enjoy tight customer relationships that go back ages. When it comes to closing the deal, they nail down the order, as their years of double-digit annual sales growth prove. And after many years in sales, they still get a real high when they land big sales.

Now arm this aggressive sales team with a tool that allows them to customize a sales and marketing event that brings products right to a customer's door. Over the past year, this sales team at R/B Sales Corp., Marion, Iowa, has wowed customers in its Iowa-Nebraska market area with exactly that tool — a 32-foot mobile showroom that can be customized call-by-call with 65 interchangeable display boards that represent the vast variety of products promoted by the agency and plenty of room to demonstrate large tools. The display boards are mounted on a customized racking system that allows for easy installation and removal so R/B Sales can tailor the product mix on display to each event. The 32-foot trailer that houses the mobile showroom traditionally is used to carry race cars but was customized for R/B Sales' needs.

In its first tour of duty, the R/B Sales mobile showroom traveled 16,500 miles throughout Iowa and Nebraska at events attended by an estimated 6,000 electrical distributors, electrical contractors and other end users, engineers and electrical apprentices at trade schools.

With its interchangeable display boards, manufacturers' signage and banners, the mobile showroom is part showroom and part classroom. In some respects, it's similar to the Snap-On Tools display vans that more than 4,000 Snap-On Tools franchisees use to sell tools at factories and other job sites, or the product demonstration trailers that some electrical manufacturers use to promote their products.

Along with allowing R/B Sales to proactively take products directly to customers, the mobile showroom allows the agency to plan out and customize each visit to a distributor, electrical contractor, engineer or other buying influences so that the right mix of products will meet their information needs, says Bill Devereaux, company president. In addition, the mobile showroom provides “portable” product training for a wide range of products and makes it easier to transport and demonstrate larger, more expensive power tools. Helping customers get their hands on these tools reinforces product features and benefits first-hand, and means customers don't have to rely on blind faith or demonstration videos before making a purchase. Occasionally, larger tools are loaned to the contractor on a trial basis so they can try them out.

The showroom has become a very effective tool to close sales. When R/B Sales visited an open house staged by Rogers Electric Supplies, Sioux City, Iowa, the mobile showroom helped the company generate a sizeable sales increase. Rogers Electric Supplies helped R/B Sales promote the event via direct mail to all customers and by packing promotional flyers with all orders in the weeks prior to the event.

Says Gary Wandersheid, sales manager for Rogers Electric Supplies, “With the help of R/B Sales and the Rogers Electric sales staff, we generated a 55 percent increase in sales over an average counter day. We also increased our Greenlee tools sales over 400 percent and have another $8,000 to $10,000 in promised orders for Greenlee capital goods material.”

Wandersheid says it's not uncommon for manufacturers to use display vans or trailers to bring products to customers at counter days, but this is the first time he has seen a manufacturers' rep use one to promote product lines.

Rich VeDepo, general manager, City Electric Supply, Iowa City, Iowa, agrees that the mobile showroom provides great opportunities for customers to touch and feel products. “Catalogs will tell a good story, but putting products in the hands of customers works best,” he says.

Don Brody, vice president, Hubbell Electrical Products, South Bend, Ind., is impressed that an independent rep would take on a project of this magnitude at its own expense, and says the R/B Sales mobile showroom has helped distance the company from other reps in the market. He is also impressed that R/B Sales has a licensed electrician familiar with all local codes in a key sales role with the trailer.

Devereaux says R/B Sales invested $39,000 in the mobile showroom, professional signage and display boards and $32,000 in the truck to haul it. Fuel and related operating costs totaled $7,000 in its first year of duty. Last year, R/B Sales used it at 25 electrical distributor events, a large regional trade show, 100 contractor/OEM calls, and a number of visits at trade schools and apprenticeship training sites. The on-site demonstrations helped R/B Sales sell 15 to 20 large tools valued at $3,000 each, and helped nail down several manufacturer brand conversions with distributors because of the exposure the mobile showroom provides for the products on display.

In addition, Devereaux believes the countless demonstrations for products as simple as glass indicator fuses or as complex as a cable feeder will have intangible results down the road.

