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Real Issues. Real Answers. Vendor reps on the route…again

This month’s Real Issues survey question was suggested by a reader who is frustrated with purposeless visits by vendor reps. There are two sides to every issue—and we’re happy to share viewpoints from several wholesale distributors and manufacturers as well. Thanks to the nearly 200 readers who weighed in on this survey. If you’d like to participate in future Real Issues surveys, send a note to, and we’ll make sure to get you added.

The Question: How would you advise this dealer frustrated by visits from vendor reps?
“We have manufacturing and vendor reps who come into the store with no real purpose, except we are ‘on their route.’ They aren’t there to show a new product, to solve an issue, clean displays, or for any reason other than ‘anything I can do for you?’ It sounds harmless, but in my opinion, they’re wasting my and my salesperson’s time. With our people busier than ever before, it’s a problem. How do other dealers feel about this and, more importantly, what do they do about it?”

The Answers:

“Completely agree, it’s a problem. I make most manufacturer reps set an appointment and then I ask what the agenda is. If it’s to stop by and say ‘Hi,’ I tell them we don’t have time for this. These reps know they need a reason to stop. A handful of reps don’t need to make an appointment, as they always have something worthwhile to discuss. It’s up to the dealer to set the ground rules.”

“This dealer has hit the nail on the head. On occasion when a vendor has come in and has taken up an excessive amount of time with baseless conversation with one of the staff, another staffer will use a cell phone and call the business asking for the person whose time is being wasted. ‘Sorry, I have to take this call, but it was nice to visit with you,’ usually does the trick.”

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“We like to create a partnership with our vendors that benefits both of us. In sitting down with them to negotiate and create that partnership, we set expectations that we have of them and, in turn, their expectations of us. This is the time to make sure that they are working with our managers to do things like product knowledge meetings and display work. We also let them know our time is valuable and to set up meetings with us and our managers before just showing up.”

“We have four rules for route salespeople:
1. Don’t come without an appointment.
2. Be prepared and get to the point.
3. Training of staff is good, but after hours, you buy the pizza.
4. Park away from the store as to not take customer parking.”

“I agree and would like to know myself how others address this issue without being rude to the salesperson who may just help you out one day.”

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“At our company, vendor reps must call the store manager first to let them know when they are planning to stop in. More importantly, they must have a legitimate agenda for stopping.”

“We, too, have sales, vendor and manufacturer reps stop by. It’s not really an issue, and it usually builds a relationship. If I’m extremely busy, I simply tell them that and they head on to their next stop. Remember, these people are just doing their job. And one day you may need them for something— like a warranty claim or product info.”

“It depends on the vendor rep and the brand in question. If it’s a rep who we’ve come to like and trust, and it’s a brand we want to be successful with, I think it’s valuable. One of the things I’ve learned is that we are most successful with the brands where we have a rep who has earned the trust and confidence of our team. If I know that we can rely on a rep for timely advice and support when we need it, then I see these ‘on the route’ visits as part of building that rapport. However, we can also see when it’s just someone who is wasting our time with pointless conversation and then logging the visit as part of their weekly report. I encourage our team to be polite but keep those conversations short.”

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“It’s good to get to know them better and build a relationship because when you need them they are more likely to help you.”

“Spend a few minutes only to talk, because you never know what you’ll learn. If you’re sitting down, stand up— and if the conversation goes on too long, excuse yourself and start walking.”

“Honestly, we don’t have this problem. We are located in a rural area and when the salespeople show up, they usually have new products and specials to show us. However, I would advise the ‘problem salesmen’ don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

“I agree with you, but we still let them come in and stand around and talk. Usually they stay long enough that one of our guys remembers an issue and they discuss it. Sometimes they come in during lunch and not everyone is here and it’s actually nice when they hang around long enough that everyone gets a chance to say hi or ask them questions. It also builds relationships with our reps and salespeople, which comes in handy when we need a favor. Because you never know when you’re going to need something.”

“I think the complete opposite. We have great vendor reps and they have all done a ton for us. New product lunches, training for our salespeople, letting us know about deals on their products. I live by the motto of you may not buy anything from them, but you need to get to know them, cause someday you may need them in a pinch or if something goes sour with another vendor. It’s a give and take relationship. We have had reps spearhead big sales for us and some are totally awesome at customer problems.”

