Like an alley-oop pass off a fast break in basketball, joint calls with manufacturers' reps are a power move in the game of sales. The personal glory of making sales on your own can be sweet, but you'll win more games by leveraging the combined talents of the team.

The product expertise and narrow focus brought to the table by a factory representative — either an independent agent or a factory salesperson — can help you solve problems and open doors that might be closed to you working alone. It's an important tactic for building stronger relationships with customers by reinforcing the message that you will bring every advantage to bear in their favor. It can also help shift attention to something other than price.

“We're constantly looking for ways to add value by educating the customer, bringing in new products, new services, new lines we can offer,” says Chris Baynes, vice president of Baynes Electric Supply Co., Brockton, Mass. “The ability to bring an ‘expert’ allows us to do that education. It's one of the ways of getting beyond price.”

Just as importantly, joint calls can make you more effective as a salesperson by giving you a chance to learn one-on-one about the details of the products you sell, and about new approaches to selling them.

Working as a team with your rep is also a chance to build a closer working relationship with the manufacturer, an investment that can more than pay for itself down the road when you need help capturing a sales opportunity or untangling a mess.

Developing stronger relationships with manufacturers and reps has become more critical than ever to a distributor's success, says Baynes. “That's done through this person. Today, it's just as important to have good relationships with the reps and the factory as it is with the customer. It's an integrated effort. We can help them by sharing information with them instead of just taking orders.

“We encourage our salespeople to utilize the reps for that,” he adds. “Of all the programs we do to boost sales — counter days, training seminars, etc. — joint calls are one of the most effective.”

There was a time when distributor salespeople had to be wary about making joint calls with reps. In the 17 years he was a salesperson for Dakota Electric Supply, Fargo, N.D., Tom Rosendahl, now the company's senior manager of sales and marketing, saw joint calls come full circle. They were common practice when he started, but then they went by the wayside mostly because there wasn't a true feeling of partnership between the distributors and reps, says Rosendahl. Distributors became wary of reps stealing customers and sharing customer information with competing distributors.

“They're all smarter than that now. But a few salespeople still hold grudges and resist doing joint calls because they were burned decades ago,” Rosendahl says.

Deciding just how much information to share with a rep is still a judgment call to make on an individual basis. Although there may be a stronger general feeling of partnership and shared purpose today, some individuals are more trustworthy than others, and the revolving-door phenomenon can complicate the situation. Harvey Foy, OEM sales manager for Bryant Electric Supply, Lowell, N.C., has noticed an increase in rep turnover lately, mostly because independent agencies keep consolidating or shutting their doors.

“We have had the situation where we make calls with a rep one week and the rep is working the next week with our competitors,” Foy says. “It's more of an issue with independent reps. Factory salespeople seem to be keeping their jobs longer, but (independent) reps are here today and gone tomorrow. We're seeing reps go out of business and the consolidation of lines.”

Baynes only introduces a rep to customers with the goal of adding incremental business when he and the rep have a solid, established relationship. “There's no way of safeguarding against the risks — either you trust or you don't,” he says. “I don't really worry about it that much.”

Setting up joint calls can be an effective tool, whether you do it in an organized sales blitz, as part of a marketing group program, or in response to a customer's request.

Bryant Electric Supply has a formal program for teaming salespeople up with reps and coordinating their calls for maximum impact. “As a company, we stress the importance of joint calls to keep up-to-date on products, and to increase sales to a customer,” says Harvey Foy. “It's planned so we do so many calls per quarter. We specifically go after items we're not selling. We give the salespeople a printout of everything we've done with the customer over the past two years, so when they go in they know what products they need to focus on.”

The growth and influence of marketing groups has given a major boost to the importance of joint calls. To foster better relationships between distributor and manufacturer affiliates, most of the groups offer incentives for doing joint calls with reps. Because its IMARK membership awards points for joint calls, Dakota Electric gives its salespeople incentives to go on joint calls. The salesperson who does the most joint calls over the course of a year receives a cash reward, Rosendahl says.

Sometimes reps can be brought in to address a specific customer request. For example, Chris Baynes of Baynes Electric Supply recently got a request from a local university concerned about compliance and safety in providing outdoor power during commencement. Last year, the university got a lot of rain on commencement day. This year, they wanted to be prepared with wet-location electrical connections. They asked to talk to a manufacturer's rep about a line to see how they can make this year's commencement as safe as possible.

To make joint calls work for you, take the time to prepare before the rep arrives. Al Wessel, outside sales for Crum Electric Supply, Casper, Wyo., likes to have advance notice when a rep will be in the area to make joint calls. With advance notice, he can handpick customers who will have the most interest in the rep's insights and set up appointments. It's a way to make the best use of valuable joint-call time, he says.

Advance preparation and communication also helps the rep come better prepared. At Bryant Electric Supply, the salespeople and reps both get advance notice about who they'll be calling on, says Foy.

“The salesmen will choose four accounts each, and they'll have printed out what we sold those customers,” Foy says. “They'll also get a package of the samples and literature, and they know they're going to call on this customer about these specific products. They'll also have a presentation with slides tailored to those products. We'll let the reps know in advance what the products will be and who the accounts will be so they can prepare their own package with samples. They bring that to the party. That way you're not wasting anybody's time. The customer gets to see the product, get his hands on it.”

As you and your rep set out for a round of door-pounding, make sure to plan your tactics. Rosendahl of Dakota Electric Supply says it doesn't really matter whether the distributor or the rep leads the presentation; either way can work, as long as you agree on the format beforehand.

Take a moment on the drive to the first call to layout some ground rules, such as getting the rep to agree to not discuss product lines you don't carry during the call.

With the groundwork in place, you and the rep can get to know one another, learn sales strategies such as how to overcome objections you haven't encountered before, hear about application problems products have solved for customers in other markets, and you can learn how the electrical market looks from the rep's point of view.

A day of joint calls is a day well spent, even if you go in with a little trepidation.

“It's always valuable,” Rosendahl of Dakota Electric Supply says. “There were times when I didn't look forward to it, but at the end of the day, I was always glad I did it.”