In today’s post-pandemic landscape where construction activity is on the rise, products are in great demand, conditions are competitive and the stakes are high, the strength of a supplier-distributor relationship in day-to-day operations can make all the difference between working as a high-performing machine or a stalled engine.
Many ingredients must come together to create a recipe for success, but it’s more of a science than one might think according to several sales executives from major electrical product manufacturers nationwide. Below, they share their insights on the traits that define the strongest supplier-distributor collaborations and the joint sales and marketing activities they’ve found to be most effective in driving sales, profitability and growth for both distributors and manufacturers alike.
Positioning for Success
Each of us must understand the value we bring to the supply chain and work jointly to create a strategy that wins in the marketplace.”
Among the top traits that help define success at the manufacturer level, “an effective regional sales manager is a good communicator who knows their product inside and out,” confirmed Arlington Industries’ Nick Montalbano. “Arlington sells through independent rep agencies and my job is to provide product knowledge and direct the sales force to promote what’s important to Arlington. The old adage that ours is “a relationship business” rings true—people do business with people that they know, trust, and can rely on,” he said. “You also need to follow up, do what you say you’ll do, and know what your customers like—and, more importantly, what they don’t like.”
NSI Industries’ Todd Anderson agreed that product knowledge is key. In addition, “both agents and distributors want regional managers to be able to quickly make local market decisions that benefit all parties and will work with you when they know they’re talking to someone who can help solve problems, offer alternatives or make pricing decisions in a timely manner,” he said. “Distributor partners also want to know that you’ll back up your commitments and work to create mutually beneficial outcomes.”
As Legrand’s Tim Pratt sees it, there are two categories of professional attributes that an effective regional sales manager (RSM) should possess. “First, an RSM must understand their organization’s goals and be able to clearly communicate in a way that their team members and marketplace partners can understand and act on,” he said. “They additionally need a strong understanding of how electrical distributors operate as well as have the ability to build solid relationships that matter; RSMs are the field generals who must be able to carry out their corporate strategy as well as recognize the need to pivot on that strategy when necessary.”
“The second category of attributes are those that set a good RSM apart from a great one, which include the ability to identify talent as well as coach, mentor and teach others such that the RSM leaves the position they occupy in a better place than when they found it,” Pratt continued. “And finally, a great leader is one who’s decisive and has the clarity and level-headedness to read any situation and act in the best interest of all parties involved. Things rarely go exactly as planned in our line of work,” he noted, “and being calm, cool and collected will serve the RSM well.”
RAB Lighting’s Frank Gaudio wholeheartedly agreed with all of the above, noting the importance of such key traits as accountability, strong communication skills and exceptional product knowledge. “You need to familiarize yourself with examples of applications where your product solved a problem and share that information through effective storytelling,” Gaudio said. In addition, “be honest about delays and challenges, be an active listener by asking questions and focusing on what the customer is saying before offering suggestions and be proactive and creative with sales contests, promotions and incentives to help drive sales and turn inventory.”
Joint Activities That Work
Montalbano said that since new products are Arlington’s lifeblood, product training is key. “I always say that 5% of the job is getting Purchasing to bring a product into stock, and 95% of the job is educating distributor partners and contractors on the advantages and nuances of the products,” he shared. As for the activities that he finds most effective in moving the needle, “I’ll personally attend or at the very least support the local rep on any product-focused activities such as counter days, trade shows, and contractor visits; the added bonus when I attend is that the local rep gets to see how I promote the product and picks up valuable information,” he said. “I also like promos and spiffs when the new product is a ‘me too’ item and you need to help change existing habits.”
For Anderson, joint calls and training are the most beneficial. “Having IMARK distributors take you to their customers accomplishes a couple things,” he said. “First, the salesperson is putting you in front of the proper person at the contractor or end user, and second, they’re letting the contractor/end user know where they can purchase your product.” He believes that distributor training is equally important, “because if the distributor isn’t trained on the products you’re selling, it can lead to missed opportunities when the contractor or end user calls looking for product.”
According to Pratt, planning ranks as the number one most important joint activity distributors and manufacturer-based regional sales managers can engage in—but it must be done intentionally. “It involves both parties diving into each other’s strategies and creating a plan that will be tracked on a regular basis and adjusted as required,” he explained. “The planning process is the start of everything and clearly communicates to both parties what’s important and what you’ll both be doing throughout the year. You can’t achieve success if you don’t know where you’re going or haven’t defined what success is.”
“Joint business reviews are also important,” Pratt continued. “Everyone celebrates a great year and points fingers in a bad year, but if it’s done right, you’re having these conversations and holding each other accountable regularly throughout the year, which is essential to staying on track and understanding your success or failure.”
