My Rep Ride-Along
I didn’t know what to expect driving around for 120 miles with the 2010 ARTS Award winner and recent 2011 ARTS Award nominee for best rep in the Midwest/Southwest region. I have known Richard Alan of Richard Alan & Associates for almost 20 years, however, I wondered, “Would my impression of him as the consummate professional change after I have spent 7+ hours in a car with him?” After traipsing beside him through a muddy job site, listening to him continuously problem-solve on the phone, and witness him wearing many ”hats” at five showrooms before we wrapped up the day by sitting down to a home-cooked meal with Richard, his extremely patient wife Jill, and their three children Amanda (age 12), Zane (age 5), and Aiden (age 4), I am happy to say I quite happily lived through it all and came away from the experience learning a lot about the typical day (if there is such a thing!) of a rep. Here’s how our day went.
Our first stop was at Carol’s Lighting in The Woodlands section of the greater Houston area (there is a second location in Humble), where Richard distributed the new 2012 vendor catalogs to all of the sales staff who weren’t able to attend market. “We’re bringing the show to them,” he explained about the catalog delivery. Richard also produces market videos that he films in the manufacturer showrooms to give everyone at his accounts helpful trend information and specific highlights of the new introductions. His goal is provide the tools for them to educate consumers on the product when it arrives in their stores.
What’s impressive to me is that no one ever told Richard to make educational videos. His factories appreciate it, certainly, but the idea to do so – and the manpower involved in videotaping each segment and editing it – is his own passion project. He sees it as a way to empower the sales force for when they are making presentations to customers. The videos are posted to YouTube, where they can be accessed by anyone interested in learning more about lighting.
We sat down with the effervescent Joann Wills and discussed the Dallas Market which had occurred just days before. She and Richard talked about trends observed at market and whether or not they would fit in with Carol’s direction for the two stores, plus chatted about some of the interesting products that maybe weren’t an ideal fit for Carol’s clientele, but were noteworthy all the same.
Then it was time to get down to business. Richard and Joann revisited the models she had expressed interest in at market, discussed where they might fit in best, and worked out a purchase order that would be finalized the following week in a separate visit. Also discussed in this planning session was the renovation work that is going to be done in the showroom in spring and selecting merchandise that would complement the new areas best.
Richard and I took a walk through the expansive showroom and talked about displays and how to present product in a way that draws customers in. A former retail employee himself (at Benson’s Lighting & Fans in Miami when he was fresh out of college), Richard understands the power of a strong presentation. That first-hand lighting showroom experience of hanging fixtures and working on the sales floor for several years enriched Richard’s knowledge of what works at lighting retail, and what doesn’t. It has given him a unique perspective when partnering with showrooms because he’s been in their shoes.
In the car, while driving to our next stop, Richard kept his phone on speaker so that I could hear each customer call that came in, unfiltered. This was eye-opening for me because I could hear both sides of the conversation and better understand what sort of dilemmas come up for a rep during an average day.
One of those calls became a three-way conversation between several parties. An installer at a residence who needed some clarification on the length of runs between fixtures and the necessary connections had called the electrician, who then contacted the showroom where he purchased the product. The showroom wasn’t quite sure of the answer, so they contacted Richard to talk to the installer directly while the showroom personnel listened in on the phone. “This kind of call happens at least once a day,” Richard confided.
Another call was from a distributor’s outside sales guy who was working on a multi-million-dollar residence. Weeks before, Richard had given him a bill of materials, explained how to hook everything up, gave the cost per component and, in a separate email, did the salesperson’s markup for him (using the parameters he had given Richard) so that he could just forward that email to his client.
As it turned out, the salesman had never actually ordered the materials and the homeowner was now asking when the work would begin. In a panic, the salesman called Richard and asked how he could obtain the needed materials immediately. The benefit of forming strong bonds with your accounts, I’ve learned, is that distributors will also help out a rep they respect. As we drove along, Richard called in some favors and negotiated with stores that he knew had the product and the quantities of what the salesman needed – no easy feat, since it requires knowing the inventories of each account exceptionally well.
“This is all out of good will,” Richard explained of the other distributors’ participation. “No one wants to sell something for 10 percent over cost, plus they have to pull it all together for the order, but they do it because of the relationship we have.” Since I heard the entire phonecall unfold live on speaker, I learned just how symbiotic the relationship can be between rep and client. A lousy rep is not going to have accounts willing to go the extra mile for another retailer’s benefit, but a great rep will have the respect of all of the parties involved.
“I call on lighting showrooms, electrical distributors, builders, and specialists such as ASID members and architects,” Richard stated. “Each type of customer has a different set of questions for you and different expectations. When the phone rings, I have to be prepared to be knowledgeable in each area automatically.” It’s a balancing act for sure, but it comes second nature to reps such as Richard. “I love what I do. I love the challenge. It’s fun,” he admitted.
One of our stops was at the job site for an exciting new project coming to Houston called Main Street America®, which is proposed to be a year-round destination where consumers will be able to explore and experience the latest in home building products and services over an area the size of two football fields. (Look for a feature story on Main Street America in an upcoming issue of enLIGHTenment magazine).
Richard doesn’t have a vested interest in Main Street America – none of his vendors are participants – however, he is so excited by the very concept that he wanted to share it with me. On the campus, there will be functional model homes in a different architectural style and completely outfitted with products right down to the china on the dining tables (all barcoded with links on where to buy each item locally). We toured the main building plus the grounds under construction to observe the workers pulling it all together. I have to admit, I was just as fascinated as he was.
At Ferguson’s Bath & Kitchen Gallery, Richard stopped in to distribute catalogs and chat with the staff about trends plus schedule appointments for several product training sessions he’s running. When the employees couldn’t agree on a universally beneficial time to hold the sessions, Richard opted to hold two in one day – the first starting at 7a.m. because that was voted the most convenient time for one department. Is that best time for Richard to hold it? Not especially, but it was optimal for the client – and that’s all that matters.
Like quite a few reps I’ve met, Richard is up at the crack of dawn to begin work. In fact, Richard is on the road by 7a.m., Mondays through Friday. He does not have a designated office staff (each member of his agency – Stan Simmons in Louisiana and Graylin Schultheis in Mississippi – handles their own calls and paperwork independently) nor does he schedule one day as an “office/paperwork day.” Instead, he performs his administrative tasks after the kids have gone to bed each night.
Saturdays have also become a frequent work day, as he often performs educational sessions for consumers and contractors at his accounts’ showrooms. Since Saturdays are the most convenient for homeowners to come in to attend a seminar, that’s when Richard makes himself available to his clients. He has even performed landscape lighting sessions at one client’s booth at a local home show on the weekend. Of course, hosting a well-attended seminar means one thing: he’s often asked to do more. The benefits are well worth it. Richard has seen his accounts experience substantial profit increases in the landscape lighting category. Consumers have even begun to ask the showrooms, “When are you having another seminar?”
At M&M Lighting, we stopped in to chat with owner Alan Margolin about his plans for redoing his lighting lab to include more LED and control products. While Richard took inventory in the warehouse and placed an order for undercabinet lights, Alan delightedly showed me the changes that have occurred in the showroom since my last visit years ago. We all spent some time together discussing the changes in the industry, the current Houston market, and our predictions for the year ahead.
Basically, this is what it’s all about: exchanging ideas and bonding over a mutual love of the industry. Relationships are the glue that keeps us all happy doing what we’re doing for a living. And reps, Richard noted, are like WD-40. They’re what keeps everything between the factory, the distributor, and even the end-user running smoothly.
Have you see our other Rep Ride Along articles?
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