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Working With Sales Reps

Developing a Personal and Profitable Relationship

The story that my grandmother would tell about the family business from some fifty years ago centered around the kitchen table. With the building that my great grandfather built in the 1920's, the family residence was the second story of the building while the original store occupied the first floor.

As the business grew a second and third building were added for the sales floor while the upstairs remained the residence until the mid 1950's.

Grandma explained how my grandfather, Buster Brown, would get up early and get into the store long before it opened. There were several sales reps that would be waiting in the parking lot, wanting to get in and get their day started writing orders. As the store opened there would likely be additional reps coming in to do their work.

As my grandmother continued with the story, she told how she did not go into the store until later in the morning. For the longest time, I thought this was just a part of the privilege of being a part of ownership. What I did not realize was that her coming into the store later was a part of the business strategy.

After the store had opened, and all appeared to be working as planned, my grandfather would say to all of the sales reps, "Boys and girls, I am going to the house for breakfast. Anyone care to join me?"

"I never knew how many people were going to be at the breakfast table. I just made sure there was plenty for everyone.", Grandma would say.

And as everyone gathered about the kitchen table for that biscuits and gravy with coffee, the conversations would begin. Sales reps would visit with other sales reps discussing new accounts, what was happening with existing accounts, product additions and deletions, industry trends and anything else related to business.

Competitors sat side by side, along with unrelated lines, enjoying Grandma's cooking and sharing information. Both Grandma and Grandpa would join in the conversation with timely questions.

As I grew older, I was introduced to these fine people as many of them that called on my grandparent's store also called on the store of my great uncle, and my parent's stores. As I child, I knew many of these people as members of our extended family. Some of them were actually referred to as aunts and uncles.

As my childhood passed into the years of my youth and adulthood and I joined in the family business, I began to understand the wisdom of my grandparents and parents. Long before the idea of a consultant to the retail industry was conceived, these men and women were actually performing these tasks and providing these services.

Perhaps there are some reading this article, thinking this is a feel good personal oldies story. Quite the contrary, for if you are not profiting and benefiting as a retailer from assistance such as this from the sales reps calling on you today, then may we suggest you take a look at the next sales rep walking through your front door in another light.

Many times the sales rep calling on you is themselves a former retailer with many years of experience in our industry. They have been a participant in the many swings in business, from the downturns of the 1980's to the boom years of the late 1990's; able to provide you with first hand knowledge of how to take advantage of the upswings and avoid the pitfalls of the down turns.

Realistically, many retailers are hesitant to enlist this valuable source of information and help. Likewise, sales reps report their lack of desire to continue to try to help a retailer because so many of their accounts fail to act upon the advice. This scenario, unfortunate and unnecessary, can be solved by those retailers and sales reps that see the profitability in developing a closer working relationship. This nine step plan was developed to build a relationship by beginning with a simple interaction and progressing to another step; each level requiring a deeper level of trust and interaction.

The process of building a profitable relationship begins with the technique of promoting. While retailers spend a substantial amount of money for advertising, few utilize special techniques for inviting their existing customers to return. A customer that has shown a preference for that retailer's showroom is more likely to return to that showroom for future furniture purchases.

Unfortunately, few retailers have in place a system, such as phone calls, post cards, letters, and e-mails, for keeping in contact with customers. Past the customary form letter that is often sent to customers three days after their having made a purchase, a promotional minded retailer will use a 3-1-3-6-1 system of asking for repeat business. The five digit reminder system denotes that initial contact at three days, followed by another at one month, and again at three months, six months, and one year.

The customer is expecting the first contact, and is not likely to be surprised by the one month contact. But with each of the successive contacts, the retailer develops a tighter and tighter bond with the customer. When they are ready to make their next purchase, they actually feel guilty about looking at another furniture store.

The second step is to share a success story. Whether the success be with a retailer adding a product line or running a profitable sales event, this step gives the retailer a way of measuring the sales rep's efforts with another retailer. For the sales rep, one of their best tools would be to maintain a list of retailers willing to be the testimonials for that sales rep.

