During a recent meeting between a client’s evaluation team and a potential supplier, we did the usual business card exchange and verbal introductions. A member of my client’s team picked up on one of the supplier’s people having a much different e-mail address than the others. He was, of course an independent manufacturers’ representative. The younger members of the client’s team were unfamiliar with this arrangement.
Upon reflection I should not have been as surprised as I was. Today’s consumers are used to going on-line and finding the things they want. The Internet allows for rapid comparison of similar products and prices. You can pay with a credSait card and your stuff shows up at your front door a few days later. No wonder traffic at brick-and-mortar stores is down and malls that thrived a few years ago are ghost towns.
The situation is different in the custom-manufactured products arena. Our meeting was the second step in establishing a relationship between the firms that hopefully would last twenty or thirty years or more. The client needed to actually “kick the tires” on the supplier’s shop. To see the machines, meet the operators, and look at the parts being made. Capability and capacity needed to be assessed but, more importantly, the “fit” between the companies’ cultures had to be right.
The manufacturers’ representative plays many roles in this matchmaking process. I have known reps who called on prospective customers for ten or twelve years before getting an order. They are the conduit for communications too sensitive for e-mail, the relationship counselors for hurt feelings and misunderstandings. They help resolve quality problems and payment disputes. Some have personally driven critical shipments so deadlines could be made. To call them “salesmen” is a gross understatement.
Are they still needed? The meeting I am writing about wouldn’t have happened without the manufacturers’ rep calling on the customer regularly over a period of years — despite an earlier decision to get the parts “off-shore.” He lived near the customer’s plant and had a feeling the parts wouldn’t stay “off-shore” for long. So, in my humble opinion, the world still needs good, determined and well-trained salespeople. Some projects need a personal touch you just can’t get over the Internet.