Many retailers have complained recently that they rarely see reps these days while others complain that too many just drop in unannounced. We look at the role of the sales rep in today’s post-Covid market and shed some light on why the term ‘rep’ often comes with some negative connotations. Toby Griffin reports
In the famous soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the tragic heroine bemoans her lover’s surname, musing that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. In the present-day KBB world, does the word ‘rep’ suffer from a similar stigma?
Over the years, I’ve noticed how reps in our industry often don’t like to be described as reps. For some, the title appears to hurt.
As someone who has recently done a bit of ‘repping’, I must say it felt like it was a loaded term –but why is that?
It appears that the person who provides the vital link between supplier and customer, oils the cogs, finds solutions, helps with merchandising, trains the team in new products and is generally the first point of contact, has got something of an identity crisis.
‘Rep’ is, of course, an abbreviation of the word representative, and a quick search of synonyms to this title finds deputy, attorney, ambassador, minister, delegate and envoy, all of which bring feelings of status and power – a million miles away from the sometimes denigratory image and use of the title rep.
So why is there the stigma attached to it in the KBB sector?
Jamie Palmer, business development manager at Davroc, explains how the job title of rep can have negative connotations.
“Reps,” he says, “can sometimes be perceived as someone who doesn’t want to work in the long-term interests of the customer.”
Jon Earl, regional sales manager at Formica Group, says: “I don’t like the title rep – as I used to be told ‘reps have reputations’. In many customers’ eyes, reps are just there to serve, and it’s not a two-way relationship. You are also often called a rep when something goes wrong as a form of put-down.”
But these feelings are perhaps not universal with Chris Astles, showroom manager at Quarrybank Boutique in Wilmslow, Cheshire, saying: “I personally don’t have an issue with the title of rep any more than I do with the titles areas sales manager or business development manager.”
Barry Abrahams, owner of the Arlington Group, defiantly proclaims: “I’m proud to be called a rep.”
To get the bigger picture on how we – the KBB sector as a whole – refer to sales reps, I conducted a poll on LinkedIn asking, “how do you refer to the person whose role at a supplier is to visit/keep existing customers happy, and also find new customers?”
This poll question had a huge response, with the results showing that, despite the antipathy against the title of rep, it was the most popular moniker with 54% of the votes, second came account manager with 25% and sales manager with 13% came third.
What’s in a name?
So, what does the industry see as the key differences between these different job titles?
Quarrybank’s Astles was pretty apathetic, saying: “To me, they are all the same. If somebody presents themselves as a business development manager, all I hear is ‘rep’. Sometimes a title is more important to a business than the actual person. As long as they are good at what they do, their title shouldn’t matter. The goal is the same – identify new business, create relationships, maintain and grow that business.”
Dan Smith, business development manager at The Marble Workshop, agrees, stating “there isn’t much difference between a rep and a business development manager in practice, but reps are often more salesy”.
The old days of ‘repping’ have gone, as our time has to be used wisely and efficientlyJamie Palmer, business development manager, Davroc
Richard Fitzmaurice, head of sales and marketing at furniture manufacturer JT Ellis, explains why they use the title of business development manager (BDM).
“We use the term business development manager as we feel it describes well what both parties are aiming for,” he says. “And that is to develop and grow their sales and margin.”
This is echoed by Formica Group’s Earl, who explains: “The team I have reporting into me have the title business development manager, which I had changed from their old title of sales executive. I see the role as being about helping people. Helping them to solve issues and identify needs – developing a relationship.”
This approach of levelling-out the supplier/retailer dynamic is echoed by Davroc’s Palmer, who remarks: “The title business development manager is more sincere, professional – creating a relationship.”
This is what led me to wonder to what extent the perception of the role was connected with the power that the person has in their role.
Astles says: “I feel this is quite important. The representative should generally hold authority over, say, an office manager or warehouse manager. If there are decisions to be made, there should only be one person a supplier needs to speak to – the representative should know the extent of their authority and advise accordingly.”
Abrahams adds: “The sometimes-poor perception of the title rep comes from those that are given no authority to make independent decisions for the business they represent.”
Paul Doy, sales and technical manager at Callerton, finds his role is given greater respect as he “has the authority to make adjustments to our offering to do a deal. I know of reps who don’t have this and have to go away to get approval which can take weeks”.
So, what exactly are the duties that a supplier representative should be performing?
“First, to represent the brand in a loyal and professional manner,” explains Acquabella UK sales manager Rob Heredia. “Second, to bring it closer to its main customer network and follow the guidelines set by the factory, always adding your own style. It is about creating a team, but the third and main objective, is for the brand to become important to the client and agent, to achieve maximum loyalty and business from both parties.”
