An open letter to component sales reps, from a small company engineer.

Small companies might not a be a priority for sales reps, but shouldn’t be ignored in the age of eCommerce.

Dear sales reps:

I’ve had a wide range of experiences working with you over the years. Some of you have been fantastic. Knowledgeable of your product line and understanding of your customers’ problems (and potential customers!). The bad reps have been…less pleasant. I hold no ill will, as I’ve learned to do my best to stop working with you as fast as possible. The worst of you felt like an anachronism and a holdover from the pre-internet era. You were the face of your represented company in that territory, but not much else. To be honest, you seemed like you were just there to cash easy commission checks.

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What are reps?

Sales representatives (reps) are trained, authorized agents who work on behalf of manufacturers to sell the manufacturers products to companies within the rep’s territory. The “line card” is the list of manufacturers that the agent represents. An agent may represent dozens, if not hundreds of lines. Typically, they’re complementary, as opposed to competing products. For example, a rep’s line may include a connector company, a wire and cable company, a passive component company, an electromechanical component company, and so on.

To illustrate further how this system is supposed to work by way of example: Kyocera is a huge, multinational company. They also happen to make OEM LCD display components. Except I’m not going to buy LCD’s directly from their website, or even call their sales office, if they even have one. For prototypes and low volumes, I’d go through a distributor, and for larger purchases, I’d be referred to the sales rep for the territory where my company is located.

Reps in an e-commerce era

In pre-internet days, sales reps made a lot of sense. Manufacturers needed an effective channel to reach customers. Information about new and existing products was difficult to distribute. Customers needed a channel to place orders. Each step of the process was tailored to connect vendor to customer, because there weren’t many options other than face-to-face meetings and printed brochures.

This came at a cost, which represented the cost of doing business. For larger companies, they had inside sales teams that would canvas large customers. However, smaller manufacturers might not be able to afford a dedicated salesperson for every geographic territory. Manufacturers reps offered a solution. They spread the cost of their services over all of the manufacturers on the line card. One visit to a customer would result in multiple offers of solutions to the engineer.

Today, with the internet and e-commerce, it’s possible to get product information and availability online, instantly. Manufacturers can talk directly to the customer. The need for a rep is vastly diminished.

Reps as product explainers

Surprisingly, there are still valid reasons:

  • The product information online might be incomplete. This might even be intentional to discourage competitors viewing specifications and sales angles.
  • Getting up to date information about the product, especially things like availability and any unpublished changes coming down the line.
  • Helping to explain the context of a particular solution. They provide not only “how” a product might fit a solution, but “why” it’s a better choice over a similar offering.

A good rep will present all information, tailoring the material to the needs of the customer.

Reps as networkers

Outside of the support angle — relating information about products on offer — sales reps may need to do introductions. This would be tied to products that require interactions with the manufacturer, which don’t lend themselves to one-click shopping.

For instance, a manufacturer may sell a large number of non-stock, build-to-order, or fully customized items. Custom LCD displays, for example, or custom matrix keypads often fall in this category. A good sales rep will transition the engineer from a potential lead to someone working directly with a manufacturer to create a custom product. They can get me into the queue of talking to engineers or inbound sales at the company I need to work with.

My expectations for working with sales reps

As a small company or startup, I know that I’m unlikely to generate a large commission for a rep. I have neither large, nor custom orders for mode products. In fact, I’m probably trying to avoid custom components altogether.

What I really want from a rep is for them to use their industry knowledge and experience. If they can provide me with enough actionable price and performance data to make my own engineering decisions, I’m happy.

At a minimum, this means I expect a rep to be able to return quotes for price and availability on specific components. I’ve had a surprising number of reps come unprepared with this information. Even for face to face meetings, I’m surprised when this exact point of information was requested ahead of time and not delivered.

A good rep is also often able to provide samples. For components with subjective qualities that impact user interface (UI), this is a huge help. Knowing how knobs feel, how big a light pipe is or how a buzzer sounds all makes it easier to pick from physical parts. Even the best catalog (online or paper) can’t do that.

Finally, when I’m ready to get components from a source other than Digikey or Mouser, I also look to reps to refer me to the appropriate distributor. I’m likely not a big enough player to buy directly from them.

If all a rep does is hand me a catalog of components — or worse — can’t tell me anything new beyond what I’ve already read in the catalog, they’ve wasted my time. In a similar vein, qualitative or relative qualifiers, such as “these connectors are more expensive, but they last longer” can be equally frustrating. That’s not actionable information.

A good rep would be able to say “These connectors cost $5–10 in volumes of 1000x, depending on the part and exact order size, and fall to $2–5 in quantities of 10k+. Moreover, the customers I’ve worked with tend to get about 5 years of use in the field before seeing any corrosion or wear on the pins.” Now, that’s useful information. Even if a distributor had this information, it’s hard to convey in a cogent way that I could use.

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Listen, I know I’m part of a small company. I remember that we’re probably not going to get special favors, because we’re really not big enough to justify them. But when I have a custom built solution or ready to really start spending money, I’ll remember all of our interactions, good or bad. I appreciate you as a resource for making engineering choices, as long as you respect my ultimate design decisions. If you’re truly knowledgeable of your product lines, I’m going to ask for your help and you’ll win my business.

But believe me, if I need to just order something and you’re not offering help…I’m going to order it online.

Yours, in engineering (awkwardly),

a.k.a. THE Awkward Engineer