Inside the Pro AV Channel
The sales channel for professional AV products is as vast and varied as the companies within it.
Fielding Demands for Discounts and Deals
A manufacturer's sales representative is the boots on the ground for nearly every manufacturer. A rep's job is spent on the road, visiting his manufacturers or his dealer/integrators and distributors.
"We conduct product demos and give literature, but today it has to be more technical. You have to have more knowledge to bridge the gap between networking and AV," says Sittloh, a former contractor and current rep who covers Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois for Visitec Marketing. "A laptop and a bag of literature don't cut it anymore."
Matthew Sittloh, manufacturer's rep for Visitec Marketing (left), spends quality time with Andrew Sellers, co-owner of integrator Sensory Technologies.
Credit: AJ Mast/WPN
Alan Geer, president of rep firm Audio Geer, says, "We do a lot more than we used to. These days, there is much more time spent planning and coordinating with the manufacturer. They're are demanding more time and attention to detail from most representatives."
Which can translate into an all-out time crunch for reps. "With many integrators, it is easier for them to just call you to find out an answer," says Sittloh. "There are some days when I get over 40 phone calls and barely have time to listen to the messages between meetings."
To assist with customer support, Visitec has invested in insides sales experts for the Lutron and Liberty Wire brands it represents. It has also added in-house tech support for when a rep is not immediately available.
In addition to the time crunch, Sittloh says the politics of the job are particularly challenging.
"I am always asked by my dealers to get them a discount or a deal–something that sets them apart. It's especially difficult when more than one of my dealers is on the same project," he says. "I try to teach them to sell more than just on price; to not undercut each other and focus on streamlining processes and efficiencies."
But often, if the rep doesn't focus on the streamlining, it doesn't get done.
"Reps exist because of the gap in service, support, and communication between resellers and manufacturers," says Geer. "If that gap gets smaller, then the business gets easier–which means one step closer to the door for every rep across the country.
"One benefit that this tough economy has brought to reps is that manufacturers and resellers alike are doing more work with less people than ever," Geer adds. "As long as that remains the case, complication will exist and my role between the two parties will continue to solidify."
Creating the Market, Building the Brand
Distributors, or third-party resellers, play a unique but vital role in the sales channel. They are often the importer and sole market representative in the U.S. for overseas brands. Jack Kelly, president of pro audio distributor GroupOne, says the majority of his business operates on this model. "The process of distribution has not changed in the 33 years I've been in the business," he says. "We buy and inventory the products, and create the marketplace and the demand. In short, we act in the best interest of the manufacturer."
Kelly notes that the key to a successful distributorship is the manufacturer offering the right product and price at the right time. "In pro audio distribution, specifically, it can be hard to make a living. You need a bare minimum number of people–sales, service, shipping personnel–and overhead can easily be $500,000. You need to pull a few million to cover it."
The core of GroupOne's success has been relevant products, as well as long-term relationships with their manufacturers. Kelly has worked with U.K.-based companies XTA for 16 years and with Pulsar for 37 years. "Having that relationship brings a degree of credibility when discussing the market," Kelly says.
Tom Bensen, who manages the U.S. operations for Italian brands Powersoft and Outline, says his job is about looking at what is the more effective distribution method and building the brand in the U.S. "Our job is information processing and information distribution. The first thing you do is provide education, especially for new brands, about the best way to utilize our products. If people have to think about it, then I am not doing my job."
Jim Ritchhart, general manager of BAI Distributors, represents over 100 foreign and domestic brands and sells directly to contractors and dealers. He agrees that the business of distribution has not changed, with the exception of the product mix brought on by customer requests. "People were asking for more CCTV and AV products, rather than just audio," he says.
To better manage his time, Ritchhart doesn't attend business lunches, even when invited by his sales rep. "We would rather focus the time on customer service to our customers," he says. "If a rep or manufacturer has something important to tell me, send me an e-mail."
Ritchhart also notes that, while manufacturers and distributors may be cutting back, his firm is not cutting the budget for trade show attendance or training in 2009. "We will have a presence at InfoComm, for example. You still have to let customers know you are supporting them," he adds.