Marble Workshop’s Smith and Formica’s Earl are very much on the same page when describing how confidence is built, and the day-to-day practical duties, with the former declaring that they need to “answer calls, or call back before the end of the day, and do what they say they’re going to do”, and the latter agreeing “answer the phone and emails and understand urgency. Having worked in retail, I find it crazy that reps will work so hard to win accounts, then not look after them and lose them”.
Abrahams at Arlington sets his supplier representatives a challenge: “I say to every rep that comes in here, ‘your job is to tell me what’s wrong with this showroom’.”
With the many tasks, duties and responsibilities required, I wondered if there was in fact a different skill set needed for finding new business as opposed to maintaining existing business.
Acquabella’s Heredia responds to that: “Of course, both are very difficult but necessary in a trade balance. Customers already working with the products need constant renewal, motivation and keeping them up to date with the necessary information and sales tools, as well as training their staff, which in itself is not easy, but a balance is necessary and inevitable with the opening of new accounts.”
Both Smith and Abrahams referred to the two different skill sets, and the people that perform them, as being “hunters and farmers”, which is an excellent analogy. Earl also makes an enlightening observation that shines a light on this saying: “I’ve known businesses that have two roles – new business managers to open new accounts and ‘on-board’ them for the first 30 days, who then hand over to an account manager who looks after the relationship from there onwards”.
Something that cropped up again and again was the divisive matter of whether appointments are made or not by the supplier representative, with some strong views for and against the different approaches, from both suppliers and retailers.
Callerton’s Doy says: “I always make appointments but have been in showrooms when other reps just pop in, and I often get the feeling that they’re doing it just to fill in their time sheets.”
Davroc’s Palmer agrees, adding: “I won’t call in on someone just because I haven’t seen them for a long time. I like to have a reason to call, as our customers’ time is precious. The old days of ‘repping’ have gone, as our time has to be used wisely and efficiently.”
Formica Group’s Earl thinks that there can be a place for both approaches, saying: “My team make appointments, but if you are skilled at the ‘pop in’ it is fine. If done, it needs to be quick, responsive and attuned to the needs of the business.”
So why do some supplier representatives choose the ‘pop-in’ approach as opposed to making an appointment in advance?
“You hear retailers complaining they haven’t seen anyone for years or that they haven’t had the support, but when reps try to arrange a meeting often the retailer is ‘too busy’,” says Zip national sales manager Daniel Heath. “It works both ways and if a manufacturer is going to invest in field sales reps, training and in-store POS content, the retailers should give them some time to visit even if they aren’t one of their main manufacturers. Partnerships should be exactly that.”
The sometimes-poor perception of the title rep comes from those that are given no authority to make independent decisions for the business they representBarry Abrahams, owner, Arlington Group
Lucy Corlett-Shaw, country manager at Roros Hetta, agrees, adding: “I’ve noticed that the stores that welcome visits and are keen to hear about the new launches and to update their knowledge, are in most cases the stores that are the most profitable.”
Speaking from a retailer perspective, Astles of Quarrybank Boutique says: “I’ve never had an issue with reps ‘popping-in’. In fact, I encourage it. Unless there is a specific presentation they want to give or product range launch, I do like the informal side of visits. You get to know that person on a human level.”
Acquabella’s Heredia states his own preference for making appointments, but also explains why some reps may opt for the drop-in approach.
“From the point of view of the agent, it can be difficult for them to see several clients in the same area since not all of them can commit to making an appointment on the same day,” he says. “This makes it less cost-effective and difficult for them, [creating] additional expenses that clients often don’t understand or see.”
The frequency, or not, of visits is also a big topic for debate among retailers. Nick Warrington, owner of Stuart J Warrington & Co, explains how this has changed recently.
“Is anyone noticing that there are supplier sales managers visiting you who you’ve not seen for months or years?” he says. “Has it got anything to do with a tightening market?”
He also suggests that “a good relationship is long-term where supplier sales reps visit (or at least touch base) when their sales figures are healthy, not just when they decide to work further down their lists by client size/value.”
He adds: “We have suppliers who we barely spent £500 a year with four years ago who are now key product suppliers to us,” he says. “If they’d applied the ‘work down the list by value’ approach, they would have never been at the top of ours.”
As we head towards a conclusion, it seems that the title, duties and authority do make a difference in this all-important role that aims to bring together suppliers and retailers, but Sofia Charalambous, co-founder of Origins Living, puts forward an alternative suggestion.
“It’s time we change the term to something more appropriate. I hate the title rep, sales manager and account manager. How about customer relations manager? After all, isn’t it about developing and maintaining relationships?”