Thursday, May 28, 2009

You’ve Been In The Auto Industry For Years…And You’re Unemployed…What Do You Do?

Whether working for GM, Ford or Chrysler, dealerships, assembly plants, white collar or blue collar…if you haven’t figured out your industry is changing and will not (repeat not) go back to being the way it was ever again, you are in far more trouble than just being threatened with job loss. The ways things have been done by Detroit are about to change drastically, forever.

It’s sad when an industry simply won’t face facts. The music industry is another case study. Those that adjusted and could deal with the changing market survived and moved on. The rest had to settle for whatever live dealt them…like selling insurance instead of tunes. But if you love the auto industry and that’s all you want to dedicate your working life to, what do you do?

What follows, I hope, will be a way that perhaps 30% of those laid off from the auto industry can keep a foot in the door and eventually get back into it full time, working for themselves, making a decent living. Forget about a union lording over you. Forget about entitlements—that no one is going to be able to fulfill anyway. This 30% could amount to as many as 100,000 new jobs, if estimates to the total jobs being currently lost are correct.

In the June 2009 issue of Wired, Charles Mann discusses “Beyond Detroit”. The top down model the big three automakers is dead, he says. He theorizes that, like computer companies did in the 1980s, where many small firms contributed to the overall advancement, innovation, and development of the business, the American auto industry will have to do that as well. The new economy in many industries, including the automobile industry, will favor the small. Detroit will have to incorporate ideas from outsiders as never before.

All the myriad parts of what makes up a typical car—like the AC system, transmission, safety devices, electrical, etc. have been traditionally made and developed internally for the most part, from each auto manufacturer. What is starting to change now is that there are small companies popping up that specialize in niches for the automobile manufacturers. Mann gives example in Transonic Combustion of Camarillo CA, who are working on a whole new breed of fuel injection systems that will enable cars to get as much as 100 miles per gallon.

Rumors of such possibilities have floated around for years, even decades. But now the market is changing. Automakers are going to have to start looking at small companies that can pull this kind of innovation off. Particularly when we have Washington DC dictating what goes on in more aspects of our lives and businesses.

Now, back to the job opportunities this suggests. Sure, you can go to work for one of those small firms. No telling how long the firm will be around, but at least it’s a job opportunity and besides, welcome to the real world where a lot of us have had to deal with such frequent turnover no matter what industry we may have worked for. You may have the technical expertise to be one of those innovative small manufacturing companies... but what if you can’t afford the risk? What about being an independent sales rep in this growing field?

The day may come when the average automobile trade show will be still dominated by big booths featuring new car models, but then more, possibly a lot more smaller booths housing vendors who specialize in the niches, like Transonic Combustion. And if they are like many other industries, these smaller booths will have a sign out front saying “Reps Wanted”. Independent sales reps, that is.

Picture the possibilities for a guy or gal who kicked around for 20 years with GM or Chrysler. He or she knows the industry cold, and knows people who are still working for those firms and in other parts of the industry. He or she can represent several lines of small, innovative new firm specializing in specific parts or systems to sell to these large auto makers. If this rep can land one or two deals a year that mean millions for these companies, and make a percentage of the deal in commissions, this rep is doing pretty well financially. Well enough that he or she can buy their own health insurance and start funding their own pension.

Executive recruiter and radio host Martin Birnbach says that 70% of people out there need to work for someone else, need mentoring, supervision, to be led in their work environment. That leaves 30% who are self-starters, that prefer to “be the only SOB they want to work for”. An Independent Sales Rep is an example of this. Unlike the tech-savvy entrepreneur who wants to try to start their own firm, the rep can start to work for him- or herself with very little overhead.

The entire auto industry would do well to let that 30% loose, let a lot of them be the independent sales representatives who can facilitate the coming-together and meeting of minds between the large automakers and the small innovative start-ups. It may be chaotic, but from chaos comes change. And no one would disagree change is exactly what the auto industry needs.

Monday, May 11, 2009

5 Things A Vendor Can Do To Help Reps Sell More Of Their Goods

After a long conversation with a new sales manager at a vendor that hasn’t seen much action from me lately, I noticed she sent out a blanket email asking other reps for “Five Things You’d Recommend Us Do” to get more business. Great move, and a great topic.

Many vendors do not try to get this kind of feedback and they really ought to, be it from reps or customers themselves. I’ve seen many vendors go along their business thinking they know what they are doing but they find out too late they don’t.

It reminds me of a trip to a shopping center during the holidays with my kids when they were ages 2 and 4. I had my 2-year-old daughter in my right hand, my 4-year-old son in the left. He was at the age when he was figuring he could do everything on his own, he didn’t need hand-holding. The mall was packed with crowds of shoppers, and I kept telling him to hold onto my hand. He kept arguing. So I let go and told him to stick close.

Naturally, his attention started to wander and he drifted away in the crowd, but I kept an eye on him. He looked up and realized he was lost, and the panic on his face, the tears welling up in his eyes were unmistakable.

It’s not unlike the vibes we get when we see a vendor who’s steadfastly refused any sort of feedback for years, finally go down the tubes and out of business.

So here are five things they can do to help us reps, and by extension their customers, sell more of their product:

1. Have Marketing Materials. A website is fine, but keep it up to date. You should have print also—don’t use the lame excuse you’re “going green”. LLBean uses both print and website marketing to catalog their product and they are probably more “green” than you’ll ever be.
2. Share Marketing Materials. If you enter into a relationship with a rep it means you want access to the relationships he/she has with customers you probably don’t have. So if the rep wants X amount of catalogs or passwords to your website, for goodness’ sake, give them to the rep! Unless of course you have all the business you can handle, but then…how many vendors can make that claim?
3. Have Something New To Report. Monthly, weekly, semi-annually—whatever cycle applies to your industry. This gives the rep something new to, in turn, tell the customer. And besides, it makes you as a vendor look relevant. A monthly sale on some particular item or category among your products is an easy way to do this. Just having new releases is good, but spice it up a bit. Sales, promotions, thematically inspired stuff is good and makes customers eager to hear from you via the rep.
4. Logistics—keep them up-to-date. Not only your website and catalogs, but your bookkeeping and the way you communicate. When every other vendor is sending art and information via email with PDFs and Jpegs, if you are faxing this kind of information, a rep will tend to ignore or forget you. E-invoicing is another great new feature. Take advantage of technology to make everyone’s job easier. Your reps and customers will love you for it.
5. Respect Reps’ Images. Never, ever, make the rep look bad to a customer unless they really truly are bad and have misrepresented your product or corporate image. Even if it's done unintentionally, correct it yourself, don’t leave it up to the rep. For instance, let’s say you’ve just hired a new receptionist who is ignorant of the fact that an order a rep placed three weeks ago is stalled in credit. That customer calls to ask where his order is and the new receptionist says “We don’t have it here”. The customer is instantly going to blame the rep. When this occurs, contact the customer and apologize for the confusion. I’ve personally stopped selling anything for lines that did this—why bother when I’ve got other lines that thoroughly train anyone before letting them answer such queries? Even if it is an isolated case, the vendor should waste no time taking corrective action. Your reps are partners so treat them as such.

There are more things that vendors can do to ease their relationships with reps; these are the most obvious and any well-run company ought to do these things even if they don’t use independent sales reps.