Thursday, December 17, 2009

Innovating During A Tough Economy

What can a company or independent sales rep do during a tough economy to help build customer loyalty, or to stand apart from the pack to help bring in more new business via reputation or other word-of-mouth means?

When manufacturing new products can be too dicey in uncertain times, what else is there to do?

Well, it may surprise many, but what some company sells or what some rep may offer may not be as important to an account as how. This is where service comes into play.
We’re fortunate to live in an age when technology has made certain aspects of service easier to handle and to introduce innovations.

Many companies may still use the USPS mindset when it comes to invoicing their shipments. The typical scenario that’s worked for years is this:

· Purchase order comes into the company, they enter and pull/pick the order
· An invoice is generated which shows what’s on the order, how much each item costs, and what the total is including freight costs and any other fees or credits. This will be the bill of sale, so to speak. It gets mailed to the account’s bookkeeping department, where the accounts payable crew sets it up for payment.
· A non-priced version of the invoice is thrown into the box with the goods to use as a packing slip.

Notice your mailbox lately? Read about how much in the red the USPS continues to be? USPS solutions are passe. Several companies of mine have started using a more innovative, Fed-Ex or UPS inspired approach:

· Purchase order comes in as above, and invoice is generated as above, however,
· Invoice gets emailed to the account, along with tracking information, as the product leaves the dock
· If the customer still wants one, a copy of invoice is mailed as before.
· Packing slip is included, but chances are the account will find the previously emailed invoice of more use since all the pricing info can be derived from that document.

Now, which method would you prefer? If you said the first, you are worse off than the professor that gave the future founder of Fed Ex a failing grade when he presented the Fed Ex business model as a term paper in a business course. That professor was at least a product of his times--the '70s. Obviously the second choice is more forward-thinking.

And the neat thing is: this is a small investment that will reap big dividends in customer loyalty. Assuming you’d prefer the second of the two methods above, we’d have to assume everyone else (customers included) would as well! So this is innovation that is less chancy than introducing, or even testing, a new product line.

A business should always look for ways to innovate. Wasn’t it Peter Drucker that said, “Marketing and Innovation are the lifeblood of any company? Everything else is an expense?” And Lee Iacocca helped turn Chrysler around in the ‘80s with the idea that “If you’re not #1 in your business, you have to innovate”. One would add: If you are #1 and you want to stay there, you must keep innovating.

This is just one inexpensive way a company can innovate. How about others? How about those means a rep can also use to innovate?

· Conference calls are becoming far more popular than in years past and there are companies out there like that offer free or very reasonably- priced solutions to this activity.
· Web conferences are another solution offered by technology. or allow far flung parties to view presentations on the host’s computer—without traveling, spending money renting a facility, saving time and expense, but serving customer’s needs in the way these methods can inform.
· Here’s one that sounds contradictory as it means an out-of-pocket solution for a rep, but could save time and keep a customer happy over the long run. If there is any sort of shortage/damage/credit issue that does not get resolved for some reason between a customer and an account, the rep simply writes a personal check and sends it to the account. Incidents like this may not involve too much, and they should not for the rep’s sake! But you know the situation: two or three widgets were left out of the order or arrived broken for the fourth time in the past year. These incidents are an annoyance that gum up the works at the account’s warehouse or store. Rep asks who to send a check to in order to even out the bill…and if the account gives him/her a contact name, the rep does so. This is good PR, it solves the problem, and the rep can go back to the repeat offending vendor and tell them to send any sort of credit to the rep himself instead of the company. Believe me, incidents like this rarely happen again because of the lesson learned: justice delayed is justice denied.

When times get better these types of service issues will stand out and cement loyalty. That will mean more consistent business when it counts!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Your Leads--Where (And How) To Find Customers

One criticism of my book says it should have covered more on how and where to find customers. Good point. Let’s explore that a bit more here.

