Why a representative strategy thrives in challenging times?
by Cameron English, CPMR
During these challenging times, manufacturers need to be very dynamic in their approach to shifting business trends. In addition to market access flexibility, it is especially important to manage costs during shifts in strategy. The benefits of a more cost-effective model that the sales rep strategy offers are obvious to executive business managers. However, it is not always as obvious that a well-connected and well-networked representative is much more effective than direct reports.
During these challenging times, manufacturers are finding that a well-connected rep network can pivot to accommodate shifting macro-economic market shifts. Suppliers who choose to deploy representatives are moving in a dynamic direction. In many cases, they engineer their organization in such a way that their network of rep partners is embraced as a true extension of their team.
Here is what one manufacturer has done to optimize their rep network successfully.
The proof is in the results
A recent conversation I had with Jason Hallums, sales manager for Qualtek Electronics, left a big impression.
First, Jason confirmed that his company has demonstrated over many years a consistent and committed strategy to the rep model. Second, I would like to add that Qualtek has a commitment to ERA and the industry associations in general.
Qualtek is a privately owned manufacturer established in 1980 based in Mentor, Ohio, focused on the manufacturing and design of cooling fans, fan accessories, power supplies, power cords, USB cords, AC receptacles and EMI power line filters, as well as many other broad line products associated with power and power distribution.
The following is a brief Q&A with Jason which focuses on how manufacturers’ sales strategies are evolving in the face of challenges like COVID-19 and changing markets and the benefits of the representative model.
As a manufacturer who uses reps exclusively, what are some of your sales management strategies and how do you interact with your reps?
We use our reps primarily to generate new sales leads and to follow up locally with leads we can provide from cold calls, internet traffic and distributor POS. Many of our products are what can be described as associative products. If a customer is using a fan accessory, they are also using a fan. We can use some of this information to develop new customers and to nurture existing customers to accommodate their needs. We rely on the rep’s local knowledge of customers and their ability to read the pulse of the industry within their respective territories. This is accomplished through typical formats such as emails, phone calls and now, more than ever, Zoom or any other array of communications apps to communicate and develop relationships with our reps across the country. While I do not feel this will ever replace face-to-face interaction, given the state of the world we live in currently, these methods suit their purpose.
How do you see the industry changing and have you modified your approach to how you support your reps?
We recently redesigned our website (www.qualtekusa.com) and are utilizing social media in more ways in an effort to find new customers. I think this approach will only serve to help us within the rep model. More customers driven to our products creates more demand and, in turn, creates more opportunity for rep interaction. We make sure to include our reps in correspondence with new and potential customers and rely on their relationships with distribution within their territory to help facilitate design wins.
Please explain how you use reps and how you view a rep strategy versus the option of maintaining a direct sales force?
It is true, a direct sales force could replace the rep model but not without very hefty upfront costs, and then you are left with only one person doing the job of what can be accomplished with a rep group that can serve a territory with multiple people. The other component lacking with a traditional direct sales force is the additional non-competitive lines that reps have. These non-competitive lines can easily turn other products into opportunities for Qualtek.
What are some best practices that a manufacturer looks for in a rep?
The best practices we see are constant communication, new opportunities and follow up. We want our reps to be in the field and engaging with customers and although we do not require the inundation of weekly reports from our reps, we can see the results as simple as increasing opportunities and design wins that come from being in front of customers on Qualtek’s behalf.
What else can you share with us about Qualtek?
Qualtek is constantly evolving and has been for four decades now. This year was no different. We were able to allocate some resources normally allocated for business travel, trade shows and exhibitions for other things like inventory and new marketing ideas, like our new website. With the pandemic creating more work at home scenarios, getting our website up and running was paramount to getting in front of customers that were impossible to reach otherwise. That being said, we have continued the commitment to our distribution network and our reps, not forgetting what has contributed to our successes in the past. The future is uncertain, however, with 2020 behind us, we are confident that our network of reps can continue the successes from last year into 2021. Throughout 2019 and 2020, we have moved some production into Cambodia, Thailand and Taiwan to avoid tariffs. This also has helped us keep our customer costs lower. At the end of the day, our customers are the force that drives our success.
As I sit at my home office writing this article, my iRobot is terrorizing my dog as it uses AI to sweep around my feet. How my dog responds to this technology, and how we as humans respond are good object lessons on how our world is continuously evolving.
During times of great change, the uncertainty of the future becomes the great disruptor. We are firsthand witnesses to the shifts in supply and demand. Global conflicts are changing the nature of historical supply chain demand fulfillment. Emerging manufacturing countries are now not so stable. We have dealt with tariffs, factory closures, trade wars, all while observing major new technologies pushing the future of our technological boundaries — AI, 5G, Starlink Sat networks, BEV – Tesla, Lucid, Nikola, autonomous driving, to name a few — all technologies that will continue to leave a changing footprint in our immediate and long-term future.
What does the manufacturer want from you as a representative?
I often think of what makes the rep model attractive to our suppliers. We are fortunate to have a wide range of suppliers embrace the rep model, both large and small organizations spanning a broad range of products and technologies. What are the driving characteristics that our suppliers care about? Some of the feedback I have received points toward some unexpected metrics.
• Ability to stay simultaneously connected to both the supplier and the customer, providing a bridge between emerging markets and the supplier
• Ability to flex and pivot, roll out new technology and develop new product initiatives at an efficient cost
• Driving new business, staying ahead of market trends
• Leveraging our network of contacts, both physical and extended virtual networks
• Ability to focus on the supplier and the ability to communicate to their distribution network what is a priority for their future product roadmap
Manufacturers are depending on reps to show extreme ownership of their market. As reps, we have the challenging role to provide frontline feedback to our manufacturers about customers’ needs, emerging technologies and competitive profiles. Our suppliers want us to be the source of reliable information and the gateway to new business opportunities in emerging markets. Of course, in many cases, we are also tasked with customer support and service. All while the ground is shifting under our feet. Are you up for the task?
Manufacturers want what we want — a strategy to meet the challenge of a changing macro-economic new world reality. I purposefully avoid using the “new normal” cliché as I am convinced there is no such thing as normalized standard business strategy practice in this fast-changing environment. The very reason why you are viable as a rep is the fact that you are a pure entrepreneur. By entrepreneur, I mean you are more versatile, more adaptable and more flexible than any existing direct sales force. Our specialization is the ability to shift resources in real-time. Show me a direct sales force that was recruited and hired by HR based on a fixed set of qualifications, and I will show you evidence of the very definition of a sales team that is not highly flexible or dynamic. Now compare that same sales team to a professional manufacturers’ representative organization, and I will show solid evidence of a team by design that is locked-and-loaded to pivot and capture new business opportunities.
Cameron English, CPMR
of English Technical Sales.
English can be reached at