Rules of the Road

The components of a successful ride-with are simple: Communication, sensitivity and respect

A well-played, well-prepared ride-with is a thing of beauty. The distributor rep typically has the relationships, the manufacturer rep has the technical knowledge. Together they can create a well-oiled selling machine. Of course, there are some things to watch out for, most often, overzealousness on the part of either, or both. But with good communication, sensitivity and mutual respect (for each other and the veterinarian customer), distributor and manufacturer reps can avoid the common mistakes and let the selling begin.

The ride reasons

There are really two primary, intertwined reasons for ride-withs, according to those with whom Veterinary Advantage spoke: First, to provide the veterinary practice with technical knowledge and resources that the distributor might lack, and second, to strengthen the working relationship of the manufacturer and distributor rep.

“You can do a ride-with to watch the manufacturing rep detail a new ear medication seven or eight times in a day,” says Don McFerren, a team leader and sales rep in North Carolina for Webster Veterinary Supply. “You can read the literature, but working with another rep who’s used to talking about it [is much better],” he says.

“The manufacturer has probably studied the product in more depth than we have,” adds Steffany Dragon, territory manager in Tampa Bay, Fla., for Butler Schein Animal Health. “We carry thousands of products; they have a much smaller product line. So they’re able to consistently talk about those fewer products. Listening to their detail, putting their product at the forefront of our mind, helps us focus on their products.

“It’s important to get to know the manufacturer rep, to build mutual trust,” she adds. “Being able to work together with the manufacturer to service customers – that’s an obvious reason why ride-withs are important. We get to know each other, and what the manufacturer can offer my clients.”

Whose call?

Most of the time, ride-withs are initiated by the manufacturer rep. That’s particularly true for manufacturers whose reps carry huge territories, and who have no chance of building any kind of relationship with veterinary practices on their own. They’re equally valuable for small companies that lack the resources to place reps in the field.

But sometimes it is the distributor rep who initiates the ride-with. For example, if the distributor knows a customer is close to making a decision on a particular piece of equipment, he or she may call the manufacturer rep to close the deal, says McFerren. “The manufacturer rep has the ability to do things for the clinic that you might not. They might have that little extra deal that you’re not authorized to offer.”

“They can offer lunch seminars, to educate the doctor and staff on the product,” says Dragon. That’s especially true if the product is one that the distributor has already brought into the account, and on which the doctor has signed off. (He or she may want to get the rest of the staff up to speed.) Manufacturers can also offer special promotions to help move the sale along, she adds. What’s more, the manufacturer rep can introduce the veterinary practice to services and tools of which the practice might be unaware, such as technical experts, free consulting services and informational Web sites.

Before the call

Successful ride-withs begin before the face-to-face with the veterinarian or practice manager, according to the reps with whom Vet-Advantage spoke. In fact, the best dances begin with choosing the right partner.

For the manufacturer, that often means selecting the top-performers. “I go after those high influencers,” says Fred Windhorst, an independent sales consultant in West Des Moines, Iowa. But for the manufacturer, it’s a delicate balance. “I’ve been asking [distributors] lately, ‘I’ve got your top five reps, can you give me an up and coming superstar?’”

Rookie reps might not be as productive as a seasoned, top-performer. “He or she might have been there only one or two years, but they’re moving up very quickly,” continues Windhorst. “They’ve got new ideas, great ideas. Many tenured people, like myself, can get into habits. You think ‘This is the way it is.’ It’s refreshing to talk to people [with new ideas].”

But it is a delicate balance. “A manufacturing rep – and often it is the newer, younger reps who make this mistake – might feel that every distributor rep is the same, that they’ll work with every rep the same,” says McFerren. “They may try to align themselves with every distributor rep on the same level. But there are some distributor reps who sell five times as much as their counter-part from another district.” Manufacturers can turn off top performers if those top performers feel that the manufacturer isn’t paying them their due. “The manufacturer has to balance, ‘I have to be fair to everybody; I need to make sure I have the big reps in this area on my side.’”

Another mistake manufacturers can make is to assume the top performers don’t need them, adds Cheryl Barile, a district manager and sales rep in Indiana for Midwest Veterinary Supply. “Some manufacturers will ignore [top performers] because they think, ‘They know how to do it; they’ll call when they need me.’ But to me, that’s the wrong approach.” If anything, manufacturers need to keep supporting those reps, who are so successful in sales. At the same time, though, manufacturers need to look out for the new distributor reps who have the potential to grow into top performers, she adds.

Briefer alternatives

Day-long ride-withs aren’t always necessary to build trust, product knowledge or sales, according to those with whom Vet-Advantage spoke. True, there is value for the distributor rep in spending a full day with the manufacturer, in terms of reinforcing product knowledge and building relationships. But it doesn’t always make sense. “I might have to tell [the manufacturer rep], ‘I don’t have any good targets this afternoon, but you’re free to ride with me,’” says McFerren. Often the manufacturer will take that cue to call on other accounts instead.

Sometimes a quick breakfast meeting is all that’s needed. “In some situations, that’s better than a ride-with,” says Barile. “It doesn’t stifle me on what I’ve got to do.”

McFerren agrees. On a recent morning, he met at 6:15 with a manufacturer rep to work out how McFerren could approach a couple of clinics whom he was pursuing for a particular sale. “He told me a couple of things I could offer them, and I [agreed] to see if I could get the account to allow the manufacturer rep to do a lunch-and-learn,” he says. “It was a matter of, ‘Let’s advance the agenda, and go on with our day.’”

The in-car briefing

A successful ride-with depends on the manufacturer being sensitive to the account on which he and the distributor rep are calling, according to those with whom Vet-Advantage spoke. A manufacturer rep who doesn’t understand the nuances, sensitivities and, yes, peculiarities, of a particular account risks being a bull in a china shop. It’s up to the distributor rep to make sure that the manufacturer rep has that sensitivity. That often comes from an in-car briefing, often in the customer’s parking lot.

“I have to be a chameleon on my job,” says Barile. “I’m coming into [the vet’s] practice; I will go by their rules and act accordingly. I’ve been calling on them for 20 years, but the manufacturer rep is just walking in.” Without a quick briefing by the distributor rep, that manufacturer rep will not know how to adapt himself or herself to the personality of the vet and the staff. “It only takes me a minute to say what I need to say [about the account], and it’s not anything bad. I basically give the same message, same beliefs and such; but how I approach doctors will be different, based on the lay of the land.”

Smart manufacturers are proactive and learn all they can about the practices on which they will call during the ride-withs. “In our case, when I go to ride with a distributor rep, I call them up and talk to them about expectations for the ride-with,” …..