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Mar. 9, 2009 – Keeping up with an evolving industry position

By Karin Gelschus
Associate Editor
HOPKINS, MINN. — There are three dealerships on the agenda this morning for long-time Tucker Rocky sales rep Larry Middleton, who has hit the road with a car so packed full of product, the backseat floor is barely visible.
After arriving at the first dealership, Middleton evaluates the product hanging on the displays, a task that isn’t much different than when he became a road rep 11 years ago.
But the similarities with years gone by end there. After the routine checks, Middleton enters the information into a dealer management system (DMS), a tool that has helped change — and increase — the responsibilities of many road reps. No longer are national distributors’ sales reps concerned merely with stocking inventory. Their job description, in many cases, has swelled beyond product specialist to retail merchandising expert and DMS trouble-shooter.

Changing job description
For Middleton and many other sales reps around the United States, the old and new job duties have meshed and evolved, leaving distributors and reps with differing opinions on what has changed the most for the sales rep. But technology, in some way, has been the biggest modification.
Middleton, upon reaching his third dealership in his territory that stretches across central Minnesota, spends most of his time examining the store’s retail merchandising. At one point, Middleton notes to a parts salesman that a line of toys needs to be moved lower, more toward a child’s eye level.
Finding such retail opportunities is a key factor for successful sales reps, says Greg Blackwell, vice president of sales for LeMans Corp., the owner of Parts Unlimited and Drag Specialties.
“Reps are working with the dealers in how to bring product in, merchandise, showcase, have color runs, size runs and how to sell that product,” Blackwell said. “That’s the kind of information (dealers) can gain from the distributor’s sales representative and the manufacturer’s sales representative.”
Again, technology plays a huge role in this.
Parts Unlimited and Drag Specialties offer their dealers Partsnet Web and Dragnet Web. These systems allow the sales reps and dealers to “access a lot of information they never had access to, not only for ordering but history and inventory checks,” said Blackwell. “For information purposes, these systems work really well. That’s probably one of the best tools available to not only the rep, but the dealer. (Reps and dealers) can look at history of the dealer’s purchases, which allows them to help them with not only their inventory but their sales abilities when they’re talking to the dealer about the future, where they want to go, where they want to be selling, that type of thing.”
All that information available to reps is why Scott Bain, national sales manager of national distributor Helmet House, says the biggest change in road reps’ job description is inventory management.
“As dealers become more sophisticated using electronic inventory management systems or whatever it may be within their network,” he said, “the reps have to become acquainted with that system, understand the system and be able to go in and manage the inventories for them. Not just inventories we sell them, but inventories overall.”
Reps need to be comfortable with the systems because sometimes dealers haven’t learned how to use the technology or only know the basics.
“A lot of the dealers don’t understand the dealer management systems as well as the reps do,” Bain said, “so the reps will go in and interpret the information they see.”
That information includes how much product the dealership has in stock and the amount sold. This then allows them to make recommendations to dealers on current and future product orders.
“Many dealers just want me to do it for them,” Middleton said of the ordering process. With the reps visiting once or twice a week, that’s enough where some dealers don’t believe they necessarily have to learn the DMS.
“Hitching Post (Hopkins, Minn.) really knows the system and because of that I can teach them other stuff,” he said. “Product knowledge. That’s a lot of it. I teach them how to make displays, general merchandising.”

Faster deliveries
Another learning curve accompanying sales reps’ changing roles is the timing of deliveries, which has sped up as a result of the DMS.
“We have to maintain a more stringent inventory control on our end because we’re not getting the preseason orders as much as we did in the past,” Bain said. “The dealers’ ability to sell inventory off (DMS) is on a short-term order basis, and it’s available to them. Therefore we have to make it available to them with our inventory systems.”
Customers can now come in and ask for a certain part and have it within a day or two.
“They can say, ‘Well we don’t have it in stock, but we can have it in tomorrow,’” Bain said. “Because they can look at our inventory and see we have it in a warehouse near them for instance or they can have it the next day. It allows the dealer to have a much larger inventory.”

Frequent DMS updates and new software products can make it difficult for sales reps to keep up with the latest advancements. To offset these potential barriers, distributors invest in training for the reps to stay as knowledgeable as possible.
“In the old days, you hire a sales rep and give them a catalog and send them on the road,” said Blackwell. “They never even went to the company’s headquarters. Now (distributors) bring the sales reps into the company’s headquarters, educate them about the company, talk to them about the product lines, get training from manufacturers we represent to help them be a better sales rep.”
This change, not surprisingly, has been difficult for some of the reps who have been doing it 20 years or more, says Bain of Helmet House.
“Their understanding of the electronic age and doing things more online and electronically has definitely been a challenge for some of them,” he said, “but they’ve stepped up, and we’ve provided the training to teach them how to be productive in that arena.”
Helmet House hosts two national meetings a year, which sales reps can attend. Bain says they have guest speakers from ADP Lightspeed and PSP Powersports Protocol to help educate the reps. There is also an IT department that works closely with those companies. Bain says they help train the reps on how to use the systems, access information and then how to use that information with the dealers.
Although technology has radically changed a sales rep’s average day, it doesn’t always take precedence. Along with a backseat filled with product on his route around the Twin Cities, Middleton carried three zerox copies of a magazine article. It was from a magazine that usually criticizes products, but it praised this one. Middleton suggested the dealership staff hang the article by the product to help sell it.
“If (the dealership) makes money, then we make money,” he said, “and everyone is happy.”

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