Size up your sales rep for good service

18_gregwilliams_01Your coating representative is the conduit through which your needs are communicated to distributors and manufacturers

There are great cabinetmakers, turners, carvers, designers and builders of all sorts. Most of them are not great finishers - or even very good and confident finishers. Why not?

I think there are several reasons, starting with the fact that finishing is not so "obvious" as woodworking in general. A joint fits or it doesn't. Measurements can be easily made and verified. Most of what happens in a finishing system is based on invisible processes. So, to many, finishing is somewhat mysterious. When a woodworker, often through painful trial and error, learns to use a few products together to produce an acceptable finish, he may quit learning there. At least he would like to.

But problems arise. Sometimes he didn't take into account the effect of different temperature, of different air movement, humidity, age of the product, sanding of the wood, moisture content of the wood, or myriad other variables he did not know were important.

Sometimes the woodworker wants to produce a superior finish, to meet competitive challenges, to satisfy the needs of a client or a market, to comply with ever-changing regulations or to grow his business or his profits.


Resistance and secrecy won’t pan out

There’s a small town on a major highway in a southern state full of antique shops, many of which do refinishing.

Until just a few years ago most of the shops made their preferred stain from Burnt Umber oil color and turpentine. The reasons given for this ranged widely and the shops were very protective of their secret, even though they were all doing the same thing.

For many years there have been stain formulations that will give them the effect they want at far less cost, with faster drying and greater ease of application. But these shops were unwilling to make changes, mostly because they were not willing to talk to vendors about what they were doing and what they were trying to accomplish.

Eventually, with exposure to industry information and the migration of employees from shop to shop, the cycle was broken and most of those shops now use safer, less expensive and more profitable products to achieve their goals.

In the Internet age, we have access to virtually unlimited amounts of information. For most of us, the problem is not getting information, but sorting out what we need and can use from the merely interesting or even the inaccurate, inappropriate, to the flat-out wrong.

One of the finisher's most cost-effective resources and one of the most underutilized is the coatings sales rep. You may know them as "manufacturer's rep," "technical service rep," or even "paint-store clerk." They are the men and women who are your connection to the vendors that supply you with the products you need to carry on your business, yet you probably give them little thought until they do something wrong.

For you to benefit most from your coatings rep, though, you have to do some work.

Selecting the salesperson

While in many markets, and for some products, your choices of a salesperson are limited, in a larger market you might have many companies vying for your business.

You may "interview" many sales reps. You don't have to buy from them while you are checking them out, but you might try out a few products that don't have to fit with the product you are currently using. This gives you a chance to see what kind of service you will get and lets you get to know the rep a bit better.

Ask lots of questions not in a challenging way, but in such a way as to let him know what you need to know. And listen well.

First and foremost, a good sales rep is someone you can trust. You must believe he has your best interests at heart, that he will take the time to learn what you need, and that he will work with you to help you make informed buying decisions. You need to believe he is competent; that he knows enough about both his product and how you may use it to give good advice. You should be able to trust that your salesman has a commitment to his profession and his employer; that your relationship will endure long enough to justify the time and effort necessary to build a mutually beneficial relationship. Ask him for references you can call on. It is likely you already know some of his other customers. Get them to share their experiences with that rep.

Most good salespeople like their jobs; all exceptional salespeople do. The salesperson you want works hard, not frantically. His schedule can be flexible to help you with urgent problems, but he won't abdicate his responsibilities to his family or to other customers because of your shortsightedness. He will subscribe to and read trade publications and will share with you information that will help your business. He will read books, take classes and attend seminars that keep him abreast of current developments in his field, that make him more competent and efficient in the conduct of his business, and a better adviser to you.

Training your sales rep

Many reps have received training from their employer and other sources. Many have experience as users of the products they sell and experience in the industry in which they work. They have the benefit of talking to hundreds of customers who do what you do, and they probably read more industry literature, attend more trade shows, research and answer more questions on their own and competitor's products than any one customer would ever do. Now you need to train your rep to service you the way you want to be serviced.

Communication is the first step. Assuming he works for a pretty good company and sells a good product, you start by telling him what you want. If he is smart, he'll listen and respond with intelligent questions. You don't have to reveal your trade secrets, but you do have to tell him what you are doing and how you are doing it in order to receive meaningful advice.

You'll also have to do some listening. Even if he is somewhat inexperienced, he will know something that may be of use to you.

Reward the behavior that you want to reinforce. If you like to be called before a visit, thank him when he calls. If you ask for some special service and he comes through for you, write a short note to his manager expressing your appreciation. Not only does this reward your rep, it rewards his manager for having such an exemplary employee and it rewards the company for doing things that please you.

It's a two-way street

If you want your rep to be a valuable source of information, give him information. Is there a new trend in your area, such as crackle, whitewash or distressed finishes? Is the fire department cracking down on poorly maintained spray booths? Tell him things that you like about his product, especially things that will help him sell that product to other customers. The more successful he is, the more likely he will follow your training and reciprocate with gratitude.

Your sales rep not only represents his company to you, he represents you to his company. He is the conduit through which your needs, wants, buying habits and preferences are communicated to distributors and manufacturers that, quite literally, your livelihood depends on.

Last, but certainly not least, if his product and service are good, buy from him.

Greg Williams is a freelance instructor and consultant for finishing and touch-up. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.