In an ideal world, sales representatives serve as the magic link between manufacturer and retailer, true business partners in a venture that benefits all parties.
These days, with improved technologies, consolidation at retail and retailers paring their vendor bases, more sales reps are being cut out of the equation.
Some manufacturers seem to view reps as lazy, no-good bums who can't work a Blackberry and won't do more than show catalogs to buyers. These vendors have cut sales commissions or eliminated rep territories so the corporate office works directly with "house accounts," while pocketing the 10 percent savings or splitting it with the retailer.
This is short-sighted and potentially harmful to the vendors, as well as the industry.
Sure, times are really tough right now. There's no room for fat anywhere along the supply chain. And there's no excuse for reps who do bare-bones sales calls and expect commission checks to flow in.
Good reps have the ability to grow a manufacturers' business and maintain essential relationships with retailers during a downturn, so they will all be prepared when the economy does turn around.
Reps are a manufacturer's eyes and ears in the marketplace, relaying valuable market intelligence on business, style and consumer trends. Even if buyers can order goods online in their pajamas, reps are still needed to pitch in, manage inventory, recommend what's uptrending or not selling in the territory, conduct sales training and hang chandeliers. No vendor can adequately service all of its independent accounts without a strong field sales force.
Retailers who view reps as an intrusion aren't utilizing them well. Lay out parameters and everyone will do more business.
Creative reps go above and beyond the norm. A well-established New England rep--an authority on lampshades--created twice-yearly shade days with a lighting showroom. Consumers line up for consultations that typically end in sales. Another rep in the Pacific Northwest stages accessories trunk shows for an independent dealer, pays for the wine and cheese himself, and sells $50,000 worth of accessories in four hours. The lighting and accessories world is full of such examples.
Reps get shortchanged in many ways, even in the way they're paid. They're not compensated for rising insurance costs, gasoline prices or travel expenses, and are being told to add trade shows to their busy calendars.
The market may now be overstored and overinventoried, but once the shakeout is complete, there will be a renaissance of independents--and a desperate need to service them properly.
Well-trained, motivated sales reps are best suited for that job.
Nancy Meyer is the senior editor, furniture, lighting. She can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org - mail>email@example.com.