For lighting designers, time is money. They’ve allotted a certain number of staff-hours toward current projects, so every hour invested in general research and education must be spent efficiently and effectively. The days of the glad-handing, suited salesman and three-martini lunches are long gone. But independent manufacturers’ representatives must still develop relationships and inspire confidence, get their products and manufacturers some "face time," and stay top-of-mind when the right project comes along.
West Coast Lighting Insider (WCLI) brought four eminent lighting designers – Jill Cody, John Fox, Chip Israel and Neha Sivaprasad, working in a pre–COVID-19 environment – together to offer their advice to reps on how to optimize time with specifiers. Other issues surrounding effective relations definitely came up. The teleconference has been edited here, offering lots of tips and constructive criticism on sales calls and visits from regional managers, as well as trade shows and manufacturer trips.
JOHN: One of the things that I really appreciate about a rep is for them to know what we want to see. We do mostly hospitality and residential, and I like seeing products that are relative to what we do.
CHIP: I would say it’s a two-way street. We know that our reps are somewhat graded by their manufacturers by their ability to get into the offices. Sometimes, we really may not have the time to meet with them or do some social function, but we do it just because it makes the rep look good in the eyes of that manufacturer. It’s a "team" approach.
We appreciate the reps that know what we do, and coach their manufacturer-presenters in certain directions. Leslie Wheel used to say that she was going to put a parking meter in the conference room and make the reps feed it quarters, so that they could understand that while we’re meeting, that’s time we cannot bill our client.
JILL: We have gotten calls: Hey, we have this manufacturer in town, and we really need to fill this slot to make an appearance for the manufacturer. Could you do us a solid this time? As long as they understand it’s a rare occurrence, we try to accommodate that if we can.
NEHA: Sometimes, our reps know what kinds of projects we’re working on. If we get a new project type, they’re usually aware because we’re asking them for fixture suggestions and pricing. Presentations should be short and focused on the product.
If there’s a physical product, it’s always helpful. If they’re just talking about the company, it’s not as useful. We want to open the fixture, play around with the optics, look at the finish – see how it actually works. That’s what is going to get us to specify the product.
CHIP: We always want actual, physical samples in a presentation. We pass them around the table. People take them apart. They break them. They play with them. We can aim it at the wall, see the field beam, see any striations and evaluate stuff that doesn’t show up in an IES report.
All of our people are smart enough to find and navigate a website, so we really want to see the things that aren’t on the website.
JILL: Under the umbrella of ‘time is money,’ we want to see what’s new. We’re generally familiar with most lines, unless they’re a new manufacturer or they’re new to our territory. We just need an update.
Some manufacturers pay lip service to, ‘Yes, we understand that time is money,’ but then they talk for 40 minutes. But our reps usually let manufacturers know ahead of time that they’ve got 20 minutes here to go through the new product pretty quickly, pass it around and take some questions. If we’re really interested, we might keep them longer.
NEHA: Typically, we are looking at a product and thinking about which specific project we could use it in. That’s what’s usually going on in the back of our minds when we see products: Are they worth using on our current projects?
JILL: We have a couple of reps that swing by once a week or so to bring in something new. Then, our people might grab them to ask a question they have. It’s good to have that informal touch-base for things that are ongoing, and for reps to be reminded about what’s going on with us. It’s a great way for reps to stay top of mind as well. I think it works as long as it’s not overly intrusive or super-often.
CHIP: Some reps would spend literally hours and just visit from person to person. It is convenient for them, sure. It’s their job. But at some point, it becomes a headache for us. We have a job right now that has a major nondisclosure, so we’ve had to limit our reps only to the front area because of this project.
We want to be accepting, but at 5 p.m., the reps go home, and our designers have to stay that extra hour to get their work done. We don’t want doughnuts; we don’t want golf. We just want answers to questions, because our clients are asking them, and the clock is ticking.
This whole idea of using our time efficiently, face-to-face is one issue: It can be beneficial if used efficiently. But I think we spend a lot more time doing unnecessary VE [value engineering] and redundant submittal reviews than we actually do designing. You have to look at it globally. The bottom line is that we are a service provider, and we need the manufacturers and their reps in order to meet our deadlines, and ultimately, keep our clients happy.
JILL: Pop-ins are 5 to 10 minutes maximum. We aren’t having the level of disruption that Chip is talking about. We restrict reps from walking around the office, because we also have projects with NDAs. I think that’s a great way of limiting time spent.
NEHA: We usually like to schedule rep visits, so we’re setting aside the time, and we have questions ready regarding projects or products. If reps are just stopping by and taking time, it’s a break in the mental process when you’re working on something. It could be a distraction. We ask reps to send us links to products they want to bring in, so we know what to expect and sometimes decide that it’s not the best fit for our current needs.
Lunch-and-learns are good. But again, we want intensive learning, not just lunch with chatting. We try to limit the number of lunch-and-learns and rep visits to two a week or less.