Among other beneficial activities, Pratt added, “joint training with the distributor partner as well as with their customers is the only real way to educate customers and sales teams on your product, especially in the case of more complicated technologies. Joint sales calls are very important as well; if done correctly, these calls can often bind the manufacturer, distributor and end user together for a long-term relationship, and they’re also vital when you’re converting an IMARK member from a non-IMARK to an IMARK supplier.” He believes that strategically designed, simple-to-understand promotions and spiffs are always helpful, especially when launching new products. “And based on the digital and technological world we live in, human relationships will be increasingly important,” Pratt confirmed. “People buy from people they like and live events and activities that get people together in person are optimal.”
Gaudio said that the most successful joint activities come from true collaborations in which both parties benefit. “For example, if you schedule a joint sales call, you should combine that with training and a promotion so that each element of the activity amplifies the sales experience,” he said. “The goal is to educate customers and keep them excited about pushing your products and services. Don’t underestimate the importance of social events and other fun activities that make the experience of working with you more memorable; use them as an opportunity to enhance the relationship.”
Attacking Opportunities Together
Not every type of activity or initiative pulls its weight, however.
“Post-pandemic, I think that counter days are some of the least valuable activities,” Anderson contended. “They’re a great way for installers to see products, but the decision-makers rarely come to counter days, so the information typically isn’t passed on. And based on our experience, promotions and spiffs are other efforts that have varying results. They work if the installer sees value in adding extra inventory or if they have an upcoming job they can purchase ahead for, but more times than not the results of these activities aren’t satisfactory.”
“Counter days have become less important because decision makers aren’t usually the ones showing up to these events,” Pratt concurred. “The digital domain has really taken over and reaches not only the right audience members but more of them and much more effectively.”
As for the successful practices demonstrated by the savviest distributors, Anderson pinpointed “joint sales calls, branch training (“some distributors simulcast training to all of their locations and/or record it for future viewing,” he said), new product introductions and email or text blasts conducted on a regular basis. “Conversely, distributors who rarely want to be seen, don’t make time for meaningful conversations and/or don’t take chances on new products are the ones that may struggle to hit GainShare year after year,” he said.
From Pratt’s perspective, “the distributors that engage most effectively with our company are the ones that understand every aspect of the IMARK programs, from the incentives they receive and the training programs to GainShare. On the flip side, distributor environments that are short on communication and sharing, do very little planning or where there’s a lack of overall engagement are counterproductive,” he said. “It never serves anyone well when the relationship is one-sided; partners who attack issues and opportunities together always win.”
“Distributors with a strong message of support for IMARK suppliers grow sales more successfully with our company, as do distributors who understand and value our programs and policies and want to grow together for mutual success,” said Gaudio, who added that distributors who provide open and honest feedback if the supplier misses the mark or needs to make an improvement to product portfolios, processes and prices help them to be a better strategic partner.
A Two-Way Street
“With the ongoing threat of online businesses, we’re focused on reinforcing the value that our IMARK partners, agents and regional sales managers bring to our customers,” shared NSI’s Anderson of the opportunities that strong supplier-distributor relationships can capitalize on. “Proactivity wins the day and we’re here to build relationships that provide solutions!”
“Neither of us can be successful without the other,” Pratt concluded. “Each of us must understand the value we bring to the supply chain and work jointly to create a strategy that wins in the marketplace.”
Following, our experts offer key “dos and don'ts” designed to help IMARK distributors work most effectively with their supplier partners to grow sales for both parties.
- Invest in Stock: “The best way for IMARK members to grow their Arlington sales is to have our products available locally,” Arlington’s Nick Montalbano said. “Many distributors won’t bring in stock on new products until customers ask for it, but if you have it and promote that you have it, it will sell. The most successful Arlington distributors are pioneers that take a chance on new products.”
- Take Time to Train: “Make sure the distributor’s staff is trained on new products and that they know what the supplier has to offer from a technology/marketing perspective,” NSI’s Todd Anderson advised. “Don’t bring in new products and put them on the shelf without a plan for success.”
- Build Relationships: “First and foremost, distributors should develop a relationship with their manufacturer teams from top to bottom; there’s no situation or crisis I’ve run into that a healthy relationship and partnership couldn’t overcome,” Legrand’s Tim Pratt confirmed.
- Inquire: “Ask questions about what makes one supplier’s programs and product offerings different from another’s, especially when it comes to IMARK suppliers versus non IMARK suppliers; if you’re not doing that, you’re most likely leaving profit on the table,” said RAB’s Frank Gaudio. “Don’t assume that all manufacturers operate the same way. Compare your needs and evaluate the total cost of doing business by asking yourself which supplier gives you the best overall ROI.”
- Engage with IMARK: “Familiarize yourself with all of the IMARK programs at your disposal, ensure that you maximize all of those tools/benefits and rely on other IMARK members,” Pratt recommended. “IMARK has an amazing variety of members with a tremendous amount of experience and know-how.” RAB’s Gaudio agreed, noting that IMARK members should sign up for a GainShare program and the Gateway to Growth product offering. “Ask your supplier reps to keep you updated on your progress quarterly and then monthly in Q4, which helps everyone drive to their goals,” Gaudio said.