“Advise the vendor rep that in the future please offer something of value. Don’t just come in and visit.”

“Acknowledge them politely and indicate you’ll call them when you need them. Thank them for stopping by (their sales manager likely requires that they make the call and log it). Don’t be rude, you may need them someday.”

“I feel the reps who stop by are important to us. My employees are quick to meet them and tell them they can spare a very small amount of time to talk. Typically, they are told all is good and apologize for not having more time to visit. My thoughts are that there will come a time when you need that rep. I don’t want them to not stop by or not return phone calls. I will always need the reps but sometimes don’t have time for them. This approach works for my company.”

“When they come in like this, find something that you would like them to do. ‘Hey, since you’re here, your displays could use a cleaning,” or something along those lines. If it continues and you can see it slowing or stopping the progress and workflow in your store, have a meeting with them and tell them what you are seeing and your thoughts on it. They are there to provide you with goods and services, so make them do their job. On a side note, make sure that your outside salespeople aren’t doing the same thing when out visiting job sites. You know how it feels and you don’t want contractors/builders feeling the same way about your company.”

“Without totally compromising the relationship, just be honest. Tell them exactly how you feel. They may find this feedback refreshing and it could possibly improve the relationship. You can’t expect them to change if they continue to do the same thing over and over again with the same feedback and results.”

“Management should monitor the situation. When a rep with no purpose shows up, kindly invite them into your office to explain your concerns, without burning bridges. If the rep in question continues to waste your company’s time, burn that bridge down.”

“We sent a letter from senior management to each company, noting that reps needed a name badge to visit (badge freely supplied), and a prior appointment. We cited the occasional lack of personnel available to see a rep on a given day, and that was why we need a prior-arranged appointment and a purpose for that appointment.”

“We allow just about anyone to come in and peddle their wares at any time. That’s is the way it has always been done and thus continues. However, it is a giant waste of time and a process that I wish would be fixed.”

“I am just glad to see my reps. We talk for a few minutes then they often check inventory, which is nice. It is good to ask them how the competition is doing. But truly, if there are no new products to show, there is no reason to show up more than once a month.”

“Gosh, wish I had their problem with being so busy they can’t even say, ‘Nope, don’t need anything today.’ We always thank reps for stopping. It makes them feel valued, and maybe when you really do need something from them (help with a return, advice on a product, whatever), they’ll be there for you. Seems to me this isn’t a big deal at all.”

“I’m a straight-forward manager. I have tremendous responsibility. If myself or my staff are busy during the time the rep shows up, I’ll tell them now is not a good time and send them on their way. I respect they are doing their jobs. I have told them also late afternoon visits when things are quieter are helpful. I have told many a rep, if they show up they need to be able to recognize whether we are busy or may be able to spare a minute or two. If a rep needs more time, I will suggest setting up a quick meeting if there is a new product available.”

“He should feel lucky that they are stopping in. If they are taking up too much time advise them that you will give them what time you can, but your customers come first.”

“We’ve had the same issue with our vendor reps. Initially, we would stop and chat about pretty much anything, but we finally had to let them know that as busy as we are, they could help us best by updating our literature racks or bringing in new product info. If they come back to the sales offices without anything new, they’re typically ignored. Now, they know not to come by unless they have some real news.”

“Ask them to call ahead if they want any real ‘face time.’”

“Most vendor reps are no more than traveling salesmen. I try to ignore them unless there are specific problems that need to be solved. I do appreciate the few who come into the yard and supply us with technical literature and product catalogs and then go about their business of maintaining their displays.”

“Let the rep know your position. We like and expect the routine visits so that any issues that we need addressed can be taken care of. If the reps learn that there are no pressing concerns after a quick inquiry on a given visit, they know not to intrude further on our time that day. The reps that actually have the courtesy of scheduling an appointment with you and then have nothing to contribute are a serious frustration. I try to qualify them before scheduling the appointment.”

“Let the rep know your company’s expectations. Have them set a training lunch for sales to become more productive.”

“I’m sure there is something they can assist you with. If you know their schedule, you can prep for the week or month on the issues for them to address. You can always communicate there isn’t time this week to meet, I’m sure they would appreciate that. The worst thing is to make them feel you don’t need them. They want to help and can if you are properly prepared.”

