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Hearth & Home March 2014

Hearth Reps: A Report Card Part 2

By Richard Wright

Being a hearth products rep differs dramatically from selling either patio or barbecue products. The product itself is far more complex, and subject to local and national codes and regulations that change somewhat regularly.

More difficult are the new products that enter the field on at least an annual basis. As manufacturers work to refine their offerings, layer upon layer of complexity results. Remote controls, for example, at times require an Einstein, or at least a smart teenager, to operate.

“Please don’t tell anyone about this,” said one manufacturer, “but at a recent family gathering I tried to operate my mother’s remote, but couldn’t figure it out. My relatives had a fine time kidding me for the rest of the day.”

Gas and pellet products have always been somewhat complex, and wood burning units are going (have gone?) down that same path. Do you want to start your wood stove on the drive home so you’ll enter a toasty home? No problem; you can.

The hearth industry, more than patio or barbecue, is in dire need of smart, knowledgeable reps willing to work alongside their dealer to ensure that all goes according to plan.

Our survey shows that retailers are simply not getting the support they need.

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

Ninety-four percent of survey respondents sell hearth products, 32 percent offer patio furnishings and 60 percent retail barbecue products.

Number of Hearth Manufacturers’ Reps

More than half (59%) of hearth retailers are serviced by more than four reps.

How Often Would You Like to See A Rep?

Almost a third (31%) of hearth retailers would like to see their reps more than five times a year.

Wisconsin: “The rep should know their competition’s product as well as they know their own. A sales rep used to be a dealer advocate to the manufacturer. Today, without exception (from my view point), they have simply become a buffer or barrier protecting the manufacturer from its own bad decisions.

“I believe the rep bashing you are going to reveal in this survey is a result of manufacturer management only wanting ‘Yes Men’ and discarding anyone who is not. The successful sales rep has evolved to please only the manufacturer, at the expense of dealer improvement. There was a quantum change in the early 2000s from dealer advocate to manufacturer cheerleader.

“I hope you will include or follow-up this article with a manufacturer response as that may shed some light on the root causes of why this article emerged in the first place.”


  • “Make an appointment prior to visiting.
  • Send updates via email, phone or fax about price increases, tech notices, product changes.
  • When visiting, be prepared to update product literature.
  • Answer emails and/or phone calls rapidly.
  • Make the visit professional, explaining all updates recently made; personal chatter can wait until business is conducted.
  • Make appointments at least three times per year to go over products and updates.
  • There are some reps we haven’t seen in over two years; they should make themselves available for phone calls or visits.
  • When a rep is not able to answer an inquiry at the time of the visit, they should get back to us within a few days instead of never hearing from them again.
  • Understand the technical parts of the products and be prepared to answer questions.”

How Often Do Most Reps Visit?

Only 17 percent of retailers report seeing their reps more than five times a year.

How Often Does Your Best Rep Visit?

Thirty-six percent of hearth retailers say their best reps visit them more than five times a year.

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

Only 17 percent of hearth retailers hear from their reps by telephone or email more than twice a month.

Wisconsin: “I expect my reps to keep me up-to-date on new product, issues with existing product and warranty issues. Most importantly, I expect my reps to return phone calls, and stop in and meet with me face to face! I have several reps that I have not seen in over two years, but they are still making a percentage of my sales.  

“If I have a product question or other issue, I contact the manufacturer directly. I’m basically doing the rep’s job and the rep is getting paid for doing nothing. In my case, certain manufacturers should consider eliminating my rep and simply giving me a better discount rate.”


  • “Occasionally they should call to see how things are going and if there is anything they can help us with.
  • Be a better bridge between us and the manufacturers, i.e., help to get us the best pricing structure possible; when there is a problem with product, help to resolve it with the manufacturer; pass on our suggestions for product improvement or new product ideas.
  • Provide more technical information when they visit us.
  • Give us strong selling points for each of their products.
  • Inform us of pricing changes (hopefully in advance).
  • Call us to go over upcoming promotions in case we have any questions.
  • Give us information on burn programs.”


