by Matt Michel

Technicians and retail salespeople operate where the rubber meets the road in the HVAC industry. If you said they're the most important people in the industry, you'd be right. They're the public face of your company and the industry.

On the other hand, the most underappreciated guy in the HVACR industry is the manufacturer/distributor sales rep or territory manager (TM). Between representing manufacturers and selling to contractors, TMs have a tough job. Like any group of people, some TMs excel at their jobs while others seem to be just passing time. Forget the lazy ones; let's look at the good and great TMs.

Good TMs ...

  • Know their product lines. They study their product lines and can answer just about any question, other than those about technical minutiae. When they can't answer a question, they can navigate the corporate labyrinth to find someone who can.
  • Know about and understand the myriad programs and promotions offered by the product lines they represent. This is no small feat. Some manufacturers have 100 programs or more. Good TMs study programs as hard as they study the products they represent, and help steer contractor customers toward programs that will most benefit them.
  • Represent customers' interests before they represent the interests of the corporate behemoth who employs them. When there's a conflict, good TMs will fight for the contractor. They'll seek information, plead a contractor's case, seek exceptions to policies, and generally serve as the contractor's personal lobbyist.
  • Know the products, programs, and policies, and how to work the system. It's the minimum contractors should expect from their sales reps.

Great TMs ...
Great TMs do all of the above plus, they ...

  • Are students of the trade and of the industry. Great TMs study the business of contracting. They don't show up at a contractor's shop with an order book and a box of donuts. They come with information. They're walking encyclopedias of better practices.
  • Act and operate as advisors or consultants. You can't buy their consulting services without buying the product. Great TMs sell themselves first, with product included as an incidental part of the bundle.
  • Are very efficient. All TMs have tough jobs. If they have a record year, their quota usually gets bumped accordingly, making the next year more difficult. They're charged with supporting policies they may not agree with and almost certainly didn't influence. Their territories continue expanding, making it harder for them to find time for study and research, and harder to spend as much time helping customers. To maintain their effectiveness, great TMs leverage technology and their time to become very efficient
  • Find ways to add value. While they may attend sales and dealer meetings to learn about products and programs, they usually are not sent to programs like HVAC Comfortech that can help them become even better. Yet, as students of their profession, great TMs still find innumerable ways to add value.

As important as great TMs are to their employer and customers, all too often they're overlooked and under appreciated. For the employer, it's all about moving boxes. Over time, the contractors who benefit from great TMs begin to take them for granted (until the TM changes companies or gets promoted). As the great TMs' exemplary standards become accepted as the norm, contractors even forget to say thank you.

Manufacturers that want to build great brands should first build great sales forces. Great salespeople don't cost money; they make money. Supporting a stellar sales force IS supporting the dealer base. It's more important than a fabulous dealer meeting, a terrific seasonal promotion, or a luxurious incentive trip.

Contractors who lack great TMs need to become more demanding. Help your TMs help you. Give them assignments. Ask them to find out the pros and cons of flat rate, for example, including an evaluation of existing flat rate vendors. Don't let territory managers into the shop if all they bring is the latest joke. Make them earn your time. You'll drive the lazy TM insane. The good ones will rise to the occasion. With your help, they can become great.

Oh, and tell them thanks every now and then.

This rant is solely the opinion of Matt Michel, (matt.michel@ServiceRoundtable.com) CEO and president of the Service Roundtable. If youd like to respond to his opinion, send your comments to mailbox@ contractingbusiness.com. The Service Roundtable is one of the industrys largest independent contractor groups. For more information, visit www.ServiceRoundtable.com