Sales Impact: Working the Fence

Have you noticed how many grandparents and grandchildren have special and nurturing relationships? Why do they get along so swimmingly? Because they have a common enemy: the parents. In business, as in life, there are productive relationships and collaborations that need to be nurtured.

When was the last time you connected or aligned yourself with the “other side” of the sales channel? If you haven’t, now may be the time. You will find amazing growth opportunities when you collaborate “in industry.” Having sold both direct and through distributor-based venues, I’ve experienced the pros and cons. And I’ve enjoyed both. For many reasons, these strategically aligned relationships, or targeted sales efforts, are not always leveraged. How do you determine where your sales growth will come from?


Many times product focus or growth strategy is corporately directed. In a Practice Solutions article in the June, 2016, issue of Mentor, one manufacturer explicitly invited reps to sell its obturators, pointing out that the competitor only sells direct. Knowing your differentiation, and where you will gain market share, allows you to focus your selling efforts in arenas with the most impact.

First, you will have to determine what value you have to offer and what you can leverage with a partner: a common enemy, forced cannibalization, increased per-procedural spend, niche opportunity, competitor block.

A couple of successful examples from my past life jump out. I cut my dental teeth as an endodontic specialist in the Caulk division of Dentsply, specifically the Endodontic Strategic Business Unit when Densfil was first launched. Those were the days. We had a technology that increased the per-procedure spend dramatically, increased procedural ease and speed for the doctor and patient, alleviated cannibalizing sales dollars, and greatly enhanced sales revenue for both the manufacturer and the distributor. Now that was a super win.

We sold through our distributor partners and jointly competed against other manufacturers and direct companies. My goal was to ensure that every distributor rep in my market was able to tell our story clearly and compellingly. There just weren’t enough hours in the day, days in the week or weeks in the year to cover the territory. Without distributor support there was no way we could have covered the ground we did.

Another prime example was during my years with OMNII Oral Pharmaceuticals. Our team would search out and engage with Philips Sonicare representatives and share leads back and forth. Our common enemy? Other direct companies and big-box consumer brands (at the time, Prodentec, Oral-B, Colgate, to name a few). For us it was a win, because we would gain leads to offices that were already dispensing or reselling to patients. The win for Sonicare was the same with electric toothbrushes. Together we were stronger and kept competition at bay.

Did all representatives from the same or both sides of the fence want to play? Not always. But those who did were rewarded with incremental sales and long-term relationships that were forged through trust and professionalism. Many of those relationships continue to this day.

Today, competition is tighter. There are more offerings with limited differentiation to entice customers to make a change. As a manufacturer’s rep working with distribution, you must put yourself in your distributor representative’s shoes. Distributor reps have to choose which products to represent under specific conditions. Manufacturer reps, direct or not, have a line of products and services to represent. This relationship, and focus, can be challenging.

How do you harness the power of your manufacturer or distribution channel partners? How are you communicating your value proposition? How do you determine where your sales growth will come from without unnecessarily cannibalizing sales?

Although it is challenging to continuously move practices from product A to B, it is critical that customers be aware of the newest technologies available. Practices expect their dealer and manufacturer representatives to tell them about new innovations and how they could affect their practices, patients or bottom line. Will you be the one to share this information with your accounts? Or will it be your competitor? There is a fine line between being concerned about cannibalizing your sales and holding back information. We work in an industry with intelligent professionals. Ultimately they will gain incrementally sound data, technique or promotional opportunities. Best they hear this from their trusted business partner — YOU.

I learned this the hard way, having been mentored into the manufacturer/ distributor relationship, and crossing the unspoken line of dealer protocol and salesmanship. I’ve walked into practices that were “owned” by one dealer, yet I was brought into those accounts by an alternative dealer. I didn’t know. I should have. The signs were there. I had a hot product, and whomever I worked with would typically get the order.

How times have changed. Today, having hot products or technology that practices clamor for is a rarity. If you’ve got it, enjoy it while it lasts. If not, you’ll have to find an edge to rise above the competition. We all have marching orders and priorities to stay on top of. The ability to navigate this and form productive relationships in-industry will ensure long-term growth.

The old adage to keep your friends close and your enemies closer rings true. How are you working the fence? It’s not often easy, but always worth the effort.


MENTOR December 2016;7(12):8–9.

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