The morning was just cold enough to turn my fingertips to ice and see my breath cloud and dissipate before me as I lugged my door sample bags from my car to the showroom.
I was visiting one of my longtime clients to spend the morning going over new finishes with his salespeople and I could not have been more prepared. I knew the combinations and the processes and the Dos and Don’ts. I could paint a verbal picture of the finish line so detailed that listeners would swear they’d toured it in person. I was beyond confident that there was nothing that they could possibly ask that I could not answer. I was their cabinet rep, after all, and that’s what they relied on me for.
Well, no sooner did I get a breath full of the warm showroom air and brush from my shoes the bits of salt and ice that had collected did I receive my first question. My clients were looking for my opinion on a countertop installation and maintenance issue. Being that I was the “cabinet guy,” I really wasn’t sure of the answer – and let them know that as much as I’d like to be of help to them, it was not really my area of specialty.
Shortly after that, my meeting began and it was just as good as I had anticipated. I did have all the answers, except for one question about a new sink they were looking to use in the vanity quote that was rolled up in the side pocket of the owner’s laptop case. When I begged off of that one as well, he chuckled and said that I was supposed to know everything – that’s why he chose to do business with me and my lines over the “other” guys. Although I know he was just kidding me (we had a long-term and successful business relationship), his joshing actually stirred my thinking.
GOING BEYOND THE ‘NORM’
He was right. My customers really do rely on me – like they do on other reps – for product, business and other advice, and if I’m to be more valuable to them than the next rep, I should do my best to be knowledgeable beyond my normal area of expertise.
This is not to suggest that I should be a “guru” in those areas, but I should at least be able to offer the best informed opinion or direction possible. I thought that I had been good at that, but I could see that I needed to be better.
So, I set a goal. This year in my regular business planning, I am going to include more diverse training for myself and the rest of our organization.
Item one in my business plan was to order the entire NKBA Professional Resource Library and read the reference texts from cover to cover. I went online and accomplished the ordering part in minutes, but after receiving the books, I can tell you that this will take some time. They are pretty thick books that are quite in-depth, but I will benefit from them greatly, since they cover subjects from materials to installation and design. This was a great first step in building knowledge concerning areas that I do not deal with on a daily basis, as well as reinforcing others areas where I already have strength.
Next, I decided that I’m going to do something a little bit out of the box: I will take some time during the year to spend in the factory.
I’ve always prided myself on knowing the processes and flow of the factory, but this year I’m going to spend time actually getting sawdust on my shoes. Standing on the line and having the hands-on experience of assembling product, learning techniques for adjustments, repairs and touch-ups will be invaluable to both me and my customers. Some things can only be learned by experiencing them first-hand.
Factory sawdust on my shoes will no doubt be beneficial in doing my job, but I’ve decided that getting my shoes dirty out in the field will be even better. One of my customers has arranged for me to spend a day tagging along with his installers – it will be sort of a “take your rep to work” day.
IN THE CUSTOMER’S SHOES
It’s important for me as the rep to understand our product from creation to installation, and if I can experience what my customers experience concerning my products in the field, I can take that information back to the factory and make suggestions based on real-life considerations. Experiencing customer needs will lead to a more intrinsic understanding of how we can improve. And such advancement will make me more valuable to my customers.
Another area that I thought I excelled in was attending industry shows and learning about the products on display there. But, as I look back, I see that scheduling conflicts and time crunches have put me in a position where, lately, I walk the show floor just looking at things that interest me personally. This year I have added to my business plan the objective of dedicating more time at K/BIS to observing, collecting data and talking to suppliers I normally would not see.
Enhancing my opportunity further, I’ll also take the time to attend kitchen- and bath-related shows outside of my typical travels. It’s an opportunity to learn from regional and categorical differences that I can share with my customers
Booming business and time constraints have also put a crimp in my reading of industry-related journals. I’ve added this as an item to improve upon. It used to be that I’d read every word contained in my monthly issue of Kitchen & Bath Design News and other industry-related publications; sometimes I reviewed them two or three times. However, with greater time constraints, I find that I review items of personal interest to me, but only offer cursory glances to the rest. I need to learn from and be able to knowledgeably discuss all of the matters contained in the publications to be of the most value to my customers.
Beyond the industry publications, I’ve started collecting the kitchen and bath magazines from the grocery store checkout counters. You know the ones – the glossy shelter magazines that consumers turn to when considering their dream remodels.
These magazines influence the consumer to look for particular styles and trends that they then turn to my customers for. If I’m going to work in the kitchen and bath fashion world, I need to be ahead of the curve for both my own and my customers’ benefits.
My customer may have been kidding with me during our meeting, but he was right: There were very obvious and basic things that I could be doing to improve as a rep. And, it’s not just me; all of us should be doing these things.
The ideas in my 2007 business plan could be used to improve anyone’s business, whether you’re a rep, manufacturer, dealer, designer, fabricator, installer, etc.
Who, reading this column, could not benefit from being more well-rounded by spending extra time gaining knowledge at industry shows and events, or from studying the NKBA’s Professional Resource Library, or more thoroughly reading KBDN, or paying attention to consumer magazines? What designer/salesperson would not benefit from spending a day in their manufacturer’s customer service agent’s shoes, or those of the factory production manager or the cabinet installer?
Wouldn’t all of our businesses benefit if we all planned the time to do these things?
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This article originally appeared in Kitchen and Bath Design News 2/2007