"I just left a MillerKnoll dealer for a Steelcase dealer and I have never looked back!" - 03/16/22 Edition
Stephen Says Column

Dear Stephen,
I work for a contract furniture dealer.   When #HermanMiller merged with #Knoll, the Miller and Knoll dealers started to merge too, and it was scary for me. Then #Haworth, which has never been known to have had the greatest dealers, is now actually convincing premium MillerKnoll dealers to drop MillerKnoll and sell Haworth, and #Steelcase being Steelcase, has always had great dealers but is following their own long-time pattern - the manufacturers rep’s let the dealers do the heavy lifting because the dealers are very good at it and that’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it probably always will be.

This is just me dreaming but I was thinking instead of Haworth spending all that time and money flipping competitive  dealers to Haworth, maybe Haworth should just buy Steelcase. After all, Steelcase has what Haworth needs and is trying to acquire - the greatest dealers. (Although Haworth is catching up with good dealers such as WB Wood in NYC and Systems Source on the West Coast!)  OK, daydream over and back to why I am writing you.

I have worked as a dealer’s senior sales rep for many years.  I grew up at a Herman Miller dealer and became one of those consistent money makers that everyone respected, and dealer owners both admired and feared.  I knew my dealer owner never wanted me to leave, and I knew I was known within the Miller world as a money maker with great accounts.  Then I heard my dealership was being courted by a Steelcase dealer. I’m in my 50’s, afraid of change, and I was conflicted.  I did my homework on Steelcase and found out there was life beyond the Eames Chair.  Steelcase dealers were treated like gold and the dealer that was courting me had a fabulous reputation. Finally, six months ago, I made took a deep breath and made the switch.  The decision was difficult because by the time I was ready to make the change the Herman Miller dealer I had been with for years was now a MillerKnoll dealer and I used to think that would be a dream come true.  Yet the Steelcase dealer offered me a cozy security blanket. Steelcase dealers are the GM of the furniture industry - steady with not a lot of change – whereas MillerKnoll is more like a Tesla, yes maybe the future but with lots of cars on auto pilot veering off the road.  I did not want to be in one of those cars.

I am writing to tell you and share with you and your readers that it is OK to change jobs if you are a proven dealer salesperson. You can seamlessly go from a MillerKnoll dealer to a Steelcase dealer. And I have friends who went from MillerKnoll dealers to a Haworth dealer.  None of us have ever looked back.  What we did discover is that “we” the salespeople are our own best brand, not the major lines we sell.  If anything, we learned that the major brands are behind us not in front of us, and that we should believe in ourselves, not just that Eames Chair. That change has been great, I am selling more to customers who want me for my experience and service and the actual products are a bit less important.

Stephen, What do you think?  What about senior dealer sales people who want to change but feel locked into the major line?  Thank you for giving me a forum to discuss this.

Signed, Finally Switched

Dear Switched,

Thank for writing.  Sometimes we edit out reader’s letters down, but your letter was so authentic and it is what my readers need to hear, so I left it long.

You are correct and you illustrated what I always preach:  Dealer salespeople are their own best brand, not the manufacturer that is the major line of the dealership where you work.  Dealer recruitment is one of the cornerstones of our business, and we interview hundreds of dealer salespeople so we know how they think.  All of you are your own best brand, hardworking and with good relationships, yet often not confident enough to realize that in most cases your clients will follow you no matter what lines you are selling.  And the WB Wood salespeople and the Systems Source salespeople are proof of that.  Those dealer salespeople tell me they love selling and working with Haworth and that their customers are following them too! 

We hear the very same thing from MillerKnoll salespeople that go to Steelcase and in fairness I also know major players from other dealers that end up at MillerKnoll dealers.  Here is the “career” point of this and the answer to your career questions.  Dealer salespeople: have confidence in yourself and do not feel your identity is linked to the major line you sell - it is not.  Dealer salespeople for years have been insecure about this, and manufacturers know this.  All dealer salespeople should hire an executive coach but if you can’t, I‘ll simplify the advice. Believe in yourself. Go buy a fresh copy of the oldest self-help book, that still applies today, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. Make it your bible and make sales about you, regardless of the brand you are selling.  Make yourself so good that when a new boss asks you to sign a “non-compete” or “non-solicitation” just tell them no and that it is a deal breaker for you.
Dealer salespeople, you have a difficult job and you have always been more important than the major brand your dealership sells.  All the changes and mergers and everything happening today is proving you are not the Pawns in all this, but the Knights that control what your customers will buy next.

And hey, I think you are on to something. I bet sooner or later Haworth does buy Steelcase. Maybe you’re way smarter than you were giving yourself credit for.