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Reps. Who needs them? We do!

May 15, 2008

I recently read an article in the May, 2008 issue of Home Furnishings Business (www.hfbusiness.com) called, "Successful Reps Change to Fit the Times." It got me to thinking what attributes I need in a good rep.

There was a time I felt reps were only there to write orders and make the occasional call to "shoot the breeze." That was fine with me because I was a “professional” buyer who went to all of the major markets. At market I spoke to principals and learned about new products and factory innovations from them. I rarely took the valuable time of a rep to write an early buy because it could take hours to days to work the order up. But my dependence on reps has changed over the years, especially since I have met some exceptional reps and I now know the difference between a good one and one I only need to see once a year.

While it may seem obvious, the number of times I see a rep between markets has moved up on my list of requirements. I am not sure which is the cause or the effect, but the reps I see the most have the most space on my floor. But please, don’t come to shoot the breeze! Instead, bring me info about what’s going on at the factory. Be prepared to do additional training for my sales staff and me. Talk to me about what is selling and what I need to make the line more successful. If you have a special, present it to me in the context of what I am already buying.

A good rep should know how their line(s) are selling in my store. Before you come in, ask me to give you an inventory report showing what I have sold and what I have left of your lines? With that info, we could decide if I need to place another order. In fact, you could prepare that order before you come into the store.

No matter how good a retailer’s relationship is with principals of or CSRs at a factory, a good rep is going to have better relationships with these same people. They should be able to get problems solved more easily than I can. This may be nothing more than cutting through paperwork or it may be as complicated as getting a furniture taken back or replaced because of quality issues. A good rep not only talks about being able to help in these situations, but actually does.

A good rep is available by phone or email when you need them, i.e. during your normal store hours. There is nothing more frustrating to a retailer than when on a busy Saturday, you have a customer who asks a question only a rep can answer, and all calls to the rep go to voice mail. True, this can happen to the good rep, but the good rep calls back within a short time. Sorry, calling me back 24 hours later (or worse) is like not calling back at all. By that time the consumer has left and maybe purchased something elsewhere.

Recently, one of our reps traveled to the offshore manufacturing facilities for two companies he represents and we sell. After the trip, he came in to report on his trip. I thought this was going to be a waste of time. To my surprise, the rep had recorded the highlights of his factory visit and transferred them to his computer. He set up his projector and for the next hour mesmerized my entire staff with a visual tour of the factories. We saw things we had heard about but never internalized. Every new scene gave us another piece of salient information we could use in our sales presentation.

Now, there are two points here. The first is: retailers can’t travel to every factory they have on their sales floor. A good rep does that for them even if the factory is offshore. Manufacturers should facilitate this for their reps. If they don’t; the rep has to take the initiative to do it on his own. The second is: retailers need training. A good rep works up effective training programs with or without the help of their factories.

No matter how much a manufacturer thinks he understands the buying pubic, retailers are more intimately aware of what a consumer are buying and asking for. A good rep gathers this info from his accounts and brings that back to his factories. For years, I pleaded with a vendor to zipper their cushions. When I started this process, the company had just hired a new rep. A year later, they had hired a different rep. My mission would have been much easier if I had a rep that could have asked other accounts in his territory if zippered cushions were important. Instead, my reps were busy just trying to learn the territory and the lines.

So . . . let’s recap here. I want a rep who visits me regularly, is a reliable partner when it comes to managing inventory, is available by phone whenever I am open, offers to and does get things done for me at the factory, has seen the factory, offers training that is pertinent to all of my staff from the newest to the most senior, and knows what consumers in his territory want. That’s a lot to ask and even if you don’t require more in a good rep, to me it sounds like a full time job for a professional.

Yours in confused retailing, Bruce