Salesmen combing Congress. Office equipment firms ply freshman legislators

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The cardboard boxes and moving dollies lining the halls of Congress are a welcome sight to Don Morrison. ``This is the really hot season,'' says Mr. Morrison, who sells Harris/3M photocopiers to congressional offices. It is the season for buying new office equipment.

As the 50 freshman House members settle into their new offices, vendors of computer systems, facsimile machines, and copiers are roaming the halls in search of new clients. And they're approaching it in typical Washington fashion, using a combination of cultivated sources and political savvy that are the hallmarks of the nation's capital.

Time is short. New House members must hang on to inherited equipment for 30 days; after that, they can sign contracts for the next two years. (Unlike House practice, salesmen cannot sell directly to Senate staffs.)

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``Most of the equipment changes will occur before March,'' says A.David Brazeal, marketing manager at Micro Research Inc., the dominant computer systems vendor on Capitol Hill.

Micro Research has temporarily channeled all the servicing work to other employees, letting its two Hill salesmen concentrate on selling.

So salesmen are touching base with as many offices as they can, constantly bumping into each other, even chasing down maintenance men to see if a competitor's equipment is being removed. For now, at least, the hours are grueling.

By the time he met a reporter in the Longworth cafeteria at 9:30 one morning recently, Don Morrison of 3M, a handsome, silver-haired man in a conservative pin-stripe suit, had already made three calls, and had 17 others lined up for the rest of the day.

``A normal selling representative, if he's very, very busy out in a general territory, would probably make 20 calls a week,'' he says. ``I'm making between 15 and 20 calls a day during this time, not only to the new members, but to the old members that are turning in obsolete equipment to start a fresh two-year session.''

Many salesmen throw in the towel.

``I think vendors find that House offices are more demanding than the worst corporate clients,'' says Don De Armon, an aide to David Price, a new Democratic congressman from North Carolina.

``You've got 435 different procuring entities here, and to make a sale for one $1,500 copier requires just as much work and probably 10 times as much support as selling a whole line of copiers to a large office. Only a few are willing to do business with the House of Representatives after they go through this initial period.''

But once they've got a foothold, salesmen find that Congress can be a most lucrative market.

Mr. Morrison figures that in the House alone there are some 1,600 offices that might want his copiers, when one counts the 435 members, their 1,000-odd district offices, and the 160-plus committees and subcommittees. Some offices spend up to $45,000 a year on office equipment.

Selling equipment to politicians is, as one might expect, a political process. Salesmen develop sources - secretaries, service people, congressional aides - that pass along information about which equipment is breaking down in which office, which vendor is vulnerable.

They also have to be attuned to political nuances. Last Wednesday, Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin was ousted from the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee. So on Thursday, Morrison dropped by the office of Rep. Charles Bennett (D) of Florida, one of the leading contenders to succeed Mr. Aspin.

``Chairmanship is a sure sign that their [photocopying] volume is going to increase,'' Morrison says.

There is also a certain amount of parochial loyalty, something few vendors fail to capitalize on. For example, Rep. Frank Horton (R) of Rochester, N.Y., has a Xerox machine. Xerox is based in Rochester.

``Perhaps if we could find another company that rivals the quality, friendly service, and industrious workers of Xerox, we would consider a competitor,'' says Michael Marvin, an aide. ``Kodak, for example, would be a strong competitor.'' Kodak is also based in Rochester.

But that would be impossible. For when it comes to office equipment, the bastion of democracy is not so democratic. The number of vendors is limited to five or six for each category, and Kodak didn't make the cut.

Increasingly, those that do make the cut are manufactured in Japan. Of the eight facsimile machine vendors, four include Canon, Fujitsu, Panafax, and Sharp.

``We try to go with an American firm'' when selecting authorized vendors, says Marty Pridgen of the House Subcommittee on Office Systems. ``But it's getting harder.''

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