The book may be slightly biased toward a supplier-to-retailer point of view, but finding and acting upon leads (discussed in Chapter 7 under the subheading “Leads”) should be similar in any business. Whether you are repping from a raw materials source to a manufacturer, from manufacturer to distributor, or distributor to retailer, or even in a direct to consumer situation, finding new customers is something that should almost be second nature.

Whatever industry you choose to be a rep in, you should be familiar and experienced in that industry to begin with mainly so you will be credible to your customers and targeted accounts. Increasingly, the way to scope out new leads in whatever field you are in is: online—the web, internet, whatever you want to call it. It used to be Yellow Pages or industry guides. Even if you can still utilize these kinds of print materials, you can easily find out what they are and where to obtain them online. (Note: one of the books appearing on Amazon alongside mine is The National Register of Independent Reps, a long-popular guide for the apparel industry).

I mention leads lists in the book; from my experience these can be OK at best and a thorough rip-off at worst. Twenty years ago it was not unusual to buy such industry-specific lists from a company that had developed some program that basically searched out leads from the worldwide web, phone directories (that were uploaded to a data base), and other similar sources. Why bother buying such a list now, when with a bit of detective work on your own computer, you may have access to the same list for free?

Travel can yield new leads—just getting in another town and looking around, or chatting up locals can help you discover possible candidates for you to sell to. Zoning laws usually lump similar businesses in the same areas, or types of areas--ever notice that? This is particularly useful if some new business has popped up since you last visited that area. But again, you can also find such info online via Yellow Pages or new phone listings under that specific classification.

If you are selling to non-retail, in other words to manufacturers or distributors, your target listing will not be quite as large as if you are focusing in on the retailers of your industry. The commissions might be just as good, if not better, since the order size may be typically bigger. In Pharmaceuticals, for example, you might sell for several companies dealing in raw materials used to make drugs, and you sell to about two dozen drug manufacturers. This is the same industry where you might take a different route and sell for a few drug manufacturers to more than 100 doctors and a handful of pharmacies.

In either situation, finding your possible customers should be something you already know how to do. There must be publications in the medical industry that are chock full of ads that can give you a clue. Word of mouth from several doctors or pharmacies might help. Trade shows and other events within the industry will be a source. These last two are still important if you sell direct to consumer; think of “Avon Calling”, Tupperware parties, the dreaded insurance salesman who asks for referrals, or Amway distributors and other multi-level marketers.

Whatever situations you encounter, always study your industry and its players online using multiple search methods and phrases. "Pharmacies-N.Carolina" or "Doctors, OBGyn, N.Carolina", "Pharmaceutical Manufacturers, SE USA" will give you results in many forms.

You may find your business drifting back and forth into a certain sub-culture of your industry. In my case, this recently involved motorcycle-related apparel. Much of the licensed apparel industry I’ve dealt with has been in music and entertainment licenses. A few years ago several of the “Choppers”-related TV licenses yielded huge sales in various products—apparel was just one of them. As that fad died down, I kept a bit of contact with the motorcycle dealers I had sold until the next possible opportunity came along.

It did when one of my lines was awarded a Harley-Davidson® license. So in this case, I did not have to go looking for many new leads. In most cases, I was merely dusting off and refreshing a sales rep/buyer relationship. Morale here: keep those Rolodex cards because you never know when you’ll use them again. As for other motorcycle accounts I was not familiar with from a few years before, well, it’s pretty easy to hunt down a website to get a list of official Harley-Davidson dealers in whatever region you want to explore.

It’s important to realize that growing your business via new customers is just one way to do it. Other methods involve selling more products to existing customers (you being an independent rep should be able to handle multiple lines) and getting customers to come back more often to order from you (sales, incentives, promotions, seasonal opportunities, etc.). It’s also important that once you have found a new set of leads, you convert them, in other words, get them to place that first order!!! Not all leads will buy from you the first time you contact them. Keep after them, listen to them, and alter your sales pitch accordingly.

“A good rep sells solutions” is as true as it ever was, and this gives a clue to another way to see your business increase. Look for flaws in your accounts, listen to their frustrations. From there, see how you and your products, or better ways to merchandise and display your products, can help. As much as 33% of my present six-figure income is attributed to such “solution-selling”.

