The Unsung Heros of Pro AV-Independent Sales Reps

Often overlooked, these MVPs are the driving force behind the success of countless projects.
The Unsung Heros of Pro AV-Independent Sales Reps

Share this post

Choose a social network to share with.

This is a representation of how your post may appear on social media. The actual post will vary between social networks

Those of us who were around before the turn of the century remember the "good old days" with a fondness that may (or in some cases may not) be well deserved. One of the myriad things that sticks out in my mind is the industry-savvy salespeople calling on us as AV integrators. We looked to them to provide information and, in our dealerships, perform a show and tell of the latest and greatest technologies available. Most often, we would meet, conduct our business, and either go to lunch or dinner or (for the want of a better word) visit. Our meaning of "mixer" radically differed from today's, but I digress. It was a less complex period in our AV history, and our time with salespeople resulted in long-lasting relationships that were win/win. Fast forward, and as Bob Dylan proclaimed, "Times they are a changing!"

The sales roles for manufacturers were one of two types. If a company was big enough, they employed full-time (aka direct) salespeople, but for those smaller companies, they would hire independent sales reps. Manufacturers would divide the county into areas (typically 4 to 8 regions), and their salespeople or independent sales reps would go from dealer to dealer and service their accounts. Their primary role was the dissemination of information and product demonstrations, but relationship-building was just as important (maybe more). Think personal one-on-one and developing business friendships. Company salespeople would go to Infocomm and bring back literature to take to their dealers to regale them (in "leave behind" form) of the "wonders" that a manufacturer was rolling out. For those new in the industry today, you are confronted with what I call incrementalism (aka relatively small advances rather than big or disruptive), but back in the day, it was big product developments and even bigger announcements. There were always big stories to tell.

Fast forward two decades, and we have evolved for sure, but some might claim we have actually devolved a bit. In my opinion, both positions have a degree of accuracy. We have certainly evolved with all the new technologies at our disposal. The migration from analog to digital, the internet, the convergence of AV and IT, IoT, AV over IP, and the cloud are prime examples of evolution. We have also evolved in our thinking from purely technical to experiential. Yes AVIXA. This is good as far as it goes, but there have been unintended consequences along the way. This is where the "devolved a bit" camp has a point. Please permit me to explain.
We find ourselves in the "evolution marathon" where personal contact (formerly the hallmark of the AV industry) has diminished. As technologies became commodities and the appearance of parity reared its ugly head, this affected how manufacturers sell and integrators buy. As prices and profits declined, this necessitated a reduction in the direct manufacturer to integrator sales forces that they employed. Increasingly, manufacturers rely on a smaller salesforce combined with online ordering and selling through distribution to maintain and hopefully increase volume to make up for declining prices. In short, they must sell more to keep profits where they need to be. The net effect is distancing manufacturers from those who sell their products. Some of this is a natural side effect of evolution, but that does not make it good, nor should it be acceptable. In short (for many reasons), there are now not enough salespeople calling directly on the pro AV and digital signage integration practitioners. Yes, further explanation is required, so stay tuned. 

As I have been preaching for some time, we need salespeople, but we need them to assume different roles than they previously held. They still provide information, but this requirement is reduced since integrators can research products so easily online. On the surface, researching and buying online looks like a "no brainer" seen as improving efficiency and productivity due to time savings and more straightforward comparison of products. It certainly can be, but two "anti-factors" come into play. One is that there is a tendency online for insufficient or inaccurate information; secondly, online information circumvents a systems design approach. It focuses only on an individual part of the puzzle but ignores the big picture, meaning an integrated system design.

Interestingly, over 40% of those who focus their buying habits solely on digital research and ordering online end up having some degree of regret after the fact. In other words, they end up finding out something missing. This brings us to the need for salespeople to help navigate these waters. Digital research and buying online will not go away, but the ill effects can be mitigated with a reprise or reinvigoration of one of the "oldest" AV sales approaches.

To be clear, we can't wave a magic wand and suddenly put appropriate profitability back into much of the hardware we sell. The evolution of technologies has resulted in commoditization and the appearance of parity, and manufacturers will continue to need to respond aggressively to that. This is existential for them. Business reality and profitability dictate that they can't return to the good old days and hire a huge sales force to call on individual AV dealers directly. Their response has been to migrate toward distribution as their primary sales resource, bolstered by a small company sales force. Some have vacated the manufacturer direct model.  This does not mean there is no need for direct AV integrator contact, especially given the issues noted in a focused digital/online research and buying approach. This is where the independent AV manufacturers' rep comes into prominence. 

