A love-hate relationship

Reps – you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. You hate those that turn up without an appointment and those that only turn up once in a blue moon, but you love the ones that know your business and provide the help you need. We ask four KBB retailers for their experiences of their local sales reps

The sales rep should be an asset to a manufacturer – a supplier’s ambassador to the retailer, the point of contact should any issues arise, and the provider of all product information. However, the retailer’s relationship with their local sales representative is rarely a smooth one. Common complaints from the shopfloor range from scruffiness to a general lack of respect, particularly when it comes to making appointments and not just turning up unannounced.

So here we’ve brought together comments from retailers from all over the country to find out what they really want from their sales reps, what their biggest bugbears are, and how manufacturers might help to solve some of the issues, improve relationships with their customers and ultimately, the bottom line…

‘Reps should never just turn up unannounced…’

Ian Pearson, designer, Newcastle Furniture Company, Newcastle

Kitchen display at Newcastle Furniture Company

Sales reps should never just turn up unannounced. I think that is the biggest bugbear for a lot of retailers. It’s annoying when they just turn up and expect you to listen to them. The sales reps we like are those who make an appointment, ensure you have the time for them, and are as succinct and as informative as possible. And it’s important that they’re smart and know about the product.

We get lots of support from some, and then almost no support from others. I guess the ones whp are there when you need them are the more important ones, rather than the ones who are always around.

For example, when Siemens was having trouble with the supply of a certain model of combination microwave, it was almost impossible to get the support we needed.
There are some reps that I’m perfectly happy to see, and it can be about personality as much as anything. But I also think that if you have a problem with a particular product, the rep should be available to you. And very often they’re not.

We’ve never stopped using a supplier because of a particular rep, but we have left because of general poor service – that might be down to the attitude of someone in the head office, for example.

There are certain products that sell themselves, so a rep isn’t really necessary. The company can provide you with brochures and leaflets and let you get on with it. Then you have reps just turning up and you get fed up and don’t want to see them.

For example, this morning, I had three e-mails to deal with which involved around £70,000 worth of business – so if a rep had turned up then, I would have been pretty annoyed. Whereas with a phone call, they can always call back and not waste their and my time.

‘Some of the preconceptions are a little unfair…’

Rittu Evans, director, The Bath House, Crewe

Inside The Bath House in Crewe

I expect my sales reps to keep me up to date with information, whether it’s about new launches or particular issues with any products.

Equally, if I have any problems, I want to be able to call on the rep and have that support, so they can perhaps liaise with the customer if need be. So if it’s a manufacturing issue, for example, they can confirm that and help come up with a solution. If it’s an installation issue they could point that out, too.

I think those are the key functions really. Giving out brochures shouldn’t be a rep’s job – you should be able to get them from the office.

I think it’s always good to have a rapport with the rep, and a bit of friendly chat is fine. I do think that some of the preconceptions about reps are a little unfair. Many of them come in and will do a really good presentation about the products and don’t just talk about football.

Regarding my bugbears, there is at least one rep I can think of that we get very little support from and yet they still get commission whenever we sell one of the company’s products. We haven’t seen the rep for more than a year, even though we spend quite a bit with that brand. I find it very frustrating – when someone is benefiting from our efforts without actually putting any work in.

I don’t necessarily want every rep knocking on my door each month, but it would be good for them to pop in once in a while to make sure we’re doing OK, and for them to show willing – even if it was just a phone call. I appreciate that we’re a very small fish in the pond and so we might not be a priority, but that’s not to say that we shouldn’t get any attention at all.

I don’t really know what the answer is, as you can’t tar everyone with the same brush. But perhaps reps could see some of the bigger retailers monthly and small companies like us quarterly?

‘Don’t just talk to the owner…’

Ross Penman, sales manager, Victor Paris, Edinburgh

Ross Penman (foreground) and the team at Victor Paris, Edinburgh

Sales reps need to know about the products they’re selling, and the company they’re working for. And they need to have a general understanding of how a bathroom goes together. This is definitely a must.

Sometimes you have a very small amount of time with a rep and have to make decisions quickly, based on whether you like the product and like the company. They might have been selling cars the week before, or whatever, and it’s a completely different concept and proposition, so they need to have an understanding of how the company they’re selling to also works. They need to have done their background research, rather than just coming in from the street.