These other subjects will be covered in the future…for now, though, try to schedule yourself to find new sources of leads at least once monthly using any of the methods discussed above.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What Time--Have We Forgotten How To Figure This Out?

This will not be a treatise on “time management”; even though there are many folks out there that need time management skills, and there are plenty of books and articles already on that subject. Rather, this article will be about the fundamental basics on how to tell time. Does it seem like nobody knows how to do that anymore?

It goes way beyond hassling your kids to wake up, be ready, arrange to be dropped off or picked up—at a certain specific hour, anymore. It happens in business a lot too, and it may be one of the reasons why it seems like it’s hard to get things done these days.

Here’s a typical exchange:
“Hello, this is Mr. Smith, and I’m returning Mr. Jones’ call, is he in?”
The receptionist, if a company has one (as opposed to a phone tree from Hell, but that’s another story), says
“No I’m sorry he’s not. May I ask what this is regarding?”
“Gee, I don’t know, he called me.”
“Well would you like to leave a message?”
(What does one say to this?!?!?!)
“Um, no thanks…tell you what…do you know about when he will be back?”
(Here it comes!):
“Oh, I imagine it will be later”.
“What time (emphasis added) later?”
“Probably this afternoon”.
Afternoon, as defined by just about any dictionary, covers at least a six-hour period from 12.00 noon up to closing time, so this answer is insufficient. Most of us will start to feel like we’re getting the brush-off at this point, but remember: Jones called Smith in the first place! And since hardly anyone is courteous enough to return calls anymore, why should the courteous Mr. Smith get this kind of aggravation?
Smith will continue:
“OK, what is a good time to call him back this afternoon?”
Receptionist says “How about after lunch?”
Oh, does everyone eat lunch at the same time, regardless of time zone?
“What time is that?”
Smith asked this question a few minutes ago, you’ll recall, and has now asked it three times.
Finally, the receptionist says:
“From 1.00 to 2.00 pm”.
Well, at least that gives Smith a 60-minute window of opportunity. He should now ask,
“What is a good time during that hour when you think he’ll be catching up on his calls?”
…But chances are good this will lead to more frustration.

Whether communicating or setting meetings, appointments, whatever… the ability for anyone to tell anyone else what the big hand and little hand should look like when they want to get something done—well, it seems to be a lost skill. And digital clocks should have made it easier, but they didn’t.

Is Technology the culprit to blame here? After all, cell phones have time on them now, and it’s automatically 100% correct time, no matter the time zone you’re in! It gets set and changes for you automatically—how cool is that? Your PC has the time, complete and accurate, all the time, down in the corner. These devices also have functions that notify you when an important time is coming up, or you can use the good old fashioned appointment diary found in any stationary or office supply store. So…What’s the problem?

We don’t need as many watches or clocks all over the place like we used to, our devices have kind of solved that problem. But we still need to know: WHAT TIME?

I would be real curious to see results of any study that investigated how much wasted communication and wasted time results with needless back and forth phone banter, emails, whatever-form-of-dialog by someone’s inability to simply name a specific time on the clock. Communication of this nature should involve only a few lines of dialog, or two e-mails—one to and one from. Why then, does it seem like it takes ten times that amount to answer the question “What time?”

The clock still has either a face with 1 through 12 going around it, or it is a digital clock reading out the current time in easy-to-read numerals. Has anyone invented a clock (that was not a joke) that reads “After Lunch”, “Later”, “This afternoon” or “Sometime tomorrow”? No, they haven’t. Clocks are pretty much standard all over the world.

Save everyone you do business with some time. Be aware how to schedule time, tell time as well as use time.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Is Your Wholesale Business Down 20-30%? Remember 80-20…

In tough economic times like these, it is common to see companies cut back on important functions of their business like service and marketing, as well as other aspects. While understandable, it may not be forgivable and could wind up being fatal.

