The Value of a Distributor Salesperson

Oct. 1, 2006
Heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors frequently overlook their distributor sales representative or territory manager (TM) when

Heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors frequently overlook their distributor sales representative or territory manager (TM) when they make a list of those assets that contribute to their success. Things like inventory, facilities, trucks and employees invariably make the list. Good TMs do not.

Too often, contractors look at their TMs as someone who answers questions about orders, product changes and billing concerns. A TM might also address technical issues and pitch programs the distributor creates. Distributors and factory branches share this same view of the position. What they don't see is someone who has the best interest of his or her customers at heart — someone who has the training to handle the functions described above in a way that ensures success for the contractor as well as the distributor.

In some instances, a TM's compensation has a direct link to the success of the contractors assigned to him. As the contractors' businesses grow, so does the TM's commission-based income; so, as a TM, he/she has a vested interest in the performance of his/her contractors. Maybe it's time for contractors to expect all TMs to take a similar interest in their business. After all, customer service is an important part of a TM's training, and contractors are their customers.

Unfortunately, many TMs do not take the time to understand their contractors' businesses. They arrive at their contractors' doorsteps in the “provide” or “information-dump” mode, ready to walk in, introduce themselves and go directly into information overdrive — selling distributor products, services, prices and programs — without asking any questions about the contractors' businesses and identifying those areas where specific help or support is needed. Too often, they're out the door with a “Call me if you need anything or if I can bid on anything” attitude. They've delivered the distributor's agenda, ignoring the agenda of the contractor in the process. They might, for example, feel good about promoting features the distributor is offering service technicians at the distributor location. What they don't know, however, is that the contractor dispatches service technicians from their homes, and the contractor, not the technicians, makes trips to the distributor location for parts.

Understanding a contractor's business begins with asking the right questions. Product knowledge and familiarity with marketing programs are important, but if a TM fails to ask the right questions, it is difficult to know what products or programs will best fit the needs of the contractor. If a TM is going to help a contractor be successful, he/she needs to begin by asking his/her contractors to articulate their visions, their five-year plans and/or their core values.

Listening, too, becomes important. As the TM listens to the goals of the contracting company and the principal, he/she is better positioned to develop and later share with the contractor the ideas that will help support the contractor's vision and goals. In this way, the TM makes the contractor's agenda their own and uses the tools the distributor makes available to him/her to move that agenda forward.

After the contractor's agenda becomes clear to a TM, he/she should build the sales efforts around the visions and goals that comprise that agenda. This is critical to a successful TM-contractor relationship and remains unchallenged, except when the agenda changes or the vision and/or goals are detrimental to the distributor. In most cases, this dynamic represents a win-win relationship for all parties involved.

By asking appropriate, probing questions, it should become obvious to a TM that contractors really want a TM who is involved with their business. Then the TM can identify the skills they need to help deliver on their agenda.

Most TMs have a variety of resources at their disposal to help support a contractor's business and generate a plan for their success. Their positioning of exposure to the best practices and resources in the industry allows them to be a valuable business consultant to their key accounts. Their training equips them to help contractors build marketing plans, departmentalize profit and loss statements, implement flat-rate pricing and train technicians to sell and provide additional services that match the needs of their contractors.

By identifying those needs by asking the right questions and listening to the answers, a TM can better understand a contractor's business. Meeting those same needs by using the resources at their disposal enables a TM to move from understanding the business to contributing to its growth. The TM is, in effect, a built-in revenue generator and a source of profits — one that contractors should always include on their list of assets. Contractors who see their TM as a partner in their growth will forge a partnership that can assure their success.

Jeff Revlett grew up in the HVAC business, working with his father and grandfather in a small rural company in western Kentucky. Jeff received a degree in business management from Murray State University in 1991 and spent the next 13 years working in HVAC distribution with Ferguson Enterprises, Hughes Supply and Lennox Industries as a territory manager. He is pursuing his MBA at Oklahoma Christian University.

In 2004, Jeff had the opportunity to pursue his passion of helping HVAC dealers and distributor territory managers become more successful by heading up a new business training division of the former York International (now Johnson Controls) as the manager of sales training. Jeff is the York Training Manager, North America for Johnson Controls. Contact him at 405/419-6416 or [email protected].