Editor’s Note: Multi-line reps serve many crucial needs in the promotional products industry. A new Department of Labor proposal threatens their independent contractor status and livelihoods.
It is critical for members of this industry to contact the Department of Labor regarding this newly proposed rule change before December 13.
PPAI has crafted prepared comments to assist with companies’ outreach to the Department of Labor. They can be uploaded or copied into the Federal Register.
Distributors strive to be heroes in their client’s eyes. Getting there means delivering superior client results achieved through creativity supported by high-quality products and service. That’s a tall order.
The good news is that distributors don’t have to go it alone. They can lean on the resources of multi-line reps. These experts represent multiple non-competing suppliers and operate within specific territories across the U.S. as an extension of the factory and an essential business connection within the industry’s distribution channel.
Unlike factory reps, these seasoned road warriors provide distributors with a broad, and often complementary, range of products and product information, plus ideas, solutions, case studies and success stories gleaned from their years of serving distributors. And because of their experience and close relationships with their supplier companies, MLRs are also a reliable go-to source for checking inventory and order status, getting production time estimates and shipping dates, sampling products and as an experienced sounding board for promotional strategies and ideas.
“We have access to so much more information about the supply chain, inventory levels, product trends, etc., than a traditional factory rep,” says John Bates, president at Michigan-based Bates Group, adding that MLRshave a better perspective on what is going on in the industry from a supply-chain and manufacturing standpoint since they are exposed to multiple factories and their operations.
MLRs operate as an extension of the factory, and by personally visiting with distributors in their regions to offer potential solutions for upcoming projects, they help distributors find the right solutions for their clients. In short, MLRs create relationships and offer resources that help their distributors to be more successful. For distributors who may have overlooked the opportunity to maximize the resources available through MLRs, it’s easy to get started.
Before the pandemic, MLRs scheduled meetings on a regular basis in distributors’ offices and met with most of the firm’s salespeople all at once. Later, when face-to-face meetings weren’t possible, MLRs met with distributors through video conferences. When offices opened back up, MLRs were some of the first back on the road setting appointments with distributors. But not all distributor sales personnel have returned to their offices, so MLRs have had to be creative. They are still holding web meetings when needed but they are also visiting distributors’ homes and scheduling meet-ups in local coffee shops and work-share conference rooms. The MLRs interviewed for this story say promotional products need to be touched and experienced, so in-person meetings are optimum, no matter what it takes.
Joe Keely, owner of Select Lines Marketing in St. Louis, Missouri, says he’s done very few Zoom meetings over the past year and, when he did, they were to discuss a specific project or sample. “Now [for distributors who still work from home] I am scheduling multiple meetings with one to three salespeople at a Starbucks or similar location. Personally, the individual meetings are much more effective for the salesperson as we can get in-depth with their projects,” he says.
“We are in a relationship-driven, face-to-face business,” says Matt Eysoldt, principal at Eysoldt Marketing Group in Ohio. “I think it is crucial to establish that first. Everything else, in my opinion, is second best.”
Toward that goal, Eysoldt has created in-person opportunities for work-from-home distributors. Along with a small group of MLRs who share his territory, he conducts individual, 30-minute meetings in various cities to focus on the specific needs of the distributor and its clients.
In addition to restarting personal visits, Mindy Reynolds, principal at ReyCo Promo, a rep firm in Denver, Colorado, sees exceptional value from her group’s participation in industry table-top shows and regional trade shows in the states she covers. She’s also personalizing her in-person visits. “I’ll ask the distributor, ‘What’s good for you? I’ll come to your home or meet you at a coffeeshop,’” she says, but adds that the latter is difficult because she’s unable to bring as many product samples as she would take to a distributor’s office or home. As an additional touchpoint, Reynolds sends customers a monthly email newsletter, Give Me Five, where she features one product from each of her five lines.
Bates implements two additional alternative strategies to reach distributors where they are: check-in phone calls to account executives for a casual conversation, and his new Product of the Week emails. These are sent to distributors to highlight a new product, trend or sale going on with one of his supplier partners.
When a MLR requests an appointment, the distributor should be ready to say “Yes!” Making time for a conversation that can grow into a relationship is the best way to maximize the value MLRs can bring to the business.
“When I interact with my customers, my only goal is to help them increase their business,” says Eysoldt. “I find it very interesting that my customers who are relationship-driven tend to work the relationship with their vendor partners just like they do with their clients. Once that relationship is established, trust follows, and trust is an essential part of this relationship if I am really going to help them grow.”
MLRs are trusted partners who are in business to help distributors succeed, so the more information a distributor can share about an upcoming project, the better. “Most of my customers are excellent with sharing information about their customers that can help me help them,” says Keely. “They trust me to keep information confidential and that leads to a much more effective relationship. Yes, there are some that hold information closer and I respect that. Even getting general information can help me suggest ideas that might work, but more details will help me get there quicker.” Another way to get the most value from MLRs is to include them in client meetings because they can provide unique suggestions and ideas from various manufacturers, not just one.“Are you working on a big project? Send your MLR the details so they can easily check their sources rather than you trying to remember every line they represent,” says Bates. “It’s very hard for a distributor to keep all of the suppliers straight, so utilize your MLR to help alleviate the stress that goes into finding the appropriate items that will impress your client.”
Distributors can feel comfortable asking their MLRs questions such as:
“I think the way to get the most benefit from a multi-line rep is to view them as a partner,” says Keely. “Reach out for suggestions when you’re putting together presentations and need ideas. I can save them a lot of time and aggravation by suggesting products that I know are in stock and can meet their ship date.”
Eysoldt agrees and takes that thought a step further by suggesting distributors look at MLRs as an extension of their marketing department. To get the most value at this step, details are essential.
“When distributors send me their projects, programs, information, timeline, budget, colors and art, I can work up ideas and virtuals, and get them samples,” says Reynolds. And because MLRs are constantly in the field, they are rich with ideas, and can share and adapt successful promo ideas that have worked for other distributors.
Building trust with a MLR can take time, but once that’s accomplished, the distributor is more likely to share important details about the client company and their needs. “With that, I can make appropriate suggestions,” says Eysoldt. “In addition, I make many end-buyer calls with our distributor partners. That is where I can really make an impact—helping to close the deal sooner and even taking some of the weight off the distributor’s shoulders.”
To contact MLRs in your area and to schedule a visit, check with your preferred suppliers.
Tina Berres Filipski is director of corporate relations at supplier PowerStick.com,the only company designing and manufacturingits own portable chargers in North America. She is a 26-year promotional products industry veteran and was previously director of publications and editor at PPAI.