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Manufacturer’s Reps, Sales Reps, Distributors. What's the Diff?
By Robert Kravitz, President AlturaSolutions
Published: 07/02/2021

Prison tower 1 A quick search on the Internet finds that several janitorial distributors and sales organizations market cleaning products to federal and state prisons, county jails, correctional facilities, and other detention facilities. Some administrators may run into difficulties, however, because some of the people marketing janitorial products are called distributors, others are sales reps, and still others are manufacturer’s reps. What is essential to know is that these three groups are not the same even though they may all be marketing products that can keep jails clean and healthy. Savvy administrators should be aware of the way each group goes about selling products and serving customers.

To help us understand the variations along with the similarities, we turn to Michael Wilson with AFFLINK. AFFLINK is a membership organization with more than 350 distributor-members around the United States. The organization also works with more than 200 manufacturers of cleaning and packaging-related products.

According to Wilson, we should start our discussion with some definitions:

Manufacturer's reps. "Manufacturer's representatives help a manufacturer sell their products," says Wilson. "They typically work for one manufacturer and are responsible for building a market and generating sales for that manufacturer. They may be either an employee of the manufacturer but are usually independent and paid on a commission basis."

Sales reps. Sales reps are like manufacturer's reps. "However, they do not work directly for a manufacturer. They are always independent and may carry several different product lines manufactured by many different manufacturers. They are also paid on a commission basis."

Distributors. Distributors are most like sales reps because they often carry a variety of lines manufactured by different companies. However, that is about where the similarities end. They are not paid a commission. Instead, they purchase products directly from manufacturers and then mark up the cost of those products when sold to their customers. "Because they purchase the products, this means they maintain an inventory of products," adds Wilson. We will discuss why this can be important later.

Now, let's pick things apart further and see where there are more similarities and differences. Possibly, we should start with one similarity that is important to all administrators whether they decide to work with manufacturer’s reps, sales reps, or distributors, and that is product knowledge.

Invariably, all three groups are familiar with how the products they market work, perform and are to be used. Especially when it comes to cleaning equipment, the manufacturer will often hold training sessions with new marketing people, instructing them on the ins and outs of their equipment long before they start knocking on customer doors.

Correctional administrators, however, may find that what is referred to as "customer involvement" can vary significantly among the three groups. "Customer involvement," according to Wilson, "is when a sales professional takes a particular interest in their customer and their customer's business operations."

Manufacturer's reps and sales reps, while well-versed in how the products they market work along with their features and benefits, tend to focus just on selling the products. "Remember, they are [paid] on a commission basis, so the more sales, the better. Customer involvement takes time to develop – time reps may not be able or willing to invest."

On the other hand, distributors tend to have greater customer involvement. Historically, distributors like to say their goal is to "partner" with their clients and get directly involved in their business operations. "Further, when it comes to facility appearance and health, many distributors strive to get a seat at the table, meeting with key stakeholders in an organization when it comes to facility operations," adds Wilson.

Such partnering and direct involvement proved invaluable for many organizations during the pandemic. Most administrators were faced with an array of health-related challenges they had never encountered before. They had serious questions and relied heavily on their janitorial distributors to get the answers they needed.

We should also address another difference we mentioned earlier and that is inventory. There were shortages of just about everything during the pandemic, including cleaning supplies, disinfectants, and related products. While manufacturer’s reps and sales reps did the best they could, they often could not get products delivered to their clients when needed. All too often all they could do was get in line with other customers waiting for the same products.

"Because distributors keep an inventory of products, they usually have products in storage to help ride out such shortages," Wilson says. "Further, if they belong to a membership organization, they often can turn to fellow members that still have products in stock when shortages occur. We saw during the pandemic how this could be a lifesaver."

Finally, one more difference to note between distributors and manufacturer's reps and sales reps is longevity.

Most of the distribution houses in the U.S. are still mom-and-pop operations. They have been around for years and plan to stay around for many more.

Manufacturers and sales reps are like other salespeople and tend to be very independent. They may venture from marketing cleaning products one year to selling software the next. These shifts can also affect customer involvement, as discussed earlier—one more point correctional administrators must consider when making decisions about who to purchase their cleaning products from.

Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning and correctional industries. He can be reached at robert.kravitz@outlook.com


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