  • “Call for an appointment.
  • Keep me updated as soon as a change is made in products, sales, anything that has changed or is going to change.
  • They don’t have to visit often, but don’t just call me or drop in and expect me to take the time to listen. Email is great so I can keep it written down.
  • If I call you, I would like my question answered as soon as possible. If you don’t know the answer, then call me and let me know you will find out. Don’t give me, ‘I think’ as an answer.
  • If I have a customer that is not happy with the product, I expect the rep to talk to the customer as a representative of the manufacturer and let the customer know the company cares and will take care of the problem.
  • When they do come to the store, they should make sure my pricing and literature are up to date and offer to order what I need.
  • When they do visit my showroom, I need to know if my displays are up to date and working as they should.
  • I don’t need them in the store during busy season, unless they are helping with a big sale, but I need to be able to reach them by phone if I have a special question about the product or program that is running.
  • Don’t ever make me look bad in front of a customer.
  • If they are helping me with a special sale and a customer wants to look at another product than what they sell, help the customer with that product as much as possible and don’t just keep pushing your product down their throat just to make your sale and lose me a customer.”

How Many Reps Will Help You Fix a Product in the Field

Almost a fifth (18%) of hearth retailers say that none of their reps will help them fix a product in the field.

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

Only 15 percent of respondents say they have reps who just show up at their store without scheduling an appointment.

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

Three-quarters of hearth retailers report that they have at least one rep who will help them out at a special sale or event.

Wisconsin: “As a prior rep, I would schedule appointments with my customers and have an agenda for my products in their business. I would meet with the salespeople, then the service department, and finally the owner. Our products are more involved than just sitting down with the owners of the company. Almost all the info a rep tells me is something the factory website, or dealer site has given me before they came to the store.

“Reps need to start understanding the retail environment as it relates to their products. The days of reps hanging out in your store cleaning units and helping customers out is all but over and that’s unfortunate. These experiences create better products and build better relationships with dealers and manufacturers.”

Maine: “Be more dealer-oriented than manufacturer-oriented. Side with the dealer on issues that affect them.”

Minnesota: “Be on our side, looking out for our best interests. Respond in a timely manner. Educate us on product changes and inform us when new materials are available. Check in from time to time to see how we’re doing and don’t give special interest to larger retailers.”

Florida: “We need better follow-ups and updates on products, including technical changes and pricing changes, as well as changes in general procedures with ordering and company changes.

“We need help when there are extreme product damages, and delays in receiving products, etc.

“Show more enthusiasm for products, and better support in general. We retailers are frustrated with delays in shipments, damaged products (especially due to poor packaging!!),

defective products, warranty issues and customer complaints.”

Connecticut: “How about holding staff meetings to review new products/installs, etc., and, by the way, bring lunch! (lol).

“Seems reps are more interested in pushing bigger early-buys and raising their commissions than relating to how difficult it is in the field.”

Maryland: “I expect a rep to keep me abreast of all aspects of his company that can have an affect on my business. I do not expect reps to do service work or visit my customers. I don’t expect them to come take me to six free lunches a year.

“A good rep understands the fine line between helping me and bothering me. I’ll do my job better if he worries more about doing his, and less about smoozing me.”

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

Sixty-one percent of hearth retailers have at least one rep who offers to hold sales meetings for their staff.

How Many Reps Will Help You Take Care of an Upset Customer with a Problem?

Only 14 percent (only?) of hearth retailers report that none of their reps will help them take care of an upset customer with a problem.

How Many Reps ‘Go To Bat’ for You in a Dispute with the Manufacturer?

It appears that almost a fifth (19%) of retailers have reps who don’t necessarily have their best interests in mind.


