Reps – still the best way to support retailers? 

Brands admit that it has been a challenge to get retailer communication right in a post-Covid market, but that a mix of in-person and digital communication is likely going to be the norm in future.

Speaking anecdotally to kbbreview, many retailers have expressed frustration that they are receiving fewer in-person visits from their sales reps, and feel like communication from suppliers has changed for the worst in recent years.

Bill Miller, managing director of the KBBG says he is “saddened” by the reduction in sales reps in the last few years. He explained: “That face-to-face, regular contact has greatly reduced, which leaves the retailer more on their own. They get frustrated when they sell a product only discover it has been discontinued or the price has changed.”

Miller said he hopes that, as the market begins to improve, suppliers will begin to re-employ more field sales managers. However, he said there is “no evidence of that happening yet”.

Martin Murphy, managing director of Flair and Sanbra Group believes that relationships are the lifeblood of the industry, but agreed that it is very hard to maintain them using technology alone.

He said: “We rely heavily on our sales teams to develop relationships with independent retailers and that is a growing area of our business. We have sales reps and a full team of service engineers on the ground driving branded vans, doing showroom fitouts and consumer service calls, and they are like another team of sales reps.”

However, the founder of Sensio Lighting, Michael Linsky, says he “passionately hates” software like Microsoft Teams for business, saying he believes it “makes us lazy and it loses an element of interaction and the emotions”.

He further explained: “There is a huge amount of value in being able to build relationships and being able to talk face to face and I don’t want people to think we don’t value them. We are building a merchandising team now to provide face to face support and give them value. The game has changed for us and we are more focused on face to face than before.”

David Morris, sales director at MHK, argued that suppliers are learning to strike a balance between in-person and digital communication. “It’s that combination of old-school, but also you need to use your time wisely. You can’t travel for three hours to visit one customer. I accept all of those issues, but it’s about time management but also being in front of those customers. That personal touch is still gold too.”

Morris believes that as well as communication between retailers and suppliers, retailers are also better at communicating with each other to solve their problems, too. “One of the methods we use is we have a whatsapp group among members, and we introduced it 18 months ago, and I was really nervous about what would come out of it, but we’re a real community. But people love to log on and give advice. We get retailers swapping tips about suppliers. I tell area sales managers about that and they’re quite surprised.”

Matt Phillips, head of UK operations, Rotpunkt, agrees that a personal touch is still important, and says that his company has listened to its retailer partners and employed more sales staff to help satifsfy retailers who miss the in-person communication they received from sales staff before Covid. “Since August, we’ve taken on two more sales staff. So we’ve got more feet on the ground. So actually our customers are getting more regular visits.

He also recognises the need for digital solutions to supplier communication. “We’ve got a customer relations manager who works remotely for training and support, so she’s there to help our retailers who like that remote contact, but more sales managers who can go and offer that in-person support. We’re very much still into the personal touch. People buy from people, and I like my guys to be as visible as possible. As far as I’m concerned, that’ll always be a key concern of ours moving forward.”

Richard Curtis, managing director of Hafele UK, believes suppliers now need to adopt a multi-faceted approach to their communication styles, as different retailers will have varying needs and preferences.

“For some of our customers, a phone call is better than a visit, so we have internal salespeople at our Rugby HQ but they complement our reps that are out on the road, not instead of,” Curtis says.

“We still have the same number of reps on the road meeting our retail partners and having conversations about innovation. But we also have inbound sales teams as well – they’re not a replacement.”

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