If the old adage of “80% of your business is created by 20%” is true (it is, believe me), concentrate on that 20% wherever it may be. Now it may actually be 70-30, 90-10, but you get the idea: Most of your income is commanded by a smaller percent of another aspect of your business. So we’ll use 80-20 for convenience sake…. 20% of what you might ask? Well, it could be several things:
· 20% of your accounts make up 80% of your income
· 20% of your product offering—in other words, if you have 100 skus to sell, 20 of them make up 80% of your business
· 20% of your sales force write 80% of your sales.

In matters regarding service, from a rep’s standpoint, it’s recommended you don’t sacrifice any aspect of getting orders to whatever customers you have left and whatever new customers you can get. If you can sustain the same level of service, with fewer staff working an extra hour or so, great. If turn time winds up being an extra amount of days, but is still within reason for your industry, try for it but at least notify your account base up front with an open letter expressing apology and regret, but with the promise to strive for the same level as you have had. Whatever you do, avoid surprises and disappointments falling into the customer’s lap.

There can be competitors of yours who will figure ways to tighten up their service during an economic downturn, and if they can, they will. And guess whose business they will try to win over to their side?

When you think about it, “other aspects” mentioned in the first paragraph above could very easily fall into service topics. Things like streamlining your bookkeeping or production, while maybe not as visible to your customers, will increase your efficiency and save you money and time, both of which will make it easier to deal with you from the customer’s standpoint. Making your bookkeeping completely online can allow your company easier notification of shipping and billing to your accounts…and eliminate mailing costs when it comes time to send an invoice to an account. So look for 20% of your service aspects to improve, and it can affect the remaining 80%, yielding greater efficiency.

Now let’s look at your marketing and sales efforts. Any scrimping here is also potentially fatal as marketing is your lifeblood. If you have to adjust the amount of expenditure you allocate for your marketing, so be it, but be careful.

If you have print brochures, catalogs, pamphlets or flyers, why not concentrate on the 20% of goods that bring you your 80% of sales? Be sure to prominently mention your website, which should be a portal to all that you sell, so that if a customer or prospect is reading this marketing material, they understand you have much more to offer. If you’re worried about that huge catalog you have to publish every year and this year it will be expensive to compile, think about how much you can save by whittling it down to 20% of its normal length.

If the expense of contacting your customer base is too high for today’s economy, concentrate on that 20% of your account base. By this, what is recommended is to call on that 20% as if nothing has happened…as if the economy is still roaring. But don’t neglect the remaining 80% of your accounts--treat them to email blasts, calls every other month (instead of monthly) or whatever it takes to keep them informed. You should still try to find new accounts whenever and wherever you can. Never quit here….and if you can still keep in touch with all of your existing accounts regularly, do so…this step described here is only if the actual contact of your accounts is expensive in a way that puts a dent in your budget during tough times.

What about your sales force—whether internal or external, as in using independent sales reps? Here, cutting out 80% in favoring your top 20% producers, is NOT recommended. However, in your honing of your marketing, you may find that the top producers will work more effectively anyway. All of your sales force should be communicated to regularly during good times or bad. And the best thing to communicate to them is by telling them what exactly you are doing during this downturn. Tell them about your truncated release schedule, but that you still have new releases. Tell them about any service changes so they can, in turn, tell your customers. Stress you are available for any sort of input as to how you and the sales professional can best get results together. For example: If you’ve streamlined your print marketing and stressed use of your website…and your salespeople find your website difficult to deal with, that needs to be taken care of.

Once business gets back to normal, hopefully these cost cutting and efficiency measures will help your business emerge stronger than your competition's. These ideas can also help transform your marketing and service aspects to the point that not only will you have kept and added more customers than your competitor, but that you have done so more profitably by eliminating waste and overhead. And profitability never goes out of style, in good times or bad.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Have You Noticed It's Getting Harder To Get Things Done?

