Distribution Channels: How to Work With Rep Firms

Sept. 10, 2012
Just who are these manufacturer's reps firms and what do they do?

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of SD&I magazine

Manufacturer’s sales representatives firms (“rep firms”) play a critical role in the security industry and act as an extension of the product company, maintaining the relationship between you (the integrator) and the manufacturing company. These representatives are charged with knowing their products as well as the actual manufacturer, so they can answer technical questions about whether the line is right for your customers. In some cases, they also work directly with end-users to make the sale. If you’re ready to grow your integration business, you’ll need to know how to work with reps.

Ask a rep firm, and they’ll tell you that manufacturers’ reps, manufacturers and end users have a symbiotic relationship. A rep with a well-balanced line card can start the ball rolling on a project, but all three partners benefit. Not only do rep firms meet with end-users directly, but for integrators, they can help you deliver the variety of solutions you need to offer your customers.

Don Zoufal, an executive with System Development Integration LLC (SDI) in Chicago, Ill., said they reach out to rep firms on large projects where they need to present a broad variety of solutions to clients. “We want to go out and see what they [rep firms] have, because our customers are looking for a security solution; they’re not just looking for products,” Zoufal said. “We go out and meet with these rep firms and we kick the tires on the technologies they represent to see what the technology can really do. We recently helped [a large critical infrastructure client] run test evaluations. We brought in rep firms with different lines and tested them to the operational criteria the client needed and the technical criteria we needed.”

How rep firms operate

One of the attributes that integrators can find in strong rep firms are product lines from a number of manufacturers. It changes the sale from pushing a product, to engineering a solution.

“I think our biggest role is solution selling,” said Kristian Gragg, who works with the manufacturers rep firm KLM Marketing. “If you’re a good manufacturer’s rep and you’re an established manufacturer’s rep, you have a line card to where you can walk into any establishment and do a job from the camera to the head end, and handle every piece of the project. When you do that, the end user is more confident in working with you because you’re not pointing fingers at anybody.

“It’s a ‘one-throat-to-choke’ scenario. So if you can handle every piece of that, whether it’s wireless, Ethernet, whether it’s fiber twisted-pair technology, IP, the cameras, the lenses, the recording devices, the storage, you have to have every piece of that to be able to go out and do the job,” Gragg said.

“They provide us information about what customers are looking for, and at the same time they are an extension of our sales force,” said Interlogix Video Manager Joe Vaccaro, whose history with KLM that dates back to KLM’s early days, when Interlogix was known only by the name GE Security. “We do have as manufacturers our own internal sales, but the video reps are a tremendous extension into the field for us for different projects and products, and they are a great representative for us from a sales perspective.”

According to Chris Lanier, the president and founder of rep firm company LRG, another important asset from a manufacturer’s rep perspective “is having a factory partner that is committed to participating in the business pursuit. By that, we mean that the vendor actively participates in regional marketing events and will dispatch their technical resources for select training or high profile opportunities where warranted. We are constantly gathering information on competitors’ offerings, programs, etc., and having a vendor partner that will not only adjust, but even learn and innovate from that information is very key to their success.”

An effective rep wears several hats, including that of teacher. One example: As end users seek to upgrade and transition from analog to IP (Internet Protocol) video, Vaccaro said: “You need a lot of education and training, and that’s where KLM comes in. They’ve actually helped us in translating and explaining the differences, the reasons to migrate, what the costs are, what the benefits are and then ultimately training the dealers to be able to manage and install the IP solutions.”

Technical expertise is necessary, agreed LRG’s Lanier, but successful reps don’t rely on expertise alone. “Much of what we all know is that relationship selling still reigns,” he explained. “The combination of a winning product solution coupled with leveraging a sales team that can find and deliver the intended audience makes for a sales environment that rewards all involved.”

In addition to providing a single point of contact both pre- and post-sale for users seeking a multiple-component solution, Lanier pointed out, “the independent rep many times provides a more unbiased opinion because they are invested in the relationship and not just pursuing a one-time sale.”  

 As Network Video Technologies’ eastern region sales manager, Joe Byron said rep firms are a necessary force multiplier for smaller technology manufacturers. Byron says NVT uses 15 rep firms (including KLM) across the U.S.; it allows the company to have an even bigger presence than its 66 employees worldwide could create on their own.

“You need an extension of the sales force in each of the major geographic locations,” Byron explained. “It’s very important that we associate with them and work as a team so that fluidly we can mesh with them to do demonstrations, to have appointments with their customers as an extension of our sales force. So we’re working as one unit selling NVT product, despite the fact that they’re not direct factory employees.”

Keeping current

For manufacturers’ representatives, the new century has been an exciting but often challenging time. Founded Aug. 1, 2001, manufacturers’ rep firm LRG Inc. is headquartered in the same Jasper, Texas, building on Main Street where founder/president Chris Lanier’s great grandfather sold men’s clothing 100 years ago. But in a security-technology industry that moves at comparative warp speed, keeping up with customers’ desires is a little more daunting than it was a century ago.

“The supply chain has many nuances,” Lanier observed. “The manufacturer has a huge challenge to stay on top of what the marketplace needs, how to identify and produce those quality solutions in a cost-competitive range, determine the best avenue to that marketplace and deliver those goods, all with a marketing campaign to drive that message.”

In such a climate, KLM Marketing’s recent 10-year milestone in the highly competitive mid-Atlantic security market so close to the nation’s capital is “pretty exciting,” said Founder Paul Walter. KLM celebrated the occasion along with its dealers, distributors, consultants and end users at the KLM Expo in early March. Within the past year, the firm has expanded into the Philadelphia market by adding a field rep and also brought in another employee to its home office— significant advancements for a small, lean company.

As KLM has grown, so has its reputation. Four times in its first six years, the company was designated GE’s “Rep of the Year.” It now represents 10 product lines.

 After working as a rep for another firm for about 10 years, Walter started KLM Marketing on Feb. 10, 2002, in Mechanicsville, Va., naming the firm after his wife, Kimberly, and their children, Luke and Megan. Kristian Gragg joined KLM in 2003 as the regional rep covering Maryland, eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and south New Jersey. In 2006, he won GE Security’s Gladiator Award for sales excellence in its rep force of almost 90. That same year, he was offered and accepted a partnership with KLM.

 Growing the factory product lines it represents is KLM’s priority, Gragg said, but with a decade of success under its belt, it’s time to use some of that expertise to tell its own story.

 “One of the things we’ve been really trying to do the last couple of years is really market ourselves,” Gragg said. “For years, we’ve always marketed other people’s products. We’re the guy who gets things done, but nobody knows who we are.”