Try to enhance your relationship and buying power with your vendors; you will increase your importance to your mill partner.

Your success in 2011 will be directly proportional to how well you pick your mill partner suppliers. With an experienced mill rep and the right mill partner, you get an excellent product range, pricing, and support; with the wrong one, you miss out on preferential pricing, have marginal products, and limited support.

Identify what you need in products.How does your product mix match up with the commercial segments you have decided to pursue? If you are going to aggressively pursue property management and corporate clients, then you need a terrific carpet tile lineup and a wide range of broadloom. If healthcare is on your agenda, then linoleum, rubber, and vinyl flooring will be important. You cannot be truly successful in the commercial segment without a stellar product selection!

Review your existing commercial product line up.Ascertain your 2010 volume in each product category and then figure out your top five or 10 most purchased items. From which supplier did these products come? If your top 10 products are from seven different suppliers, then you don’t have the right product mix within the segment and you are spreading yourself too thin. You’re not important enough to any one mill partner to have the clout you will need. 

To increase your importance to a mill partner,try to enhance your relationship and buying power with your current vendors.You already have a relationship with certain suppliers, so you may find that you were not using their full range of offerings. Have a conversation like this: “Bill, I have been using a lot of your broadloom, but not your carpet tile. How about coming in and talking with me about that specific product lineup?” Often, you will find there is an overlap between lines that will make it much easier to specify and lock up projects. The bonus here is that you will become much more important to your mill partner. 

Do your research on sources for the products needed when your current suppliers do not have what you need.Review the published lists of manufacturers and avail yourself of the knowledge of the company mill reps you are using to find out which manufacturers have a presence in your market area. If the supplier does not have a presence in your area by having a mill rep, be cautious. It is extremely frustrating to have a problem and know that the closest person you can contact is three states away.
You may also ask trusted friends, associates, or current suppliers within your immediate market area. Another excellent source is experienced certified flooring inspectors, those who see problem jobs every day. If the question is properly asked, most will be forthcoming on the best and worst product manufacturers in their area.

Associations like CFI and FCICA can usually access valuable information from their members. “Sandra, I know you have a number of members; I am trying to find a great supplier of rubber flooring in my area and wonder if your members could provide any feedback for me?” Frequently, you will receive solid info about the best ones within 24 hours as these associations are very responsive!

You may even get good feedback from some of your friendly competitors by asking, “Jim, I know we compete for some of the same clients, but I wonder if you have had any experience with the Ajax Company that sells carpet tile?” Human nature dictates that one delights in sharing bad news, so they will quickly tell you if they have had problems and if the company could be counted on to correct any deficiencies. 

Refine your list of mill suppliers and contact the mill rep for an initial meeting.This first meeting is somewhat like an interview for a new hire. Have your list of questions and fire away, make notes, and look over the mill rep. Is this someone that you can work with or do you sense it may be a struggle? I have had first interviews where I found out quickly that there was no way it was going to be viable and saved myself a lot of time by refusing their offers to make presentations and send me samples.

Here are some of the main questions you should be asking: How many dealer accounts do you have in my market area? What is your approach to pricing, price lists, price levels, specifying projects, and who handles pricing? Who handles your technical support and training? What is your company’s goal for this market area? If a mill rep is coy or refuses to answer these types of questions, then I wouldn’t waste my time with them. 

You must be willing to share the broad brush of your plans for the immediate year. Outline what type of accounts you will be pursuing, perhaps a major account where you could use their products. Give info, but limit details because you may not end up working with them and you don’t want to give away your whole game plan. 

Remember, this first meeting is just to eliminate those that don’t make the grade. If you’re not familiar with their line, then take a quick look at their product range for color, design, and quality. You’ll go into a lot more detail on subsequent meetings.

Your mill rep is the key when considering top choices for mill partners. What kind of clout does this mill rep have and what is his reputation? It is absolutely critical that you gauge the knowledge, reputation and clout of your mill rep. Your mill rep must be able to provide pricing and make decisions. One that is joined at the hip with a regional vice president who always takes several days to respond will not be a key mill rep.

The ideal mill rep is one that has been in your market area for several years, is experienced, manages his pricing book and project specs personally, and can intervene for you if there is a credit, pricing, shipping or technical problem. He also requires project spec registration, details and completely manages his project pricing. Your ability to get project specs and land commercial jobs will be in direct proportion to the pricing and support you get from your mill rep. 

Put a premium on the integrity of the mill rep; you have to be able to rely on what he says, even if he has to give you bad news. Some are reluctant to make the tough phone calls, so just leave you hanging; the worst ones will lie and tell you what you’d like to hear.  

One of the finest mill reps I’ve ever worked with could be counted on to return a phone call within two hours! He knew exactly what was going on in his large market area and he managed pricing and the activities of his junior associates. Once a potential project was outlined, he was a valuable source of information for street gossip, especially when a client tried to buy direct.

The quality of the mill rep and his approach to pricing is always more important than the quality of the mill’s products. Some may disagree, but the fact is, if you cannot sell their products at a profit and are always locked in a how low can you go price battle, you are wasting a lot of energy. 

Final thoughts on picking a mill partner: After the initial meeting, you should do more research on those that looked good to you. What is their general reputation within the industry; how do they handle claims; what is their method for handling technical challenges in installation?

It is more important to pick a mill partner that limits the availability of their products within a market area. If the mill’s plan to boost market share is to sell to everyone, then take a pass. The mill partner should be eager to work with you by planning contacts on target accounts and accounts you may not have even considered. 

Make sure you can establish the right amount of credit line with the mill partner. Are they willing to work with you on important high-value projects with special credit terms and a specific credit line? Their day-to-day terms are also important: Can you live with them and keep your payments current? If you have filed a legitimate product claim, may this be removed from the credit line while a determination is made?
Will their technical department be responsive to onsite training or help with new products? Will the mill rep provide training to make your sales personnel confident in their presentations? Will they make a key sales call with you?

There are many, many good mill partners from which to choose. Select the right one and you may just pick up another $1,000,000 in commercial business this year.