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Hearth & Home February 2014

Patio Reps: A Report Card Part 1

By Richard Wright

It began with a phone call. On the line was a retailer, clearly upset with the lack of service and care he had been receiving from manufacturers’ reps. They seldom show up, he said, and when they do it’s unannounced and disruptive. They want to work mainly by email, won’t help out at special events or promotions, don’t know their own product line and somehow forget to inform us that the manufacturer has announced special pricing for the month of February.

More was said, much more, and the bottom line was that the quality of service received from reps, in general, was but a shadow of what it had been a decade or two ago.

Would we be interested in writing an article about the problem?

Our answer was yes, because this was far from the first time we had heard such complaints. But first a survey of other retailers was needed to ensure the problem is pervasive.

We did and it is.

Results of the survey are in the form of charts with captions.

The comments below are but a small number of those received, but reflect the feelings expressed in those not used. Most retailers have the same complaints.

Ed. Note: At the end of October, Hearth & Home faxed a survey to 2,500 retailers of hearth, patio and barbecue products; a total of 19 questions were asked. Three hundred and forty surveys were returned and usable.

Product Categories Sold

Thirty-two percent of survey respondents sell patio furnishings, 94 percent offer hearth products and 60 percent retail barbecue products.

Number of Patio Manufacturers’ Reps

Forty-five percent of patio furnishings retailers deal with no more than two manufacturer’s reps.

How Often Would You Like To See A Rep?

A third (33%) of patio retailers expressed interest in seeing a rep more than three times a year.

For the final question, we asked retailers:

What do you expect your reps to do?

Washington: “I have been involved with reps on products in other industry for 30 years. I have seen the Great as well as the Are You Kidding Me? If I were a manufacturer, I would want open comment from dealers on the performance of my reps each year in the form of a phone call directly with purchasers and store managers/owners. Your sales figures for a territory don’t tell the whole story of brand performance or lack thereof.

“It could be the product; it could be the representation of that product; it could be sales managers allowing the opening of too many retailers handling the same product or collections in a particular market area; it could be that retailer feedback on these issues never makes it back to the manufacturer.  

“We are all in this together. Good manufacturers with good representation and open communication with dealers are the keys to ongoing success for the industry. In my opinion, good reps are the hub in the wheel that keeps it all moving. We tend to phase out products that are not supported well by the manufacturer, or the representation of that manufacturer. Reps are the face of the mission statement behind any brand. Sales managers beware.”

Michigan: “We just encountered a very interesting scenario with one of our reps that we feel might be an industry-wide problem. We had one of our reps sell the product that they represent directly to one of our customers behind our back. They sold the product as a personal favor at cost, directly to the customer. This is the second time we have found out about this specific rep doing this, so we are not sure if there are more cases and if other reps are also doing it.  

“It seems crazy that this rep is actually making a percentage off our sales and directly cutting us out on deals. We are wondering if this is happening across the country and is an issue for other retailers as well.”

Ed Note: If you are a dealer who has encountered a similar problem, contact Hearth & Home at

How Often Do Most Reps Visit?

Less than a quarter (21%) of retailers say they see their reps more than three times a year.

How Often Does Your Best Rep Visit?

Almost a quarter (23%) of patio retailers report that their best rep doesn’t visit them at all.

How Many Reps Telephone/Email You More Than Twice A Month?

Only 40 percent of patio retailers are contacted by their rep via telephone or email more than twice a month.

Washington: “Provide us with all new sales materials, fabrics, finishes, product statistics and trends in our area, what’s working, what’s not, what’s hot, what’s not from the prior sales season.

“Offer solutions and ideas when product defect problems arise. Support us in dealing with the manufacture/customer relationship; help us to resolve problems. Be available to our staff to answer questions.

“Offer sales training to our staff on a continual basis. Be the brand ambassador for each line that they rep. Actually believe in the products they sell.

“Schedule appointments with key staff members prior to showing up; be clear as to the purpose and expectation of the visit. Pop-ins only take away from staff productivity and ultimately waste a lot of time.

“Review orders with purchasers for accuracy and be aware of any manufacturer fulfillment issues. Be the link between us and the manufacturer so we can relay accurate delivery information to our customers.

“Attend our special events and promotions, and work the floor as an additional staff person, demonstrate, cook and get involved.”

Pennsylvania: “Contact us when there are price increases, product problems, product updates, new products, discontinued products.

“Help with irate customers when there are fabric or product delays. Customers like to hear from manufacturer representatives. Don’t gossip about other stores or speculate what other stores are doing.”

How Many Reps Will Help You
Fix A Product In The Field?

If there are any positives to be drawn, perhaps it’s that 60 percent of retailers report their reps will help them fix a product in the field.

How Many Reps Schedule An Appointment With You
Rather Than Just Showing Up?

Could the 37 percent benefit from a course in business courtesy?