  • “I expect my reps to be able to answer ALL questions put to them about product lines, and if they don’t know the answer, to find it and get back to me.
  • I expect my reps to show me the seasonal specials they offer.
  • I expect my rep to HELP me retail their product when I need them for an event.
  • I expect my rep to get back to me the same day I contact them.
  • I expect an email from my rep letting me know if they are away on vacation or business and who can assist me when they are not available.
  • I expect them to make an appointment to see me and ASK if there is anything we need when they arrive, e.g., literature, etc.
  • I’m finding more and more reps just show up and I’m not always available to spend time with them; many times I’m so tied up on the phone or with a client that I have to ask them to come back later. Most times they don’t come back because they are only in my area for that day.<
  • I expect my distributors and manufacturers to properly train their reps in how to make appointments with their clients and on how to make those clients happy.
  • I also expect that when the manufacturer or distributor decides to market to the general public, they will let us know so we are not caught with our pants down when a client wants a better price from us cause they saw it on the manufacturer’s website.”

Connecticut: “Most reps just hang their retailers out to fend for themselves.”

Ontario: “I’ve been in the hearth business for over 35 years, and it’s been so long since I’ve seen any advantage to having a rep that I don’t even remember what a rep does. How about at least knowing a little more than I do about the product you rep, or maybe actually responding to a problem rather than avoiding it until we figure it out for ourselves?

“How about just making my people aware of what you rep rather than making us guess – Oh, I know, how about helping me build a stronger company base with greater consumer confidence and then not opening up every other retailer who recognizes the good job we do and want your product.

“How many times over our 37 years have we worked hard to build the awareness of the consumer of an otherwise unknown product just to have the rep reap the instant gratification that comes with opening ‘new’ dealers, stripping us of the future we have worked hard to secure? The rep ends up with ‘new’ dealers and a recognized brand; we have a history and sore backs, smaller territory, and new competition forcing us to find new unknowns and build again. Best advice, never trust a rep!!!!”

New York: “Reps need to visit and really help with the sales training and tech training on an ongoing basis. We very rarely see our reps, which makes using their product line confusing.”

New York: “Show up. Touch base. Let us know of beneficial programs they have to offer us. I never see or hear from MOST of the reps. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, treat MY customers like that!”

Ontario: “Reps for some of our largest suppliers only come once a year and do nothing but try to push stock on us.”

Minnesota: “They should be thinking of my business first, their’s second. If they help grow and strengthen my business, then their profits will come by virtue of those efforts.”

New York: “We feel blessed that we have very attentive reps in all our hearth categories; we couldn’t ask for any better.”

Colorado: “Help product sell through. The best part is that I’m qualified to be a rep, so now I know what I want to do when I sell my business, and collect rent on the building that I bought thanks to Blueprint for Success. I’m going to be an independent rep who drives around in my car listening to my iPod and making sales calls about 15 percent of my day. Can’t wait!”

Indiana: “Keep in touch with us. Return our calls. These are basic things reps did at one time. Haven’t heard from our rep for months.”

Colorado: “Just contact us at least two times a year, if that isn’t asking too much.”

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

Almost half (47%) of hearth retailers have one or two reps who provide information that helps them in their business.

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

Slightly less than half (49%) of hearth retailers have one or two reps who keep them up-to-date on technical and promotional changes.

How Many Reps Really Understand All Aspects of Their Products?

Only 10 percent of retailers report that none of their reps understand all aspects of their products.

Are Manufacturers’ Reps Better Than Independents?

Among responding retailers, it’s close to a toss-up as to whether manufacturers’ reps are better than independents.

How Many Reps Earn the Percentage They Get of Your Business?

Seventy-two percent of hearth retailers have up to three reps who earn their keep.

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

Of those who offered a ‘yes/no’ opinion, 63 percent feel that reps did a better job 10 to 15 years ago.

More Stories in this Issue

Meet Loretta Dolan

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Fireside Chats

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Manufacturers that we interviewed this year all posted strong growth numbers of 15 to 20 percent, and perhaps a bit beyond. They did that while key indicators such as new home starts and sales, remodeling activity and consumer confidence were still far from what they were back in 2008.

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The First Cookout

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Store Design: A Master Class

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Food for Thought

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2014 January Business Climate

In early February, Hearth & Home faxed a survey to 2,135 specialty retailers of hearth, barbecue and patio products, asking them to compare January 2014 sales to January 2013. The accompanying charts and selected comments are from the 203 useable returns.

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