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Perfect Fit

The role of a sales rep seems straightforward: He or she markets and sells a line throughout a specified territory on behalf of a manufacturer, with a goal of growing the brand. Those who rep multiple lines are able to show several product lines at once, maximizing their return on each store visit. “We expect […]

The role of a sales rep seems straightforward: He or she markets and sells a line throughout a specified territory on behalf of a manufacturer, with a goal of growing the brand. Those who rep multiple lines are able to show several product lines at once, maximizing their return on each store visit. “We expect [our reps] to learn the product line and to be the ‘in-field’ voice of the company,” said Ken Hamby, general manager of Jefferies Socks in Burlington, N.C. But their job doesn’t stop there, he added, noting that nowadays reps “must wear the buyer’s assistant’s hat” as well, advising retailers which items from the line will sell best in their stores. Michael Belenky, president of Cabot, Vt.-based Zutano, agreed: “Our expectation is that our reps know the complexities of their territory, they develop and maintain strong relationships with buyers, and they work to really know our company and what would make sense for retailers and the brand in the long term.”

Working on a more local level than the brand, reps can give buyers closer attention and service. “We expect the reps to cultivate relationships with their accounts,” said Catherine Ralphs, Zutano’s national sales manager. “They’re not just selling something; they’re building that trust.” In addition to protecting the retailers by not letting an area get oversaturated with a brand, reps simultaneously act as the manufacturer’s eyes and ears in their territory, learning what is and isn’t working in stores. That information is priceless for manufacturers. “We look to our reps for feedback,” Ralphs added. “It’s important, because they’re the ones who are there and understand the pockets of trends.”

Stephanie Pytlinski, owner of Beary Basics, noted that when her East Coast rep informed her that the Upland, Calif.-based brand’s lightweight apparel wasn’t working on the opposite side of the country, she responded by designing more layering pieces for her fall collection. Incorporating the rep’s ground-level advice should help both parties sell more in the end. “It’s a team situation,” Pytlinski surmised. “We’re both working toward the same goal.”

That goal, of course, is to maximize sales—and for any career salesperson whose livelihood is based on commissions, eyes are always on the prize. David Cooper, who reps eight lines from his Cooper Kids showroom in Dallas, said, “I will do anything from taking a line on the road, to showing it at markets, to marketing, mailing, calling—whatever it takes to get the line introduced, sold and supported in my territory.” Mary Leslie Holder, owner of Dallas-based ML Holder & Associates, shares Cooper’s attitude, noting she’ll go to great lengths to increase sales for the nine brands she represents. “Our goal is to grow their business… I guess I do everything they want me to do in order to do that.”

The Ground Rules

But that is where the definition of the rep’s role gets sticky, and why it’s important to ensure the vendor and rep are on the same page from day one. Since multi-line reps are supporting a number of companies, they don’t have infinite time to devote to each brand. Some may be selling six lines, others may have dozens. “There has to be an understanding going into the relationship,” said Sally Miller, owner of the eponymous Millton, N.J.-based label. Manufacturers want to be assured their collection will receive adequate attention and promotion, and won’t get lost amid similar brands but will be surrounded by complementary lines. “Talk and lay out what your expectations are,” Miller advised, noting that vendors should be sure their rep is selling to the type of retailers they want to target.

It’s important for reps to set some ground rules as well, considering many said vendors sometimes request they do things that aren’t in their official job description. “I only get paid for writing orders, [but] some vendors expect you to support them in the same ways a house person would,” noted Patti Bergstrom, who reps multiple lines from the California Market Center. Assisting with the actual design of the line, constructing tradeshow booths and doing customer service follow-up that should be handled by the manufacturer’s office are a few examples, she said. “The problem is that we don’t get paid for those efforts. No one likes feeling they are being taken advantage of.”

If there’s one thing reps dislike most, it’s being sent after retailers who owe a vendor money. Policing payment is something Gloria Davis, a West Coast rep based in the San Francisco Gift Center, said she will do if a manufacturer asks, but she’d rather not be put in that position. “I realize that if they don’t get paid, I won’t get my commission,” she said. “But I have a relationship with these buyers… I can’t be the collections agency. I have to be more diplomatic and understanding.” Cooper agreed it’s tough to be forced into the role of the bad cop and potentially embarrassing a retailer, a situation that could jeopardize his future relationship with that store. “I don’t want to be the credit manager; I just want to sell the line,” he said.

On that note, reps said manufacturers need to give them the space and freedom to sell, sell, sell. While it’s a good idea for both parties to meet at the beginning of a season to draft realistic sales goals, some reps begged off excessive paperwork and data crunching. “I feel that my sales [numbers] are the best indicators,” Holder said. “If I take a lot of time filling out reports, that’s time I don’t have to sell.” Others noted they can’t be expected to sit by the phone, as their role requires them to be busy in their showrooms or out on the road, presenting their lines.

