By Jim Babbitt
While decorative hardware and plumbing professionals have many
potential avenues for strengthening and growing their businesses,
one of the easiest ways to add value to their showrooms is to take
advantage of the knowledge of manufacturers’ representatives.
Partnerships are invaluable in any industry, and they are
particularly important in the case of the showroom, where the
decorative plumbing and hardware professional frequently carries a
multitude of lines that are constantly changing and evolving.
Earlier this year, a discussion posted on the DPHA Web site
found that one of the largest impediments to a rep’s ability to
create value is a misunderstanding of expectations. In fact,
“expectation management” is critical to creating successful
partnerships between manufacturers, representatives and showrooms
in the decorative plumbing and hardware industry.
Creating a common understanding requires effective
communication. According to Steve Bates of Bates & Bates,
“Representatives not only represent the factory, they also
represent the dealer in many situations. The good representative
can balance both and make it look easy.”
While it may seem that a rep’s primary job is to expand a
product’s presence in showrooms, in a successful partnership, the
rep’s job is far more complex than that. Showroom professionals
have any number of products to choose from; what they really need
from reps is not just more products, but quality products backed by
solid information about how the product works, what makes it
unique, and how they can use that product to enhance their overall
sales. Finally, if a rep is to be a true partner to the showroom
manager, he or she must become and remain a source of reliable and
dependable assistance should problems arise.
Training is key
Clearly, representatives are increasingly being called on to
drive business to the showroom. For that reason, training is
Rod Denhart of Legacy Brass understands the importance of
training at all levels. He explains, “Sales-people [and other
showroom personnel] have to be comfortable with a product and know
that if there’s a problem, it will be taken care of with minimal
effort on their part.”
As Ron Raffel of Raffel Sales notes, “A rep also needs to work
with warehouse staff and others in the company who take delivery of
products. They need to know how goods are packed and shipped, how
to process return goods authorizations and what to do if goods are
damaged or defective at delivery.” In addition, many distributors
and dealers have their own customer service departments. Forgetting
to train all of these people can lead to substantial problems.
One of the continuing struggles for decorative hardware and
plumbing professionals is keeping up with the constant influx of
new products and changes to existing lines. Representatives can
create value by educating those who specify, sell, ship and install
This process must be woven into the fabric of daily operations
due to the dynamic nature of the industry. When change occurs,
information flows from the manufacturer to the representative who,
in turn, passes it onto the showroom, staff and specifiers.
“It’s not sufficient to simply to update binders,” states Debbie
Stehr of Stehr Enterprises. Stehr recommends representatives
regularly schedule appointments with showroom staff to explain new
products, describe how they can be used and offer pricing
Invariably. these sessions are win-win. Not only can showroom
staff get questions answered face-to-face, which can help them sell
product more knowledgeably and effectively, but input from showroom
professionals can also help reps and manufacturers identify and
resolve any problems and glitches they may have been unaware of on
their end. Additionally, regular face-to-face interaction with
customers enables reps to troubleshoot problems and lets showroom
personnel know that the products they sell have the support they
expect and deserve.
Because showroom professionals rely on reps for accurate and
timely information, it is essential that reps be able to provide
them with whatever product information they need from the basic
FABs to the nuances that those who don’t know the product
intimately might overlook. After all, you can’t successfully sell a
product if you don’t know how it works.
Many manufacturers encourage reps to participate in a factory
tour at least annually to experience the manufacturing process
firsthand, explain how products differ from competitors and spend
quality time face-to-face with customer service personnel and
others with whom reps need to interact regularly.
Avi Abel of Watermark Design believes factory visits from
representatives are extremely valuable. “It serves for great
relationship building between the manufacturer and the
representative, [which then] establishes a better relationship
between the manufacturer and the customer.”
Jeff Robboy of Baci by Remcraft agrees: “When representatives
visit us, we cover the entire manufacturing process. They gain a
better understanding of who we are and what we do [which they can
then use to help showroom professionals succeed in their sales
goals]. One of our reps had a difficult time understanding the
difference in our price point versus our competitor’s. Once he saw
our manufacturing process, he understood and appreciated the
differences, and [he was able to convey this to showroom
professionals so they could be better equipped to overcome price
objections from their customers].”
For Jason Hamlin of J. Hamlin & Associates, the most
valuable training he receives is spending time in the field with
regional and national sales managers of the lines he carries.
“Traveling with national sales managers allows me to spend time
with someone who lives and breathes one line passionately. Follow
this up with a regular schedule of showroom training and
architectural presentations and you have a formula for being [a
successful partner to showroom professionals].”
Jim Tomafsky of Mountain Plumbing Products agrees. “I spend half
of my time on the road with my reps, learning how to improve our
business with showrooms.” The knowledge he gains from this
interaction allows him to better understand his customers, and his
customers’ customers, which makes him better able to truly partner
with showroom professionals.
This level of knowledge is key, as busy showroom professionals
must increasingly rely on their reps to help educate them about an
ever-growing and ever-changing array of product choices.
Additionally, a shortage of qualified personnel means many
showrooms must hire less experienced personnel than in the past.
That means showroom managers need reps who can educate the
different experience levels and expertise of their showroom staff.
Reps who can familiarize new showroom personnel with the basic
operations of components and explain unique design characteristics
become invaluable to both the showroom and the manufacturer.
Reps and showroom professionals may also create a strong,
win-win partnership by building relationships with secondary
markets represented principally by architects, interior designers,
remodelers and homebuilders. Often, architects and specifiers are
receptive to offers to provide literature and/or training and this,
in turn, can help build and strengthen partnerships between
showroom professionals and allied pros.
Stehr explains that it’s not difficult for a rep to get his or
her foot into the door of a designer’s office. Many are aware of
the wide array of high-end products available on the market. Reps
can build this market by asking showrooms which designers are their
customers. Providing those agencies with binders and literature
helps the designer understand the products that are available in
their region and where to find them. This can save time for the
designer and lead to sales for the manufacturer and showroom.
Working with showrooms to host events for designers and
specifiers can also help drive business to showrooms. Showrooms,
however, may be reluctant to serve as hosts because of fears that
no one will attend. This obstacle can be overcome by partnering
with a local AIA, ASID or NARI chapter. It’s not difficult to
receive a positive response, because these organizations are always
looking for programs to offer to their memberships, especially if
they’re available at little to no cost.
As Marilyn Hermance of Westheimer Plumbing & Hardware notes,
“I find it shocking that the majority of representatives in our
industry do not call on architects and designers. It is really
wonderful to see that this trend is changing, however.”
By partnering with their reps, decorative plumbing and hardware
showrooms can increase sales and drive business to their showrooms.
However, to capitalize on value-creating opportunities, there must
be effective communication, common understanding of expectations
and relationships built on trust and professionalism between all
three segments of the industry manufacturer, representative and
Just as showroom professionals continue to expand their
responsibilities and knowledge base, so, too, is the role of the
rep continually changing and expanding. To that end, strong
partnerships between decorative hardware and plumbing showrooms,
manufacturers and distributors will create value in the marketplace
for all the players involved to the benefit of all.
Jim Babbitt is a founding principal of Howell-Babbitt Sales, a
manufacturer’s representative headquartered in Glenview, IL
(Chicago) and serving the Midwest. Howell-Babbitt sales is a
charter member of the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware
Association, where Jim serves as one of five members on the DPHA