JOHN: We really need to have lunch-and-learns scheduled far in advance, because my calendar is so crazy. The problem with that is the regionals generally don’t set it up that far away. They usually say, ‘Hey, we’re coming by next week.’
We’re still trying to figure the best ways to get presentations from reps. I don’t think there is one way to approach it.
I feel like a good relationship with a rep is someone you feel like you can call at 7 p.m. at night. And while they’re on the phone they say, ‘By the way, I need to get in front of you with [ABC Company].’ We’re very restrictive on who comes into our space. If the rep can convince me that this is a good product for my type of project (and the manufacturer does a good job with it), then I will make opportunities for them that will help them sell lighting products.
CHIP: They often bring in prototypes, and that can be beneficial all around. It’s a great way to teach our younger staff members how to evaluate what’s good and bad in a product design. For example, do you need hot aiming for a hospitality project? Or the fixture aims to 45 degrees, but half the light is blocked inside the trim. Once you show that to a young designer, they get it, but they don’t see it on a cut sheet. I think we’re all generous with our input. We want creative manufacturers to succeed.
Right now, I think these premier manufacturers are frustrated. Key manufacturers are spending money on research and design, and many times, the reps are working hard to get them specified. Then, as soon as VE crops up, the same rep is substituting that product with one of their other 150 lines.
JOHN: I feel like there’s a lot of that going on, particularly with the huge consolidation of rep agencies right now, at least in the LA–Orange County market.
Chip is right … it might be stifling innovation. The regional comes out and pays for factory tours. These are great products; they’re impressive. But at the end of the day, it’s up to the agency to keep it on the project.
CHIP: Outrageous markups, whoever is adding them, ultimately make specifiers look bad. They make the owners hate lighting. The general contractors hate it.
NEHA: There are some manufacturers who take the extra step and who build a relationship with us. And sometimes, we’ll contact them for really quick pricing, because it’s just faster. Even for details and information, sometimes we’ll contact a regional that we have a good relationship with.
JILL: Even if you have a relationship with the regional, the pricing comes from the reps.
CHIP: We need reps to help us protect the client. Maybe it will take a market correction. Maybe everybody is just so busy. In a tighter market – which is coming, and might already be happening – it’s going to be a totally different situation. Everybody’s forgotten that.
JOHN: If we’re going to try to control pricing, we need to talk directly with the manufacturers. The same is true for long lead times. If a contractor holds back on an order in order to sub another product – and this is happening right now with one of my projects – I will call the manufacturer. Often, they’re able to move up the delivery date. But if I didn’t have that relationship with that manufacturer, I would be up a creek. The job would be lost to that crappy downlight.
JILL: At Lightfair, we go by ourselves, but a few times, our rep has asked to lead us around to some of their manufacturers’ booths. We’ve found that dual approach helpful. As long as it’s done efficiently, it’s a good way for them to show their manufacturers that they have specifier support, which we’re happy to do for our reps. When our rep tells the manufacturer we’ve only got a couple of minutes here at the booth, it’s a good way to get the highlights without getting bogged down in every single thing that’s there.
NEHA: We also like to walk these shows ourselves, so we can discover something different, something we’ve not seen in the past. But like Jill is saying, it’s helpful to see it with a rep too. Instead of seeing everything that a manufacturer is displaying, they give us the gist of what’s new and what’s fun.
CHIP: We have a lot of young designers, and some of our reps feel that their job is to take them entertaining all night. It’s part of the growing and maturing process, but if we send the whole office to Las Vegas, I expect them to be there the next day to explore the floor or to attend classes we’ve paid for. Reps need to create relationships without detracting from work processes. I think maturity needs to be shown on both sides: the young designers (or even older designers) and the rep.
JILL: I’m glad you brought that up, Chip, because I think from the rep side, they’re looking at their relationship with the firm and their relationships with individuals. We’ve had similar issues, so we give the pre-Lightfair prep talk: Hey, you’re here for work. And if we pay for a class, you need to be at the class.
The reps are looking at, no matter where this person works in the future, I want to have a relationship with them. So it rests on us to prep young designers ahead of time.
CHIP: Anybody from our office that goes on any type of work trip, whether it’s a manufacturer’s trip on a weekend or a trade show or whatever, they have to come back, and once a month, we do a lunch-and-learn where they have to present to the rest of the staff everything they learned. That’s how we’ve tried to get them to be truly engaged in learning, not just whatever the social activity is. And it pushes them to become better presenters themselves.
Yes, there is value in designers developing relationships with people we’re in business with. But you can do it professionally, without doing something you regret or missing out on the educational component.
NEHA: At the end of the day, any design process is a collaborative process, and human relationships are very important: relationships with architects, reps, manufacturers, everyone. That social aspect does count – to sit down and talk to somebody and get to know them. In the long run, it helps.
