The days of the solitary lighting rep may be numbered as many are opting to add associates to create agencies that can better serve modern distributors’ needs.
The answer seems obvious, but it can be hard for the most diehard Type A lighting reps to realize that they can no longer do it all. Age isn’t the reason; it’s the changing business environment that lighting showrooms and manufacturers’ representatives find themselves in.
With competition for consumer dollars at an all-time high, manufacturers and their retail customers are counting on reps to do exactly the same thing: differentiate their respective brands in a way that stands out from all of the competing distractions. Every manufacturer wants reps who ensure that their brand gets prime treatment at each account for maximum consumer appeal; and retailers are relying on reps to provide display and merchandising help, hold product education sessions for staff and customers, plus negotiate with manufacturers on their behalf for programs/promotions that entice consumers to look away from the computer screen, put down their smart phone’s shopping app, drive past the home centers, and come on in.
Reps are being pulled in many different directions that simply did not exist before when the retail business was a whole lot simpler. As a result, the days of operating as a lone lighting rep seem to be waning. In today’s struggle of handling all of the various roles a rep is called upon to do, many once-solitary reps are looking for reinforcements.
The Crowded Market
The retail landscape has vastly changed since many lighting reps entered the business — even if that was only 10 years ago! Lighting showrooms need to offer items that are different from their competitors, and reps are adding new services that they never did before such as hanging fixtures and devising attractive displays from scratch (even to the point of installing the drywall) just to differentiate themselves from other reps.
Veteran lighting reps are finding that if there is a rep in their territory who is going the extra mile in merchandising and other duties, they need to up the ante. “The reps who don’t offer these services are finding out that dealers don’t want to do as much business with them,” states Michael Carr of Michael Carr & Associates in Glen Rock, New Jersey.
Reps who handle all of the merchandising and hanging fixtures have noticed another bonus. “If I had to wait until the retailer can get around to assigning someone in their store to hang all of the fixtures that came in from their orders, I’d be waiting a long time,” affirms Richard Alan of Richard Alan & Associates, which has offices in Houston and Baton Rouge. “Hanging fixtures and doing the merchandising ourselves ensures that I, and my associate Stan Simmons, get our factories’ merchandise in front of consumers faster than their competitors can, plus our products typically get an extra turn.”
Carr echoes that sentiment, stating, “I’ve definitely seen a difference in sales” since his agency has taken on merchandising displays and hanging fixtures for clients.
Having to set aside days to hang fixtures and merchandise at customers’ stores means that reps are taking time away from actively “selling” or prospecting for new business — which may seem counter-intuitive to what a rep is hired by manufacturers to do. The solution is to expand their company to include associates.
Finding Good Candidates
When most retailers need to find sales help, they hang a “Help Wanted” sign in the window or place a Classified ad. The lighting business, because of the amount of technical knowledge it entails, is unusual — and not just for retailers, but also for reps.
“I have found that the best associates come from lighting dealers and electric supply houses,” Carr comments. “There’s a lot to learn about lighting and they’re already familiar with the industry. It’s much better than pulling someone out of the air through an ad, which is pretty much hit or miss.”
And sometimes the employee with the most rep potential isn’t someone on the sales floor. Carr has had success hiring someone in the warehouse who was ready and eager to make a more ambitious career change. Other times, he’s had an employee who works in a different department (i.e. back office or administrative) approach him for the opportunity. Admittedly, those times when a rep hires a sales associate from a distributor he/she calls on can get awkward between the rep and the store’s owner or manager.
It was a matter of good timing when Tom Underwood of Saguaro Marketing Group in Phoenix was mulling over the idea of adding an associate to his agency — the perfect candidate found him.
“I have known Dave Wood for years,” Underwood recounts. “He spent 12 years with an electrical contractor I called on and later went into the wholesale distribution business when housing was booming. It has been difficult for reps to find qualified, prospective associates because a lot of people left the industry after the building bust.” Even Underwood’s agency name (the moniker of “Marketing Group”) reinforces how his business model as a rep has changed.
Underwood mentions another advantage to bringing others onboard. “If you work by yourself, you’re a rep. If there are more of you, then you are an ‘agency’ and that puts you into a different profile for some manufacturers,” he explains. “We just took on a major company that only works with ‘rep agencies.’ In addition, if you are a [solo rep] and happen to get ill or are away on a business trip, everything is at a standstill. If you’re not working [for whatever reason], nothing is happening. When you have associates, there is no stoppage in workflow; you have coverage to help your clients with any problems that come up.”
The changes to the lighting industry as a whole is another compelling reason for adding staff. “Lighting has been making great strides and becoming more sophisticated at every level,” Underwood says. “That’s why this concept of having a multiple person agency makes sense.”
Cross Those Ts
Lighting reps who have successfully gone from an army of one to an agency of several emphasize the importance of setting up the business change properly. “There’s liability involved,” Alan warns, even if the only responsibility of someone you’ve hired is to hang fixtures on your behalf. “What if he drops a crystal chandelier on a customer’s dining table and breaks it, or causes a car accident while en route to a job site? That person is representing your name and reputation,” he cautions.
Similarly, Underwood advises solo reps who are contemplating adding to their staff to be sure to incorporate their business or become an LLC. “There are things that reps must do when they add personnel that are highly important, but are what I call ‘behind the curtain’ things that the customer doesn’t need – or want – to see,” Underwood says. “The customers we call on every day don’t have to know how we’ve structured our business.”
What’s important is that lighting reps handle their responsibilities to their manufacturers and their retailers in a way that benefits each fairly. Once a rep has that balance down pat and priorities in order, then they are ready to grow.