The present economy has forced a lot of us to cut back staff and give those who remain working more stuff to do. This may very well backfire and leave a company or business hurting just as they need to be getting stronger in spite of the effort to get lean and mean.
Has this happened to you? Whether you're a customer or supplier, you contact someone, agree to have a project done or at least underway by a certain date, you call back and they haven't even started. Or, worse, you're on the other end of that situation: they call you back and you're embarrassed to say you haven't had time to get the work done.
It doesn't need to be this way and for the sake of your future in any business, it shouldn't be; it better not be. Recessions and Depressions have a cleansing effect--they weed out the, um, well, weeds. The rotten tomatoes, the bad eggs, the old, lame and unfit. With lousy time management skills, lousy management skills overall, you will be weeded out. Now is the time to get fit when it comes to these vital skills and if you do, when times get better, you will reap the benefits.
Here's a few observations and ways to avoid common mistakes. Are you falling prey to these?:

1. Have a detailed checklist of what you need to do today, tomorrow, next week, next month--and stick to it as best as possible. Outlook has a scheduling function, if you like it, use it. If you want to use a daytimer, legal pad, another computer program, great. But USE them. Add detail daily--in other words, if you've scheduled yourself to call XYZ Corp once a month just to touch base, add particular details like followup on the last order you shipped them...telling them about some new product coming next month that suits them perfectly...those kinds of things.
2. As you do things on your checklist, check them off, and if you don't get to accomplish them, schedule them tomorrow, or next best day--don't let something slip through the cracks. Examine your "to do" list often during the day to make sure you're doing these things at the best time. Examine at the end of the day...did you get it all done, or re-schedule? I still use a sheet of paper with a list of things to do and I have a pencil in hand all the time.
3. When you're on the phone have a pencil in your hand and paper ready...always--if I had a dime for every phone conversation that lasted several minutes, then I asked the guy on the other end if he'd written it down only to hear "oh wait a minute, lemme get a pencil", I'd be a millionaire. But at least he's getting the pencil. Don't waste our time by not being ready when you ought to be. Have a pencil handy from the start of the call....or be at your computer so you can document what needs to be done. If you tell yourself "I'll have to remember this when I get off the call" something can and will come up, and there is a good chance you'll forget.
When you email or tell someone "OK, I'll do this" cc yourself if you have do, but do it, don't forget it.
4. Lunch-- what an absolute timewaste. I'm spoiled, I work out of my home. If I'm hungry, I just get a quick sandwich or snack and I'm back at work immediately. However, I guess we have to avoid being accused of being slave drivers, so a lunch break is something we have give employees. However, here's my major gripe: does everyone in an office have to take their lunch break at the same time? Why not stagger it a bit? The whole AP department is out and you need an invoice number now? The USA has 4+ time zones. It would be extremely effective and efficient, to leave at least one or two back at the office who can answer calls if need be--because not everyone from coast to coast is taking lunch at the same time you are. This leads to the next few points...
5. Vacation--try to have vacations staggered a bit too. Offer an extra day to employees that may take vacation during an off period. Vacations occur a lot during crucial build-up times to sales peaks too, for certain industries. Companies should not grind to a halt because some staff are on vacation. Effective management and time management means things are designed to go smoothly even when someone takes time off.
6. The Secret Key will anger your customer--by "secret key" I mean this: so and so is the only one in the office that can answer a particular question or find a particular document. If that person is at lunch, on maternity leave or on vacation, and you have a customer who wants to've got a good chance of thoroughly lousing up the customer's day. Remember this too: we all die sometime. What if someone, God forbid, passes away? Get your staff to familiarize others around them with what they do and give briefings on where things are in case they happen to be gone. Football teams always have a backup quarterback they pay decent money for. Take a hint.
7. Technology can help--if you want to have staff come in earlier or stay later, that's fine. But try subscribing them to a system of access to their work computer from home or when they have to travel. Supply them with Blackberries so they can keep on top of their email. This may prevent things from piling up and allowing them to be more efficient. Use conference calls or web conferences, which eliminate the need to spend the whole day travelling.
8. Allow for the unexpected--if you keep on top of everything using some of the suggestions above, you'll have the great little gaps in your work day that allow for spending more time on research, competitive shopping, etc. And, in the event that something happens and you suddenly get busy, now you are prepared and you don't have a pile of unfinished stuff that gets even bigger. Think of the last two minutes in a football game. Teams prepare that "two minute drill" for good reason. It's hoped in most games it won't be needed, but when they find themselves in a close game and they have only two minutes or less to take the lead and hold that lead, time management is crucial. And it is not just in the last two minutes that managing the game and the clock become important--a team that is still capable of winning will have managed well the entire game leading up to that point. Customers will remember the company that could keep its head when all around them were losing theirs, just as we remember those games when Joe Montana took his team all the way down the field to take the lead and win the game.

