Chas and I met at 10 a.m., but he had been on the job since 6:30. This is another common theme I’ve discovered among successful reps: Most start their workdays around the time roosters are crowing. We entered Wage Lighting in Bucks County, Pa., a nearly 60-year-old family-owned lighting showroom that was bustling with business. All sorts of customers came in during the hour I was there, from a restaurant picking up an order of pendants to a homeowner bringing in a lamp for reshading to an interior designer checking on her clients’ orders and an older couple seeking help in decorating their vacation home.
Meanwhile, Chas’ cell phone was ringing with inquiries that ranged from the status of retailers’ purchase orders to faxing paperwork to factories and arranging for his office to handle other documentation. While the Wage Lighting staff – which includes two generations of family members – assisted customers, Chas and I went downstairs to the basement, where he looked over an order of recessed cans that was about to go to a job site. Reps, it seems, are that extra set of eyes and the helpful unofficial partner in the business that lighting stores count on for a second opinion.
Next stop was downtown Philly to visit Arch Street Lighting, owned by Mike Kurland, a third-generation lighting showroom owner. (His family’s electrical supply house, Harry Horn, was a Philadelphia staple since 1914.) Chas is a veteran Schonbek rep who recently installed an attention-getting Swarovski Lighting Gallery inside Arch Street Lighting. Since Mike and his long-time associate, Peggy Colman, weren’t able to attend the June Dallas Market, Chas brought them up to speed on the introductions, bringing in samples of product innovations as well as catalog supplements.
Chas’ cell phone continued to ring and that didn’t include the inquiries being handled by his rep firm’s office. He has two employees on staff who take care of day-to-day operations, follow up on every purchase order to make sure nothing falls through the cracks, field questions from the architectural community needing quotes on jobs, and answer any questions that arise from distributors or factories. I also learned that, as with other successful reps who have an office staff, there are still many customers who prefer to call the rep on his cell. Reps like Chas take these calls in stride – and in fact welcome the opportunity to offer immediate assistance – however I can see how the frequent calls might hamper a rep’s workflow especially when out on the road, calling on yet another retailer.
Being a rep appears to be a delicate juggling act between giving the store you are calling on the utmost attention while simultaneously giving the retailer calling with an inquiry the same quality service and concentration. Observing Chas in action was like witnessing a multi-tasker on steroids. It involves the careful balance of partnering with lighting showrooms to ensure their continued success in areas that include inventory management, tracking purchase orders, handling returns, answering new inquiries from potential new business, assessing current displays of products, and planning upcoming merchandising presentations.
Our last stop was at Bright Light Design Center’s King of Prussia location. Here, Chas sat down with merchandising expert and buyer Doug Miller to go over the dimensions of a gallery program and orchestrate other displays. He had already been in the store the week prior to go over the typical rep duties, so this afternoon was a designated visit to spend an hour or so going over the minute details for an upcoming display unit.
I’m please to report that though we were visiting lighting stores mid-day on a Wednesday in July (and during the hottest week on record to boot!) all of the showrooms had a steady stream of customers. Retailers told me that there are good and bad reps and that they will take on or discontinue a line based on their relationship with that rep. For reps like Chas and many others who faithfully call on their customers in person, they have earned the retailers’ total respect and loyalty. At each store, the principals confided that there are a large amount of reps who never stop in at all. In fact, in each case I was told there were reps who haven’t yet visited in 2011. With a territory that spans several states (Chas’ territory is Eastern Pennyslvania, South Jersey, and Delaware), this is no easy feat.
I’ve learned that it doesn’t take one specific skill to be a good rep, it takes several disparate ones all working in tandem. Before I embarked on this assignment, I didn’t think that just anyone could be a lighting rep. Now that I’ve spent almost an entire day with a rep, I am convinced of it.
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