Reps need to be able to communicate with everyone, not just the owner or the buyer. A rep might come in to talk to me, but I’m not necessarily going to be the one who’s selling the product. So the rep needs to be able to communicate with the sales staff, too. Sometimes the sales rep will come in, talk to the owner and disappear, and that can be their downfall.

Once the account is set up and open, the sales rep should then go and talk to and engage the sales staff. I’ve got 10 members of staff in this store and if they don’t know about the product because they haven’t been told about it, then they won’t be selling it.

I think there will always be a place for good sales reps – it’s part of their job to show you things that are old, that are new, and things that are in development. A lot of that information can be a click away, but sales staff probably wouldn’t spend the amount of time required to find out that information. We should give ourselves more time, but unfortunately life doesn’t work that way.

Sales reps are also a go-between for the manufacturer and the retailer. If you have a rep that can deal with issues well, and who is there when you have a query, you’re much more likely to stick with that company.

‘Our biggest bugbear is reps with ‘pet clients’…’

Oli Sheppard, director, J Sheppard and Son, Chippenham

Oli Sheppard

A good sales rep should know their product. I don’t want to be badgered by them all of the time, but I want to know they’re at the end of the phone if you need an answer about something quickly.

What we seem to be finding is that companies are using regional sales reps less and starting to work centrally from head office in order to cut costs. We don’t think it’s good enough, really. The trouble is that we might not see new products unless we go to the trade shows, which we try to do, but you still miss out on things.

There were a few distributors that went to a centralised model and so now we rarely deal with them at all. We tend to deal with suppliers that have reps. We don’t want to see them every week or every month – they’re just a point of contact really.

We have some really good reps, but we also have the odd few that might try to make us phone up their technical departments if we have a problem with a particular product. And when you’re busy, you don’t really have time to do that.

We’ve had a few issues, too, where we thought we had a sales rep for a particular brand, but then we’ve gone to contact them only to be told they no longer work for the company. Retailers need to be kept informed regarding what is going on with reps. If the brand is going to centralise its sales team, we should be informed in advance.

And the role of reps is to keep us informed about products. We had a problem with a shower manufacturer recently where we went to order a shower, but then discovered that the launch of the product had been delayed. Nobody had told us. We found out because we looked on their website.

We don’t tend to approach brands and complain about poor service, we just find someone else. And one of the biggest problems is that some reps just don’t seem to care. They take it for granted that we order on a monthly basis anyway.

In terms of possible solutions that manufacturers could put in place to solve some of these issues, I would suggest more training. Or, like they have in car showrooms, each brand could have ‘product champions’ for a few different products and they could be experts on those.

One of the biggest bugbears is also with reps who have their favourite customers or their ‘pet’ clients. Perhaps suppliers could solve this problem with a ‘mystery shop’ type thing, where they call retailers at random to check the quality of the service they’re receiving from their reps. This might incentivise sales reps to visit all their accounts and give them all a decent service.

‘Some reps have absolutely no autonomy to do a deal…’

Tim Forsey, managing director, Newark Interiors, Newark

Tim Forsey

We deal with one particular Bradford-based bathroom distributor that we’ve done business with every month for years, and yet we haven’t seen the rep for three years or more.

I have complained, as there’s been the odd time when I needed to call up to make a deal. I’ve spoken to the sales guys in the office and they don’t believe it. I’ve even spoken to someone senior there and they still haven’t sorted it, and I still haven’t seen the rep.

Also, for me, if somebody wants to come and see us, they should make an appointment. I don’t have an issue with somebody putting their head round the door in a cold call and them saying, ‘hi, this is who I am, can I leave my book?’ and leaving a card. But anyone we’re doing business with should have the respect to make a proper appointment.

Regarding the bathroom distributor I mentioned, we could do a lot more business with them. And if we had a decent relationship with the rep, we would do more. We only do the amount of business we do, because no one comes in. And this rep must have had her figures come in every month, and met her targets, and we’ve not had any payback at all.