Many I talk to in various businesses are remarking on this same subject that I used as the title of this piece. If you can avoid having the same thing said about your business think of how much further ahead you will be when times get better as they inevitably will.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

You’ve Been In The Auto Industry For Years…And You’re Unemployed…What Do You Do?

Whether working for GM, Ford or Chrysler, dealerships, assembly plants, white collar or blue collar…if you haven’t figured out your industry is changing and will not (repeat not) go back to being the way it was ever again, you are in far more trouble than just being threatened with job loss. The ways things have been done by Detroit are about to change drastically, forever.

It’s sad when an industry simply won’t face facts. The music industry is another case study. Those that adjusted and could deal with the changing market survived and moved on. The rest had to settle for whatever live dealt them…like selling insurance instead of tunes. But if you love the auto industry and that’s all you want to dedicate your working life to, what do you do?

What follows, I hope, will be a way that perhaps 30% of those laid off from the auto industry can keep a foot in the door and eventually get back into it full time, working for themselves, making a decent living. Forget about a union lording over you. Forget about entitlements—that no one is going to be able to fulfill anyway. This 30% could amount to as many as 100,000 new jobs, if estimates to the total jobs being currently lost are correct.

In the June 2009 issue of Wired, Charles Mann discusses “Beyond Detroit”. The top down model the big three automakers is dead, he says. He theorizes that, like computer companies did in the 1980s, where many small firms contributed to the overall advancement, innovation, and development of the business, the American auto industry will have to do that as well. The new economy in many industries, including the automobile industry, will favor the small. Detroit will have to incorporate ideas from outsiders as never before.

All the myriad parts of what makes up a typical car—like the AC system, transmission, safety devices, electrical, etc. have been traditionally made and developed internally for the most part, from each auto manufacturer. What is starting to change now is that there are small companies popping up that specialize in niches for the automobile manufacturers. Mann gives example in Transonic Combustion of Camarillo CA, who are working on a whole new breed of fuel injection systems that will enable cars to get as much as 100 miles per gallon.

Rumors of such possibilities have floated around for years, even decades. But now the market is changing. Automakers are going to have to start looking at small companies that can pull this kind of innovation off. Particularly when we have Washington DC dictating what goes on in more aspects of our lives and businesses.

Now, back to the job opportunities this suggests. Sure, you can go to work for one of those small firms. No telling how long the firm will be around, but at least it’s a job opportunity and besides, welcome to the real world where a lot of us have had to deal with such frequent turnover no matter what industry we may have worked for. You may have the technical expertise to be one of those innovative small manufacturing companies... but what if you can’t afford the risk? What about being an independent sales rep in this growing field?

The day may come when the average automobile trade show will be still dominated by big booths featuring new car models, but then more, possibly a lot more smaller booths housing vendors who specialize in the niches, like Transonic Combustion. And if they are like many other industries, these smaller booths will have a sign out front saying “Reps Wanted”. Independent sales reps, that is.

Picture the possibilities for a guy or gal who kicked around for 20 years with GM or Chrysler. He or she knows the industry cold, and knows people who are still working for those firms and in other parts of the industry. He or she can represent several lines of small, innovative new firm specializing in specific parts or systems to sell to these large auto makers. If this rep can land one or two deals a year that mean millions for these companies, and make a percentage of the deal in commissions, this rep is doing pretty well financially. Well enough that he or she can buy their own health insurance and start funding their own pension.