Some will say that independent AV reps are only relevant for smaller companies that cannot hire a direct sales force. Upon closer examination and understanding, this is short-sighted. A good manufacturer sales strategy coupled with a qualified independent rep approach can work for large, medium, and small companies as well as distribution. Yes, even distribution because, just like many manufacturers, they cannot afford to hire a big proactive sales force either. At their core, they are still "order fulfillment upon request." Remember that a company's sales approach can be something other than full-time salespeople or independent reps. For the record, most companies find the sweet spot in a hybrid approach. 

Independent reps provide much-needed hands-on direct contact with the AV integration community. This can address the challenge of inaccurate and/or insufficient information online and facilitates and promotes the systems design part of pro AV, which we know is the heart and soul of our industry. They do not take the place of websites; instead, they provide added value beyond keyboard clicks. They provide business and project development in an elemental form.

These professionals can play a crucial role in connecting manufacturers with potential AV integrator partners and, where appropriate, promoting and directing sales through distribution. The following are some significant advantages they can bring to the table for the AV manufacturers, with much of it also adding value to the AV integrator.

  • Stating the obvious, independent manufacturer sales reps can expand sales coverage in the most cost-effective way. There is no employee overhead, and they operate on a commission basis, paid only for sales generated. This aligns their success with the manufacturer's. Plus, outsourcing some or all sales to independent reps can free up valuable time and resources, enabling a manufacturer to focus on what they do best.
  • They can bring a wealth of industry experience, expertise, and overall industry knowledge to the table. They can speak to industry trends and emerging technologies. They can see what other companies are doing in marketing, advertising, and territory potential, thus facilitating an ongoing competitive analysis.  Overall, they can help mitigate risks by providing timely insights and strategic guidance. This can all be filed under "free" consulting services. In total, this helps a manufacturer and an AV integrator make informed decisions and adapt to changes and market conditions more efficiently.
  • Independent manufacturing representatives can provide flexibility and scalability that is difficult to achieve with an in-house team. As market conditions evolve, these professionals can adapt their approach to align with the changing landscape, ensuring a company remains agile and responsive to market demands.
  • They can provide extended reach through established connections and relationships within the industry. They can open doors to untapped opportunities that might have been challenging to access previously.
  • One of the biggest benefits is customer relationship management: Manufacturer's representatives often excel in customer relationship management, ensuring that clients receive personalized attention and timely support. This focus on building and nurturing relationships can enhance customer loyalty, leading to repeat business and positive word-of-mouth referrals.
  • Their success is measurable since it is directly tied to the performance metrics defined in the manufacturer/independent rep agreement. A manufacturer can track the effectiveness of the independent representative's efforts and make data-driven decisions to optimize their sales strategies.

 Beyond this unsolicited testimonial on behalf of independent manufacturer reps, we need a dose of reality. The reality resides in my abundant use of the word "can" and not "will." This means one size does not fit all. Independent reps will not just automatically (or magically by definition) provide all of the benefits noted above. Some will excel, some will be mediocre, and yet others will fail miserably. In AV terms, think greyscale. The key is to find the ones that excel or as close to that as possible as they fit a manufacturer's business model and (very importantly) company mission and culture. 

Also, "can" applies to manufacturers as well. They can employ independent reps, but their success will be dependent upon their sales strategy and plan. If they simply bring an independent rep on board, leave them to their own devices, and do not nourish the relationship, then the outcome will be one that is undernourished. The results will speak for themselves. 

What I want to leave you with is this. The manufacturer, seller, and buyer relationship has changed radically. In the world of pro AV and digital signage, the reduction in direct manufacturer/integrator contact is (at least at one level) inevitable, but it is not without some major downsides for all involved, including end users. Taking all the market realities (commoditization and parity) and economics (lowering profits for manufacturers and integrators) into consideration, effective employment and deployment of qualified independent manufacturing reps can go a long way to mitigate the negative effects of our new online reality. We need to take back control and think about the value of direct manufacturers/integrator involvement for everyone's sake. Well-qualified independent reps are one part of doing this.

Please sign in

If you are a registered user on AVIXA Xchange, please sign in