I believe that some reps have ‘pet accounts’ where they have favourites they visit regularly. So they’ll do 90% of the business there and 10% with the rest elsewhere, but where the potential could be much greater. It’s a mismanagement of time and effort – though a personable relationship with a rep is not a bad thing, as friendship can breed loyalty.
And what I ultimately want to know is that I can call if I have a problem and get a prompt response.

Another thing that is frustrating is that some reps have absolutely no autonomy. For example, with Miele and AEG, the rep could come in and potentially do a deal with me – but with BSH, the reps haven’t got the authority to make any decisions.

Everything has to go through head office. It’s very frustrating for everyone and it means that what they may do, is offer an appliance at display rate to make up the money I might have lost elsewhere. So they’ll get around the system by cheating.

One of the most important things is that a rep should be smart. He should be dressed to do business – so that means in a shirt and tie. And whatever car they drive, it should be clean. If you’re doing business, you should look like you are. You will be taken more seriously. If a rep turns up in a dirty car and dressed shabbily, I’m going to make assumptions, and therefore decisions, about the product, based on the presentation of the rep.


‘Our rep saved the day over an incorrect hob…’

David Burgess, managing director, Contour Kitchen Design, Cheltenham

David Burgess

The usual attributes we look for are courtesy, politeness, booking appointments and showing flexibility when problems need resolving. A good sales rep needs to be available and to complete tasks within agreed time frames.

In terms of positive experiences, we recently had an incorrect domino hob delivered because of an anomaly in the supplier’s brochure. This was discovered at the point of delivery and so we required the correct hobs quickly. Initially, we had a poor response from the main sales desk, however our sales rep ordered the correct hobs, organised a delivery via courier at their cost and we didn’t have to delay any aspect of our delivery/installation.

The biggest issue is when reps show up without an appointment and with nothing to say or show us. Also, demonstrating a lack of product knowledge and not doing things that have been promised.

The main issue we have with suppliers is always associated with faulty products. This is very frustrating, as it always reflects badly on our business rather than the manufacturer, as we are the point of contact for the customer.

Few manufacturers have a quick response with service engineers’ appointments, which is important as the longer the fault goes unresolved, the more this affects a customer’s confidence in the faulty product and our business.


‘The best sales reps are the ones who know the type of business I run…’

David Hunt, director, The Kitchen Workshop, Isle of Wight

David Hunt

Being on an island, we probably don’t see as many sales representatives as mainland companies as there is a cost involved in coming over to see us.

For me, in relation to companies we already use, this doesn’t cause me any real issue, as long as I have a direct point of contact with the right person for my area to respond to any queries I might have.

The best set-ups are where we have a field sales rep and an internal account handler – both of whom work together to look after our account, as this ensures that I can always get an answer, even when one is on holiday.

The best sales reps are generally ones who have a sound background knowledge of the type of business that I run, someone who understands the issues that we face and can apply their own knowledge to our company. There is nothing worse than a rep that deals with a vast range of businesses and has the general view that what applies to one will apply to all.

My biggest bugbear is a rep that just comes in to do the rounds and can’t wait to get out of the door. If the rep doesn’t have anything relevant to report or show us, then they shouldn’t bother wasting my time by booking an appointment to see me.

I also find it frustrating when reps of companies that we already use try to avoid anything that they deem to be outside of ‘selling’. If I have a problem with a return or whatever, maybe it isn’t the responsibility of the rep to help solve the issue, but while it may not create extra sales revenue, it will encourage my loyalty towards that brand, as we always look at the service they offer as a whole.

Strangely, we are never contacted by companies about their sales reps. The sales reps are probably the most important people within the company in terms of setting the image of the brands they represent and yet they appear to be just left to get on with it.

While they’re most likely monitored internally with regard to the sales value they generate, I think that if they were scrutinised more in terms of their relationships with retailers, then these brands would likely see an improvement in the level of loyalty towards them.


‘Top tips to be a better rep…’

• Make an appointment:
Never just turn up unannounced, unless you only intend to drop off a brochure.



• Do your research:
Make sure you know about the retailer you’re about to visit,
as you might have to alter your approach.


• Smarten up:
Ensure you wear a shirt and tie and are well presented –
you will be taken more seriously.


• Keep it brief:
Be succinct and to the point about any new products you are showing –
chances are the retailer is busy.


• Be available:
Ensure the retailers you look after can contact you if they need to.


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