“Next time the rep makes his/her stop, take a moment to communicate your expectations of each visit. Solving any issues should be top of the list. Ask them to be sure displays and literature are up to date, and make sure that they follow through. Ask them for presentations on products that your staff could use some training on. Ask them to make a joint call to a customer. Employ their expertise and any tools they have available. Regularly scheduled visits help our staff know when to expect reps and can get questions answered, issues solved, and those joint calls scheduled.”

“I agree it is a waste of our time. If they do not have an appointment set up with a purpose I don’t see them.”

“If this is a problem for you and your store, reach out to the branch manager of the company. Tell them of the needs the rep is not fulfilling. If you don’t want or need a sales rep to call on you, I am sure they can take you off their route.”

“Acknowledge them politely and indicate you’ll call them when you need them. Thank them for stopping by (their sales manager likely requires that they make the call and to log it). Don’t be rude, you may need them someday.”

“While the vendor rep may take up time, they still inform us of product and/or price changes. Since I may not always read all of the email updates, the salesman is my preferred method to obtain these updates.”

“Have them come see you first. Get them to explain the purpose of their visit to you. If they don’t have anything to resolve or new products to discuss, send them on their way. You will find it’s likely that just a few reps are the real problem and it may take them a few weeks to adjust to the new policy.”

“Be glad that you have a sales rep who cares to stop and knows your name!”

“When a rep comes in, I am either actually really busy or make myself appear to be. Reps who don’t bother making an appointment and want to  talk about their favorite college football team, or their kids are the real life equivalent of spam email. After all that and more, you get the classic ‘Is there anything I can be doing for you?’ Yeah, don’t let the door hit you on the way out, so I can get back to what I want to be doing.”

“We candidly tell our suppliers that we will tell them when we want to see them and that they aren’t to stop in any of our locations without an appointment.”

Answers from wholesale distributors on vendor reps visits

“I am one of those vendor reps, and it is my job to call on customers to solicit orders. If we do not maintain face-to-face contact within a reasonable time frame, the customer might forget about us when having product quoted (mainly commodity lumber). Granted many of my calls have become brief due to no new presentation, but we are expected to see our customers.”

“The same thing happens on the distributor level and unfortunately some of my sales reps and myself may be guilty. After calling on the same customers for so long we get in a rut, but I know I need to stay in front of the customer in case an item they bought needs attention.”

“Sounds like the rep is attempting to be effective but without any strategy. To me this just means the reps are not trained properly by the firms they represent. A more effective solution would be for the vendor rep to have a coordinated meeting where actual productive engagements are happening, such as a new product demo, or a refresher on existing products for new dealer employees.

As the dealer/lumberyard, I would educate the rep(s) on this and tell them what you want from them and how you want them to interact with you and your employees for a more productive relationship.”

“We are actually going through this as a company and restructuring the role of the outside sales rep. We are seeing ways they can provide value to our customers. We cannot be the rep that shows up and gives nothing. We want to help our dealer-customers build their business and be a partner.”

Answers from manufacturers

“As a manufacturer, we use every call as an opportunity to show our dealer customers how to grow their business and make money. Putting educated salespeople on the floor is a strength for their business. This is continuing education. Always show something new.”

“This seems pretty common and it’s got to be a culture change at some point. Maybe coach dealer personnel to ask pointed questions and politely ask vendor reps to schedule an appointment next time when they have a business- related reason to stop by.”

“As a manufacturer’s rep, it is incumbent on us to ‘add value.’ If your rep is not doing that, then they are failing you. I feel that it is necessary to schedule meetings with agendas or make phone calls to check in.”

“I do sometimes stop by lumberyards when they don’t return my phone calls. I simply say that I happened to be nearby and ask if I can give my business card to the purchasing manager. Most of the time I end up having at least a 2-3 minute conversation, sometimes 30 minutes, depending on the product fit. So, I do think there is a value as long as there is something new to give to them.”

“I am a manufacturer with sales reps in the field who call on lumber dealers. I agree that these types of ‘sales calls’ are non-productive and a waste of valuable time and assets. I would suggest the dealer, through courageous communication, tell the rep exactly how he feels and that he shouldn’t come by as often. And when the rep does stop by, he should have a detailed agenda with ideas and ways he can make the dealer’s business more productive and profitable. It’s all about a partnership that will work for all parties and the communication should be open.”

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