Executive recruiter and radio host Martin Birnbach says that 70% of people out there need to work for someone else, need mentoring, supervision, to be led in their work environment. That leaves 30% who are self-starters, that prefer to “be the only SOB they want to work for”. An Independent Sales Rep is an example of this. Unlike the tech-savvy entrepreneur who wants to try to start their own firm, the rep can start to work for him- or herself with very little overhead.

The entire auto industry would do well to let that 30% loose, let a lot of them be the independent sales representatives who can facilitate the coming-together and meeting of minds between the large automakers and the small innovative start-ups. It may be chaotic, but from chaos comes change. And no one would disagree change is exactly what the auto industry needs.

Monday, May 11, 2009

5 Things A Vendor Can Do To Help Reps Sell More Of Their Goods

After a long conversation with a new sales manager at a vendor that hasn’t seen much action from me lately, I noticed she sent out a blanket email asking other reps for “Five Things You’d Recommend Us Do” to get more business. Great move, and a great topic.

Many vendors do not try to get this kind of feedback and they really ought to, be it from reps or customers themselves. I’ve seen many vendors go along their business thinking they know what they are doing but they find out too late they don’t.

It reminds me of a trip to a shopping center during the holidays with my kids when they were ages 2 and 4. I had my 2-year-old daughter in my right hand, my 4-year-old son in the left. He was at the age when he was figuring he could do everything on his own, he didn’t need hand-holding. The mall was packed with crowds of shoppers, and I kept telling him to hold onto my hand. He kept arguing. So I let go and told him to stick close.

Naturally, his attention started to wander and he drifted away in the crowd, but I kept an eye on him. He looked up and realized he was lost, and the panic on his face, the tears welling up in his eyes were unmistakable.

It’s not unlike the vibes we get when we see a vendor who’s steadfastly refused any sort of feedback for years, finally go down the tubes and out of business.

So here are five things they can do to help us reps, and by extension their customers, sell more of their product:

1. Have Marketing Materials. A website is fine, but keep it up to date. You should have print also—don’t use the lame excuse you’re “going green”. LLBean uses both print and website marketing to catalog their product and they are probably more “green” than you’ll ever be.
2. Share Marketing Materials. If you enter into a relationship with a rep it means you want access to the relationships he/she has with customers you probably don’t have. So if the rep wants X amount of catalogs or passwords to your website, for goodness’ sake, give them to the rep! Unless of course you have all the business you can handle, but then…how many vendors can make that claim?
3. Have Something New To Report. Monthly, weekly, semi-annually—whatever cycle applies to your industry. This gives the rep something new to, in turn, tell the customer. And besides, it makes you as a vendor look relevant. A monthly sale on some particular item or category among your products is an easy way to do this. Just having new releases is good, but spice it up a bit. Sales, promotions, thematically inspired stuff is good and makes customers eager to hear from you via the rep.
4. Logistics—keep them up-to-date. Not only your website and catalogs, but your bookkeeping and the way you communicate. When every other vendor is sending art and information via email with PDFs and Jpegs, if you are faxing this kind of information, a rep will tend to ignore or forget you. E-invoicing is another great new feature. Take advantage of technology to make everyone’s job easier. Your reps and customers will love you for it.
5. Respect Reps’ Images. Never, ever, make the rep look bad to a customer unless they really truly are bad and have misrepresented your product or corporate image. Even if it's done unintentionally, correct it yourself, don’t leave it up to the rep. For instance, let’s say you’ve just hired a new receptionist who is ignorant of the fact that an order a rep placed three weeks ago is stalled in credit. That customer calls to ask where his order is and the new receptionist says “We don’t have it here”. The customer is instantly going to blame the rep. When this occurs, contact the customer and apologize for the confusion. I’ve personally stopped selling anything for lines that did this—why bother when I’ve got other lines that thoroughly train anyone before letting them answer such queries? Even if it is an isolated case, the vendor should waste no time taking corrective action. Your reps are partners so treat them as such.

