Small business promotion with retail speaker Tom Shay
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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 accounts know exactly when he will be stopping by, buyers often have difficulty giving complete attention when the sales representative arrives unannounced.

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

We all knows what we 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 business's competition and be able to provide information about competitive pricing, as well as respect the various nuances of each business.

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 beforehand, and inventory counts can be 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 would stop in the store every time he is in the area as long as he receives a pleasant reception, a tactic that virtually guarantees orders and a relationship. A sales supervisor for one manufacturer says that his experience is that 80 percent of the orders are written through multiple visits to a small business.

Yet, many of today's sales representatives lack this type of follow-through. Many of those for whom you do not make time on their first visit, or who 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 percent in the last 10 years.

Others say representative visits have virtually stopped. What are small businesses doing without regular representative visits?  Most buyers make sure they attend several trade shows. Others 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 buyers need, and it is sometimes hard to get, even at shows. "Frequently, there are manufacturers who are new to our industry and 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 those who want to spend quality time with representatives who are in attendance at a show.

One of the biggest gripes buyers 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 small businesses and representatives may have gone by the wayside—too often like the strong relationship between small businesses and customers.

Tom Shay is a fourth generation small business owner providing proven management and business building ideas through his Profits Plus Seminars, Profits Plus Solutions coaching, books authored, and articles written. Tom can be reached at 727-464-2182 or through his web site:

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