At A Special Sale Or Event,
How Many Reps Will Show Up To Help You Out?

Fifty-seven percent of patio retailers indicate that none of their reps will show up to help them out at a special sale or event.

Michigan: “The follow-through on warranty claims needs to be much quicker. Currently manufacturers are producing products that are not scrutinized by quality control. That’s creating a tremendous amount of grief for the retailer and customer. In many cases it takes weeks to satisfy our customers.”

Maryland: “Product training; product updates; product info; help communication between store and manufacturer when needed; share marketing ideas. We don’t need hand-holding, but stay in touch and respond if contacted.”

New Jersey: “Educate. Provide adequate sales aids. Be available any day of the week for help. Work with quality and warranty issues when needed. Answer phone when called. Be a positive influence with manufacturers. Be very educated in what you sell.”

Pennsylvania: “Helping more with product display and making sure we have up-to-date signage and literature for their products. Have pricing and literature with them when they show up. It’s amazing when reps come in to tell us about a new product and don’t know much, don’t have pricing and don’t have pictures.

“We sometimes wonder what they make in commission because some of these guys don’t give us anything but waste our time. They don’t know their product line or the tech side of the product. Our best reps know and have done some installs themselves.

“We have one distributor that has had three new reps in a two-year time frame. They had our newest rep stop in to meet us; he was not here for five minutes before he left. He did forward an email the next day on their new display program. He never asked us anything to try to help or to learn who we are.”

British Columbia: “In general, I believe that the reps have a more difficult job today than they did a few years back. Most of the reps have to serve larger areas than they used to, and product development has increased in speed. Also, the budgets for dealer support must be quite a bit smaller due to shrinking margins. Therefore, I think reps don’t stand a chance of serving us as well as they did 10 to 15 years ago - not because they are working less.”

Arkansas: “Keep me notified of all changes. Have my back with customers–warranty issues. Notify me of specials. Have a good working knowledge of the product they sell. Provide good training to my sales staff. Give us good selling tools. Return phone calls ASAP.”

How Many Reps Offer To Hold Sales Meetings For Your Staff?

Well over half (56%) of retailers say that at least some of their reps will offer to hold sales meetings for their staffs.

How Many Reps Will Help You Take Care
Of An Upset Customer With A Problem?

Almost 70 percent of retailers have reps who will help them take care of a problem with an upset customer.

How Many Reps ‘Go To Bat’ For You
In A Dispute With The Manufacturer?

If there is a dispute with a manufacturer, 79 percent of retailers say their reps will go to bat for them.

Kentucky: “Many of my reps complain they cannot afford to drive to see me. Some have been given more territory and/or are servicing new product lines and no longer have time to make frequent visits, phone calls or even email updates.

  • I expect four contacts per year (in store and phone).
  • I expect the offer of in-store product training at least once a year.
  • I expect reps to question our sales staff as to any sales aids needed to better sell their products.
  • I expect speedy updates regarding products, manufacturing issues, price changes and sales trends.
  • I expect reps to be truthful regarding warranty issues and item recalls.
  • I expect reps to be polite and informative to my sales staff.
  • I expect reps to support me when I present a complaint to a manufacturer.
  • I expect a rep to contact our customer and support our store when requested.”

Washington: “Training staff members. Keeping all product lit and manuals up to date. Advise of market trends. Introduce new opportunities. Suggest improvements in displays. Bring any deficiencies to our attention. Help us on major promotions.”

Pennsylvania: “Update my price books. Update current fabrics. Update my displays if a log or item is discontinued. Make sure I’m aware of co-op dollars to use on advertising. Train showroom staff on your products. Call customers if there is an irate consumer due to a manufacturing defect.

“When new product is introduced, don’t just send out an email and assume we’ve all read it. Follow up with a phone call or an appointment to go over the changes or new products.”

Louisiana: “Know how to assemble their products; know how to service their products; keep dealers informed of product changes.”

How Many Reps Provide Information
That Helps You Run Your Business Better?

Sixty percent of patio retailers have between one and three reps who help them with information that allows them to run their business better.

How Many Reps Keep You Up-To-Date
On Technical & Promotional Changes?

Eighty-six percent of patio retailers say their reps keep them up-to-date on technical and promotional changes.

How Many Reps Really Understand All Aspects Of Their Products?

Almost 60 percent of patio retailers have from one to three reps who really understand all aspects of their products.

Are Manufacturers’ Reps Better Than Independents?

Of those who offered a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ opinion, over 70 percent of patio retailers feel that manufacturers’ reps are not better than independents.

How Many Reps Earn The Percentage They Get Of Your Business?

Only 17 percent of patio retailers feel that none of their reps earn the percentage of the retailer’s business that they get.

Did Reps Do A Better Job 10-15 Years Ago?

Overall, patio retailers feel that reps did a better job 10 to 15 years ago.

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