Reps today must be more than good – they need to be great

For many, this means adding value by becoming a problem solver for the customers you are selling and embracing digital tools that help improve productivity for everyone involved

I am truly fortunate in my new role as editor-at-large for Home News Now because I get to assess the industry from two perspectives — one, as a journalist, and two, as the executive director of the International Home Furnishings Representatives Association.

With that in mind, this week’s column looks at the current state of the independent sales rep, how that rep’s role has changed since the pandemic, how the rep’s role is likely to change over the next year and the potential speed bumps that may be lurking around the corner.

Back in the B.C. era, (Before Covid), the rep’s life, while still demanding, was far less challenging because the supply chain was far more dependable and predictable and so was business as a result.

However, fast forward to today and the landscape here in Furnitureland has completely changed from one of an abundance of shoppers and too little inventory to the exact opposite. If our business was a board game, it would probably be called Chutes and Ladders with far more chutes than ladders.

In trying to frame the current plight of the independent sales rep, it should be pointed out that he or she was on a slippery slope even before the pandemic.

Here’s why: It’s been said that a person can’t serve two masters. 

While I think there’s truth in that premise, it also happens to be a fairly accurate job description for the independent sales rep.

The reality is that the rep is the link — aka messenger — between the factory and the retailer. And that often means the rep has the unenviable task of being the one to deliver disappointing news to both masters. News about price hikes, delayed shipments, canceled orders, and the like.

And while there are times that both masters take advantage of the rep, some reps bring grief to their front doors by failing to communicate in real time, substituting order-taking for problem-solving, going dark when problems arise, and not taking the extra effort to find the win/win.

Now, I sense that the rep’s job is on the line as never before. A still broken supply chain, spiraling costs for everything from raw material to container costs, a sudden glut of product along with an equally sharp dip in foot traffic in the stores has everyone’s nerves on edge.

While I hate to say this, with both suppliers and retailers looking to recoup lost revenue due to the pandemic, some of each group are looking at the rep as an added cost, not a value-added element.

Some factories are suddenly reclassifying robust rep accounts as house accounts. Some retailers, meanwhile, are suggesting that the supplier bypass the rep and give the retailer the dollars that normally would go to the rep as commission.

My advice to any independent rep can be found in that old chestnut that advises us to “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

Here’s why I say that. In addition to undergoing intense scrutiny from suppliers and retail customers, several companies are popping up what could best be called “rep alternatives.”

One such firm, called SALT, bills itself as The Rep Alternative. On their website, they maintain that “The traditional manufacturers’ rep model is dying. Great reps are impossible to find, and often flaky — not willing to commit or remain engaged to your line.”

While acknowledging that “the idea of the commission-only manufacturing rep is great,” the website maintains that the network of the rep is limited; 80%-90% of their revenue typically comes from another line; reps are difficult to manage, and others often fail to provide visibility.

Messaging like this, especially in challenging times, calls for an independent sales rep to stop, drop and roll before he or she goes up in smoke.

So, is this the end of the (rep) world as we know it? It certainly doesn’t have to be. But if we learned nothing else from the pandemic it’s that what worked before Covid-19 may not ring the bell today.

I’ve put together a short list of suggestions that an independent rep might want to consider now and in the future.

1. Your business has probably changed because of the pandemic. Have you examined that possibility and assuming it has changed, are you ready to respond to those changes?

2. Have you engaged your customers about how their business has changed and what you can do to help them respond to those changes?

3. Have you redefined your value-added? Equally as important, have you communicated that to your customers?

4. Like it or not, digital assets are becoming crucial to selling. Are you learning about and embracing digital tools? If not, you are probably digging your own digital grave.

5. While you can’t lower the costs of raw materials or final product costs, you can increase your level of customer care.

Make no mistake, while things are slowly getting better, we are far from being out of the woods yet.  

Each of us has to earn the right to stay in the game every day. Being a good rep in today’s market is no longer good enough. You’ve simply got to become a great rep.  

It’s your call and your future. Go out and be great.

2 thoughts on “Reps today must be more than good – they need to be great

  1. Fantastic article by Ray Allegrezza. He really gets it. Thank you again Home News Now for keeping the furniture industry aware of what’s happening today.
    Tommy Leflein

    1. Tommy,
      Congratulations on your recent Distinguished Service Award from IHFRA. You received the award by going for great, the extra mile, as Ray Allegrezza suggested in this article. Ray is 100% correct. The world has changed and we all need to change with it. I’m hopeful that Sales Representatives in our industry will read this article, in the spirit in which it was intended, and strive to give the retailers the best service possible while adding value in everything they do for them.
      John DeFalco

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