There are more things that vendors can do to ease their relationships with reps; these are the most obvious and any well-run company ought to do these things even if they don’t use independent sales reps.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Perfect Sales Career During This Tough Economy

There are around sixteen million people in the USA that classify their career as "sales". How many of these professionals feel safe and secure at their job in this tough economy?

Hard to tell, but I'd say many of them (30% to be conservative) either fear for their position with their company, or fear that their company will be bought out and then downsize, or disappear altogether. Also, there's perhaps 10% in addition who are self-starters anyway and are itching to branch off on their own. These entrepreneurs at heart would be anxious to leave after learning all they can at a steady job, whether the economy is good or bad. So, what type of vocation would be perfect for all these folks--ie, about 40% or more than 6 million sales pros currently in this country?

Easy: they should be Independent Sales Reps.

By easy, it's meant the answer is easy. Actually being an Independent Rep can be tough. Consider these arguments in favor of taking that route:
  • You often work out of your home
  • You can, and should, use your knowledge, skills and contacts acquired through your years dedicated to your career and industry. Being an indie rep isn't an entry level position, so do get experience under your belt and work up a sizeable rolodex or contacts list for your particular field. And don't burn bridges!
  • You won't require much overhead in supplying yourself with tools of the trade--computer, copy machine, phones, fax, a decent car...most of this stuff you probably already own or can easily afford and place in a spare room in your home to use as a home office.
  • You can start small and keep working your way up. Take a part-time job in retail or some service industry if you've been laid off, and then work on getting a few lines into some accounts you have established contacts thing you know, you have some more customer contacts, then more lines to sell....see how it works?

OK, so why should any companies consider hiring you on?

First, you work for commission only...and those commissions can add up. It's not unusual for indie sales reps to make high five-figures, up into six-figure incomes. Therefore, to the company paying the commissions, you are worth only what you actually deliver...a novel concept in today's entitlement culture. That culture, by the way, is now ruining the biggest and most powerful companies of the last century. Just ask General Motors.

Second, the company doesn't have to train you or pay any benefits or perks. You do all this yourself. But it can be done, don't worry--besides, they're paying you just to deliver, no matter how that's accomplished. It's estimated the cost of hiring, training and paying benefits to an employee is close to $40K--and that's before the employee really starts to kick in and pay for himself by being productive. If a company can get results without that expense, there is another attractive aspect of using independent sales representatives.

Established companies that are looking to cut costs in this economic malaise would be absolutely crazy not to study the option of using independent reps, even just to supplement their in-house sales staff. These same companies outsource almost everything else from payroll to janitorial services to human resources to customer care. Why not sales?!?!? If there is one plumb account that they don't have in their client lists, and YOU can bring that customer to the table, at $100,000 in sales annually, don't you think any sane Sales VP would be willing to give you a percentage of that? Even if you still hold some kind of part-time gig or "day job", that's not a bad commission check to start out with. And from there you find more accounts, and more lines to sell.

A lot of sales professionals used to a steady base salary + commissions check may live in fear of being self-employed; that is natural. But keep thinking how great it would be if you called the shots! If you work up a portfolio of several dozen lines to sell to scores of accounts, your business will grow to the extent that even if one of those lines fires you, so what? You have several dozen more to fall back on.

And you'll be helping the country... How? you might ask? Having more people self-employed means more people paying taxes quarterly. Once these people go from having taxes deducted from their paychecks (a passive way to do it--face it, one gets used to the net amount they are paid) to having to write that massive check every few months (an active way to do it), paying taxes becomes a much more acutely aware activity. And this leads to citizens who are far more demanding on the government to quit wasting our money on self-serving schemes that pad every spending bill. There's nothing more fearful to career politicians than an informed and enraged electorate.

To learn more about how to be successful as an Independent Sales Rep, read my book, available on

...And if you are a small company who needs outside sales help--the book has a lot of helpful information in it for you too.