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Developing a Profitable Relationship

Working with sales representatives

Despite your best laid plans to have a structured, uninterrupted day devoted to work in your office, that day is often hard to achieve. Frequently, the interruptions come in the form of a surprise visit from a manufacturer or wholesaler sales representative.

While it can be difficult for a sales representative to let his retail accounts know exactly when he will be stopping by, retailers often have difficulty giving complete attention when the sales representative arrives unannounced.

These concerns, and others, are shared by many retailers. How can you make the best use of what sales representatives can bring to the business: product knowledge, industry news, and trends? Secondly, how can retailers work around the fact that there are fewer representatives in the field?

Every retailer knows what he or she wants from a manufacturer's or wholesaler's representative: know your products and the buying programs you offer; know what items your company sells to the retailer's competition and be able to provide information about competitive pricing, as well as respect the various nuances of each retailer.

If you have been in business for several years, you know that it is difficult, but advantageous to have a written policy describing how to work with representatives so that your relationship will be a win-win situation. Part of that policy could be to request appointments for occasions other than the usual sales representative's visit, such as viewing new product lines and placing seasonal bookings.

There are exceptions to every requirement, but this could help structure your day better, make better use of what representatives offer, and show respect for each other's time. In a written policy, you would also have the opportunity to explain what is needed. With an appointment, sales material can be mailed to you and reviewed before hand, as well as inventory counts being taken.

From the sales representative's point of view, successful salesmen know it takes dedicated communication and repeated visits to get orders. Unfortunately, for the large part, it is a thankless job.

"I need to be closing the visit and leaving before the buyer asks me to leave," explained a representative for a multi-line distributor. "If I respect his time by leaving, I stand a better chance of getting a future appointment."

This representative said he will stop in the store every time he is in the area as long as he receives a pleasant reception, a tactic which virtually guarantees orders and a relationship. A sales supervisor for one manufacturer says that his experience is that 80% of the orders are written through multiple visits to a retailer.

Yet, many of today's sales representatives lack this type of follow through. Many of those that you do not make time for on their first visit, or do not place an order within their first visit, never return.

A reason they might not have returned is that there are fewer representatives in the field. This makes territories larger and individual stores less important. One retailer reports that the number of sales representative visits at his store is down by more than 70% in the last 10 years.

Others say representative visits have virtually stopped. What are retailers doing without regular representative visits? Most retailers make sure they attend several trade shows. Other retailers say telemarketing can be an acceptable alternative, provided a telemarketing representative is as well versed as a sales representative.

"But, I believe I can make better deals when the salesman is here, eye to eye", said one buyer. There are many types of information that retailers need, and it is sometimes hard to get, even at shows. "Frequently, there are manufacturers that are new to our industry that have no idea about the mechanisms and inner workings of the industry," says one buyer.

Buyers complain, too, that markets sometimes make matters worse by having a "take a number and stand in line" approach to retailers who want to spend quality time with representatives who are in attendance at a show.

One of the biggest gripes retailers have is their perception that big box retailers get special treatment. "I'm upset at what they do for those stores, and what they do for us," said another buyer. "It is frustrating. They are merchandising, checking inventory, and writing orders for them."

Is there an imbalance? Manufacturers I spoke with said they were glad to provide assistance to anyone, when asked. "The independent is less likely to let us do the merchandising or ordering. Independents are more hands on people", said a sales manager who asked to remain anonymous.

Manufacturers also report that independents want their retail customers to be loyal, but are not willing to be loyal to wholesalers, often changing vendors based solely on price with no consideration for service. And as the same manufacturer's representative said, "We give service, but if I don't sell, I don't eat."

Both areas of concern are true. But the strong relationship between retailer and representative may have gone by the wayside. Too often like the strong relationship between retailer and customer.

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This article is copyrighted by Tom Shay and Profits Plus Solutions, who can be reached at: PO Box 1577, St. Petersburg, Fl. 33731. Phone 727-464-2182. It may be printed for an individual to read, but not duplicated or distributed without expressed written consent of the copyright owner.

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