Industry awards Ron Ball and Bryan Echols
Kristine Ellis -- Casual Living, January 7, 2011
The role of the sales representative was front and center at the Chicago Market this year when the International Casual Furnishings Association gave Ron Ball a Lifetime Achievement Award and named Bryan Echols as the first winner of its new Sales Representative of the Year Award.
Both men describe their vocation as "the best job in the world."
At the same time, they each admit there's room for improvement among their arm of the industry - whether that's a need to rid the industry of those reps who simply should not be reps, dealing with the economic reality of fewer reps covering bigger territories, or finding ways to convince retailers and manufacturers alike to better leverage their reps' expertise.
Despite the challenges, Ball and Echols are at the top of their game. Seeing how they go about their business plus hearing their insights on the industry reveals what it means to be a good sales rep.
From left, Bryan Echols, Cindy Ellison of Pinehurst Patio, Pinehurst, N.C., Charlotte Flanders of Lloyd/Flanders, and Dwight Ellison of Pinehurst Patio
Ask for what you need
Ball represents O.W. Lee in Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Georgia, and Windham Castings in Texas and Oklahoma.
Given the size of his territory, it's impossible for Ball to visit each of his dealers every month but that doesn't limit his communication with them.
"I have customers I communicate with every day, customers I communicated with three or four times a week and then some I don't communicate with very often at all," Ball said. "It depends on what they expect and need."
With most of his dealers, Ball provides input on selection, colors, displays, promotions and other points applicable to their success.
"I'm not there to tell somebody how to run their business," Ball said. "I'm there to give them suggestions and information about ways they might possibility improve that business."
Echols, too, is proactive in imparting information to his dealers.
"I feel that it is my responsibility to bring ideas and have open conversations about what is working for the dealers and others, whether it be in my company or anybody else's," he said.
Echols reps for Lloyd/Flanders, Meadowcraft and Classic Cushions, covering the Carolinas and Bermuda. With the exception of his Bermuda dealer, he visits key dealers every three to four weeks although it varies depending on the time of year.
Emphasizing that he doesn't share strategic information among retailers within the same trading area because that would be a violation of their trust, Echols is adamant that other exchanges of information among retailers, reps and manufacturers is critical to the overall success of the industry.
"Ultimately it will make the product on the floor better and our representation to the consumer better, which the goal of us all," Echols said.
Both salesmen said they wish more dealers would make better use of their sales reps' knowledge. With a good sales rep, that should include knowledge about the industry, their local markets and good sales techniques in addition to product knowledge.
Acknowledging that some retailers might be gun-shy having tried and failed in the past to get market information from their sales reps, Ball still thinks they should try again.
"When a rep is in their store, they should sit down with them and try to find out what is going on in the marketplace, what's working, what isn't working, who's running ads ... use every source you can to get information," Ball said.
Ball also acknowledges the feeling among some retailers that the sales rep industry is in poor shape. Still, retailers have a responsibility to be as proactive as a good rep if the relationship is to be productive.
"The best thing is to have open communication about expectations," Echols said. "If there is something a dealer wants from the rep, they need to ask for it. I've prompted that conversation with my dealers at times and have gotten some very good suggestions. I think sometimes we are too worried about hurt feelings."
Emotions also need to be taken out of the equation in other areas of the dealer/ sales rep relationship.
"If there is one thing I would like to see change in this industry before I retire, it is that people could disagree without getting angry with each other," Ball said. "My product does not always fit on somebody's floor. If I make a presentation and they decide not to buy, I should not be angry at them for making a commercial decision. And if a retailer is buying my product and it isn't working for me and my manufacturer, they should not be angry with me if I decide to go a different direction. It's a two-way street."
Both Ball and Echols describe distribution as the toughest part of their jobs.
"It is generally the rep who has to make the tough decisions, which unfortunately can seem very personal," Echols said. "The rep is also legally limited by what we can say and how we say it, so it can come across as abrupt. I'd like retailers to understand that it is a business decision and not in any way personal."
Use what they can give
While it takes time to build trust between retailers and sales reps, there are actions on both sides that can hasten the process. Some are a matter of courtesy, such as returning phone calls. Ball's guiding practice is to return every morning call he misses by the end of the day and any missed afternoon calls by noon of the following day.
Again, it's a two-way street, and specialty dealers should be as responsive as salespeople.
A sales rep's participation in in-store promotional events and training sessions also helps to build mutual trust and respect.
"An in-store promotional event is the best opportunity a good sales rep has to get to know the retailer," Ball said.
Training is another area in which a good sales rep can be a significant resource for retailers. Overall, Ball and Echols would like to see a bigger commitment from retailers.
"If a retailer has eight lines and so has eight sales reps come in once a year to do product training and that's all the training they do, that's a pitiful training program," Ball said.
Ball never limits his training sessions with dealers to just product knowledge. He always adds a discussion of how that product relates to the customer's lifestyle. His focus is on building the retail sales staff's confidence in the product rather than on providing product information to be passed on to the consumer.
He also shares sales techniques, something he would like more dealers to take advantage of more often.
"Honestly, there are sales reps out there who have no sales techniques to transfer to a retail sales person, but there are a lot of them who do and retailers need to take every opportunity they can to transfer those skills, especially to their new salespeople," Ball said, adding that retailers can also look to their own staff for assistance. "If I were a retailer, I would give my best salesperson the authority to conduct sales training classes and pay them extra to do so."
Echols is another strong proponent of both lifestyle and sales technique training. Having worked with the ICFA in developing its new sales training course, he sees that as a good solution for specialty dealers.
"I'm sure that there are retailers who do a very good job as far as lifestyle selling, but in general I think it is where we can make one of the biggest improvements as an industry," Echols said. "The ICFA sales modules are now available for retailers and I think will be a fantastic tool."
No matter what training is offered, retailers need to demonstrate their belief in its importance by participating.
"If it isn't important enough for management to attend, then the training won't be important enough for their sales staff to bother to listen and learn," Ball said.
As the linchpin connecting dealers with manufacturers, sales reps need to be adept at managing information. Technology has transformed basic processes, but Echols is exploring other options as well.
"My goal is to learn how to use a lot of the current technologies to make information fresher and more accessible," he said.
As for the manufacturers, they need have the same open conversations with their sales reps that are so critical to the dealer/rep relationships.
"In the past, I've been in situations where I felt like I was being held at arm's length by the manufacturer and that was frustrating," Echols said. "I don't feel like I can do my job unless the information is flowing freely both ways."
Each morning when he's standing in front of the mirror shaving, Ball looks at himself in the mirror and says, "Ron, all that can be expected of you today is that you do the best that you can do." Each evening, he reports back to himself as he brushes his teeth. "Some days I can say, absolutely, I did the best that I could. Other days, I can't say that so I have to look at why not," he said.
That self-assessment sets Ball up to be focused on excellence day in and day out. It's a characteristic fundamental to leadership and driven by a passion for continual improvement.
When applied by Ball, Echols and other good sales reps, the entire outdoor furniture industry benefits.
"To be a good sales rep, you have to have a passion for bringing your best every single day - for the manufacturers, for the retailers and for finding out how those forces can come together even better," Echols said.
Ron Ball was the industry’s first sales rep to be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award.