Times are tough. Are you responding?

I hope you are sitting down when you read this because what follows is probably going to sting.

When times are hard, people make tough decisions. And if you have ever been the one having to make a tough decision, you know how hard that can be, not only for you, but for everyone that decision is going to impact.

Here’s where the sting comes in. We all know that business has been tough. I think many would agree that the odds are that the business will remain tough for the remainder of this year and probably into next year as well.

What some may not know is that companies planning on staying on the playing field have already started making those tough calls.

Over the past few months, I’ve had conversations with the decision-makers at some of our largest companies and I can tell you that tough decisions are and have been made that will make them leaner, able to respond to market demands and changes much faster, more efficiently and they will do this with far fewer employees.

One of our largest industry participants has effectively taken out an entire sector of  midlevel and senior management over the past year as a sort of preemptive strike against anticipated “hangover” challenges from the pandemic.

Another upholstery major has pretty much reshuffled its deck of salespeople as well as downsizing individual territories. “Prior to the pandemic, when business was fairly strong and fairly predictable, many suppliers would keep on salespeople simply because they were well liked in the company or had been working for someone for a long time,” one of that company’s senior staff told me.

“With the pandemic and subsequent shelter-in-place advisories, our sales teams were absent from the stores for more than a year. Then, when they could go back into the stores, many of them didn’t — as least not as often as they should have,” he added.

As a result, this company, which does tremendous volumes with the Top 100, has looked for what it calls “super-reps,” people with long and trusted relationships with key accounts. 

And when they find a super-rep who has a strong relationship with an important customer, he or she takes over that account.

They are also rethinking the size of the territories their salespeople have. “We used to have one person calling on retailers in a three-state territory,” the executive said.  “Today, occasionally calling on a store won’t cut it. We want our salespeople to practically live in those stores and, with one person calling on three states, that just isn’t going to work,” he told me.

A third major supplier of case goods, upholstery, outdoor and accessories took it a step further with what I call an “all-bets-are-off” policy. For example, say their rep in Florida was unable to open a retailer there that the company wants to sell. Under the new policy,  that retailer is up for grabs, and whichever rep opens that account gets to keep that account.

Another supplier told me that, “When business was good, everybody would high-five when someone opened an account.” But with business as challenging as it is today, opening a new account is just the first step. Now, we expect our salespeople to be in those stores frequently in order to manage and grow that account.”

Yet another source underscored how important it is for reps to “practically live in the stores.” He added, “It’s great if the sales rep knows the owner or owners, but it is critical that they have strong relationships with the store managers and the sales associates because they are the ones that will either recommend your product or something from a competitor.”

While it is critical that reps conduct in-store training, I can also tell you that, based on a recent spot survey that the International Home Furnishings Representatives Association conducted with retailers, product information is just the tip of the information iceberg that retailers are hungry for.

Specifically, retailers want their reps to be able to provide information about industry trends, what’s working (or not) at their competitor’s store, which styles, fabrics and price points are hot and lots more.

So, welcome to what I am calling the new next. I’ve given up on the term new-normal because since the pandemic, business has been anything but normal.

I wish I could tell you what’s next, but I don’t think anybody can. 

What I can tell you with some degree of certainty is that complacency is the new “dirty” word,  entitlements are yesterday’s news, “good enough” is anything but, and, if you are not bringing solutions, you are the problem, but that’s OK because you probably won’t be working there much longer anyway.

I realize this column is filled with tough talk, but tough times spawn tough talk, tough decisions and tough consequences.

They say that when times get tough, the tough get going. My wish is that you are proactive enough, resilient enough and creative enough to give that cliché new meaning.

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