Step number three is to help a retailer with displays. We all have experienced stores that struggle with displays as well as stores that seem to always have the best window and sales floor displays. In this scenario, a camera can be the best friend the sales rep could have. While one store may struggle with the creativity of displays, they can easily duplicate the ideas shown in a photograph. With the easily affordable cost of a digital camera, a sales rep could share a display that has been seen one day with numerous other stores by way of e-mail at the end of the day.

Adding a new line of furniture or accessories is a way a sales rep can show they are sincerely interested in the success of their accounts. With most any line of furniture, a rep has seen a store that has had an excellent sell through with another furniture or accessory line; one that the first store does not carry.

Especially if the sales rep does not represent the suggested line, bringing the necessary information to the account again shows a deep level of interest in the success of that retailer.

Creating and using a customer survey is the fifth step. What may appear to be something simple, actually goes much deeper. The survey itself should be a very simple piece of paper with not much more than one question. "What one thing could we do to make it easier for you to do business with us?"

The more complicated part comes with the follow up. For most of us, it is difficult to receive criticism. This is why many businesses do not want to read the results from such a survey. But, this is not criticism. It is what it claims to be; an opportunity for the retailer to learn what a customer really wants.

Helping the retailer to utilize this information to develop a deeper relationship with their customers can mean additional revenue for both the retailer and the sales rep.

An advertising budget is often a major problem for retailers. It is something that few retailers will sit down and develop as a one year plan, instead spending advertising dollars on a month to month basis; often based more on the sales skills of the media sales rep than on the needs of the retailer.

One bonus that a sales rep can share with a retailer is that of purchasing the advertising in bulk. Many have reported that by making decisions about which media and how much to spend with each, based on an annual basis, can result in a savings as much as 30%. Being the sales rep to share this expense saving idea with a retailer can go a long way to having that sales rep seen as a real hero to the retailer.

Concern number seven. Manufacturers go a long way today to provide information about their products through their magazine and other forms of advertising, their website, and even the print material that comes with each piece of furniture. Yet, experienced reps know that nothing will ever replace a store sales person that is very knowledgeable about the products they sell.

A knowledgeable store sales person is not a thing of the past, nor is it that rare and unusual person that has developed great sales skills by luck. Most reps have accounts that have more than their fair share of great sales people, and this is likely because of a commitment to having staff meetings on a consistent basis. During these staff meetings, in addition to discussing advertising, new show room settings and product lines, they practice their sales skills.

By sharing the experiences of these other successful retailers as well as your own successful sales techniques, you will be increasing the bottom line of your retailer as well as the profitability of your own business.

Sales people, both those on the sales floor and manufacturer's reps receive incentive pay for their efforts. A percentage of the sale is the most traditional form of pay. However, it should not be the only method of pay. Retailers that obtain extraordinary results from their sales people report that the best incentives are those that are custom tailored to each individual's likings.

Envision a sales contest involving all of a store's sales staff with individually designed prizes. One of the sales people has a fondness for baseball. When the achieve their sales goal, or win the contest, their prize would be a weekend for two to see their favorite baseball team with all expenses paid. The idea of the specialized prize always includes two aspects. The first is that the prize is for two so that they can enjoy the contest with their significant other, and the second aspect is that it involves time away from the store.

Granted by having a cash prize, they could likely afford the prize the store has just given them, but by customizing the prize, the business is making sure they take time to enjoy themselves as well demonstrating that the business has taken a personal interest in them.

Our ninth and final area that can be shared with a retailer is a sensitive issue. Surely, most sales reps have had the misfortune of experiencing a situation where the credit department has placed a hold on an order because of slow payment on a previous invoice. This occurs because of a lack of cashflow management and perhaps the use of an "open to buy". Experience has shown there are few retailers that have an accountant that has taken the time to help them learn about these crucial management tools.

You do not have to be a CPA, or even have a degree in accounting, but for the person that shares this valuable tool with a retailer, the rewards are many.

The experience of having a home on the second story of a store is a long gone experience for most of the retail world, just as are the idea of preparing a breakfast for sales reps as my grandmother did. However, the types of relationships that this writer's grandparents developed years ago, are as valid and necessary today as they were then.

We would even expect that the challenges that a retailer faces today are more numerous and complicated than those of years ago. The solutions to them are found in the partnerships that are developed by the person writing an order and the one calling on that retailer. Let's take another look at that sales rep walking in the front door.

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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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St. Petersburg, Fl 33731
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