Although all of R/B Sales' salespeople use the mobile showroom as a selling tool at their accounts, former electrical contractor Garry O'Leary, one of the company's outside sales consultants, is on hand for all of the site visits. He pulls the 32-foot gooseneck trailer to all visits with a one-ton pickup truck and uses his years of experience as an electrician to relate to the end users visiting the showroom. His field experience gives R/B Sales an added edge during these sales calls, and business associates say O'Leary can be particularly dangerous in closing sales for hand tools and power tools. O'Leary says there's no substitute for letting an electrical contractor touch and feel a product or see how it works on the job site.

The mobile showroom helped him grow as a salesperson, says O'Leary, because it forced him to talk intelligently about the features and benefits of a broad array of products. Even though he had installed virtually all of the products at some time or another when he was an electrician, he had to build on his product knowledge to be able to effectively sell the equipment.

He also learned that making sales calls with the mobile showroom works best when it's loaded with tools, test equipment and other products that electricians and end users want to touch and feel before buying.

“It's real easy for a salesperson to just give a customer a catalog,” he says. “But when we can give them that catalog and say, ‘By the way, if you want to see that product it's right here.’ It's so much more effective.”

O'Leary says one of his proudest moments with the mobile showroom was seeing the looks on customer's faces as it was unveiled at a regional trade show where 2,000 customers stopped by for a visit.

O'Leary and Devereaux say R/B Sales learned quite a bit from its first year on the road with its mobile showroom. They found that the more up-front event planning they did with distributors, the more successful the event tended to be. With the help of their in-house marketing department, R/B Sales Corp. was able to assist distributors with professional looking flyers and mailers to help them promote their upcoming event with the showroom. R/B Sales discovered that the mobile showroom was much more effective at some events than others such as golf outings.

They also found that overexposure was an issue. “We learned that the fewer times we take it to a market in a given year, the better the acceptance,” says Devereaux. “We will be more selective in how the mobile showroom will be used in 2006.”

In 2006, the plans are to visit more engineering firms with the mobile showroom. Although the company did have a number of successful events with end users and engineering firms in 2005, Devereaux wanted to focus on distributor events at first.

“We realized that we can get a lot of products specified a lot quicker with engineers by letting them touch and feel the product and giving them any material they need to write the specification while we are there. It's more time sensitive.

“When you go to an engineering firm, say you are going to do a cable tray lunch-and-learn or an arc-flash lunch-and-learn, you do that and move on. We found that if we invited every engineer from the firm out to the trailer and showed them what they need, we can roll five to seven calls into one call using the mobile showroom.”

The mobile showroom contributed to R/B Sales' 38 percent sales increase in 2005, which topped the company's 35 percent sales increase in 2004. Company sales have tripled over the past seven years.

Devereaux and his band of road warriors want to keep the momentum going and are now planning how they will use the mobile showroom more effectively in 2006. They are cleaning up and refining all of the display boards and may install a flat-screen monitor for streaming video presentations. They are also refining their marketing and display strategies.

“In the first year, we chose the products to go in the trailer based on our market knowledge,” says Devereaux. “The first go-around, we knew enough about what we wanted to display. Now we are going to encourage manufacturers to help us look at new markets that we might not have realized.”

The R/B Sales Mobile Showroom By the Numbers

  • In its first year, it logged 16,500 miles throughout Iowa and Nebraska.

  • Visited by an estimated 6,000 electrical distributors, electrical contractors and other end users, engineers and electrical apprentices at trade schools.

  • An investment of more than $70,000, not including the $7,000 in fuel and related operating expenses for one season on the road.

  • The 65 product display boards are mounted on a customized racking system that allows for easy installation and removal so that R/B Sales can tailor the product mix displayed at each event.

  • Pulled by a one-ton pickup truck.

  • The mobile showroom is a 32-foot trailer traditionally used to carry race cars but was customized for R/B Sales' needs.

  • The R/B Sales Corp. sales and marketing team utilizing the mobile showroom includes eight outside sales consultants, four serving Iowa and four serving Nebraska; five inside sales/customer service people; one marketing manager; and one order-entry person. More information on the mobile showroom is available at www.rbsalescorp.com.