JILL: Part of that maturing process is learning how to do that in a professional way. Reps are focused on the relationships that they’re trying to build with people on your team, but they shouldn’t keep your team from doing their job the next day.
NEHA: That’s true, but I feel it’s more on the staff than the reps. The reps are doing what they feel is important, but I think it’s more a personal thing, and a company culture thing.
JILL: On manufacturer trips, they’re careful not to do that stuff the night before they’re trying to present. I was on a trip where the schedule got messed up, and the big party night ended up being the night before the manufacturer presentation. You’ve never seen a manufacturer’s presentation go as poorly. A bunch of hungover specifiers sitting in the room. That was a long, long time ago at the beginning of my career.
Clearly, those things are structured the way they are for a reason. So I think it’s kind of interesting that they structure it a certain way when they’re the ones who have the investment in people’s time versus at a trade show where they’re not as invested in what happens the next day.
CHIP: I think those are well attended, and the manufacturers can get more per dollar out of those events than they get out of the big ones. It’s efficient for specifiers because you can see all of the manufacturers in one night. Manufacturers, instead of building elaborate booths, they have one or two products on their table to focus on.
Local shows [like IES shows or LightShow West] are organized by rep. That makes it easier for one rep to take you down their row. They know generally what we’re looking for, and they direct us. It’s effective and efficient. Sometimes, at Lightfair, you have to go by 10 booths to find real nuggets hidden away.
NEHA: The local show here is well organized and very concise. We feel like we get a lot of information without spending a whole lot of time, and we don’t need to travel. Everything is organized, and the manufacturers are ones that lighting designers usually specify, which is great. The products are there, and they have new stuff that they want us to see.
JOHN: Your personal rep is there and knows what you do, so they can tell you to skip booths 1 through 5 and visit numbers 6 and 7. Those are the two they’ve been waiting to show me, and they’re really glad I’m there to see them. Then, you work your way down to the next agency.
You don’t need to travel to another state just to catch up on information. I think it can be a lot more effective to go to a regional show.
CHIP: Going back 20 or 30 years, the reps were incredibly helpful in educating our staff. When I worked at Grenald Associates, they would go with me to mock-ups and aiming. They wanted to see how their product worked. But generally, I’m seeing a disconnect now.
There are some great reps that follow through and take pride in these projects … that know the project inside and out. I think the best reps understand lighting design, so they can support the community better rather than just answering questions. They almost know our questions before we bring them up.
The old-school reps would tend to sell all day and then respond to inquiries at night. For example, local rep Greg Garvy [PLP SoCal], after he passed away he was still the number-one salesman nine months later. Selling is more than sitting at your home office, answering emails as they come in.
You guys all know Doug and Sabra White. They were a small rep agency that has disbanded. Those two were at every function: IES meetings, AIA meetings, IIDA meetings. I don’t know how they covered it all, but they were there. They were ambassadors for lighting. Maybe with the exception of Anne Frederickson at PLP SoCal, you don’t see current reps becoming lighting ambassadors. I think that’s unfortunate, because I think that helped the lighting design marketplace develop here over the past few decades.
JILL: Don’t complain that you’re not getting the sales that you’d like just based on the fact that you answer your emails. Get in here and let us know what’s new or what’s happening. Do more than just answer questions. Then, you can expect the results that you’re looking for.
We don’t have anybody that sounds quite as spectacular as the people that Chip is talking about, but there is definitely a difference when a rep is actively involved. And I think without models like that – they do seem to be going away – the younger, next generation of rep isn’t picking that up.
CHIP: When reps put out all of this extra effort, we had very little concerns about markups because they were fair. Now they’re doing basically what they’re paid to do, but expect more money.
We may spend hundreds of hours on a project, and in their defense, the reps get a fixture schedule and quantity. They don’t know what the product is supposed to do, but they’re asked, many times, to come up with alternatives. Maybe it takes the design team to explain what’s important on the job or share a conceptual diagram or a rendering. The client might accept the alternate because they don’t know why it can’t do the job as expected.
JOHN: The tighter you have a relationship with your rep – let’s say your rep spends time with you, and you’ve broken bread and gone out for drinks and they know your kids’ names. Then, you can call them and say, I’m getting screwed on this project. Then, you have someone inside to take care of you. Maybe this project had gotten passed off to the contractor’s rep, but I need my rep to go in and advocate internally for the design team.
I’ve gotten calls from reps saying they’re seeing a package with substitutions, and they’ve already told the contractor that I’m not going to accept it. That’s the above-and-beyond level of rep that you’re looking for.
CHIP: To us, it’s a team activity, and reps should feel they’re a valued part of the team. But if I could sum it up in one word, it’s transparency. We need to know the truth about delivery time. We need to know the real price.
If we could get transparency, it would make everybody’s life a little easier, and we’ll end up with better quality projects.
Author’s note: Thanks are due to Peter Hugh of Hugh Lighting Design for his help in the origins of this discussion. And yes, the subtitles are all songs from the seventies
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