Back-end support

Manufacturer support also plays a big role in the rep’s success, and reps defined ways companies can give them a leg up.

One issue for Davis is that some vendors want her to pay for her sample set. She feels this is an investment a manufacturer must provide. “A lot try to get me to buy them and resell them later to get my money back, but that’s not my priority,” she said. “I can’t pay my bills if I’m buying samples.”

Cooper stressed it is of utmost importance that a manufacturer get product samples to its reps on time. “I’m working with a perishable product,” he said, noting reps generally have just eight weeks to sell a line before stores are bought up. If a company can’t get its line together and delivered before the selling period starts—and preferably not five minutes before market—the rep’s income takes the hit. And when samples do arrive, reps like when they’re market-ready. “I want my lines ‘gummy-proof,’” Cooper said. That means each item is clearly and correctly tagged with all of the information needed to write an order. “What vendors don’t realize is that it can take hours to prepare tags and hang samples,” Bergstrom said. “That time could be used to call buyers for market appointments.”

It also helps for vendors to include marketing materials—color brochures, postcards, posters for the showroom or tradeshow booth, digital artwork for market follow-up e-mails, etc. Jerry Gibson, who reps the Southeast from his Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., showrooms, said he’ll take the time to add a personal note to mailings (i.e. “Sally, this item would do well in your store”) and doesn’t charge manufacturers for the postage. While reps know vendors are under pressure to solidify their collections in the days leading up to market, and thus it can be tough to produce color photography for brand literature and signage, these tools can make a notable difference in selling.

For brands new to market, such planning is crucial—as is patience. Reps said newcomers can’t expect money to come streaming in overnight. “I love new companies with new ideas. They’ve found something innovative and creative—but they have to be prepared,” Davis said. Especially today, she noted, buyers are hesitant to pick up lines without a proven track record. As such, it’s necessary to give a rep time to build business, and to reassess his or her sales goals throughout the season.

Whether a new or established brand, reps also lauded partners who frequently give them new ways to bait buyers. “Provide opportunities for sales,” Holder urged. Percentage-off specials, free shipping and other promotions give her extra selling points when pitching to retailers. New product introductions help, too. “Sometimes stores that aren’t doing well don’t want to see us,” she noted. “It helps when I have a reason to go in.”

Offering a great product and delivering on time is vital for the rep, too. “Manufacturers need to take care of any problems that come along,” Gibson said. The relationship between reps and retailers greatly hinges on trust, and when promises aren’t kept on the brand’s end, that good faith can evaporate. “When you don’t have the diligence on the back end, it’s hard for the front end to work,” Holder said. On the flipside, Cooper commented, “If you’re lucky enough to get a [solid, professional partner], you work really hard for them.”

Hash It Out

Ultimately, a healthy rep/vendor relationship boils down to one thing: communication. Especially when problems arise, “Try to be as communicative as possible and be very clear about your expectations,” said Laurie Snyder, owner of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based brand Flap Happy. Miller agreed, noting, “You need to be flexible and open to listening—especially in this market.”

Certain issues will require compromise, as Snyder was reminded recently. Flap Happy’s reps do have to pay for samples, and one of her reps pushed back this season, noting she only wanted one set despite having two showrooms in her large territory. Worried that one set won’t suffice, Snyder sat down with her rep to discuss how she could adequately sell the line without having the full range of samples in both locations. After the meeting, Snyder decided to bend on the issue. “If she can make it work, great, we’ve worked together,” she said. Mutual respect must always be present in these relationships, Snyder added, noting that nickel-and-diming her reps doesn’t make sense. “I want them to stay in business.”

As in the dating world, there are times when a breakup is the best decision for both parties. The trick is getting out of the relationship unscathed. “I’ve seen it where it just goes to pieces,” Gibson said. “Usually it involves egos.” He recalled cutting ties with one company after dropping in on a store and finding another salesman there showing the same line. Holder noted she has dropped lines after realizing the partnership wasn’t working, that her buyers weren’t engaging in the product or that the brand had gone into mass stores without advising her. When communication or the support system breaks down, the writing is on the wall. “Why continue with the line if it’s not doing either of us any good?” Holder mused.

Still, vendors see their reps as valuable partners in growing their brands and note the long-lasting relationships they form lend support and encouragement through the ups and downs of working life. “It is a marriage—but ultimately it’s a business, too,” Belenky said, adding that the partnership’s success is a joint effort. “With a good rep relationship, the commission check is the one bill you look forward to paying.” —Leslie Shiers

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