Friday, October 29, 2010

Reasons Reps Fail

If this economy hasn’t taught us all anything, we really are doomed for failure. Nobody, no company, (and certainly no government) can survive by continuing to spend money they don’t have, or continue to always do “business as usual”. Being in a drastically changing business has given this writer front row seats to witness just how and why businesses, companies and yes, even independent sales reps fail.

Being an independent rep is still a great way to operate your own business…be your own boss…and write your own ticket for success. But like any other vocation, one can get lazy and complacent…can get stuck in a routine and be blind to changes going on around them. Here are some of the common pitfalls my past colleagues or competitors fell prey to and are, as a result, no longer independent sales reps:

Thinking vendors are your sole source of identity: What this means is that you, as a rep, tend to think that your vendors are your reason for being and are your strong point, your main source of value. Of course, vendors you represent are your source of income. But think about it for a minute: why are you valued as a rep? It’s also because of the network of customers and relationships you have. It’s your expertise in getting product placed in accounts. Why do you think vendors ask you to rep for them in the first place? It may be because you have other vendors that compliment their product line, but it’s mostly your relationships with customers they are after.

Allowing this balance between your customer relationships and vendor relationships to go too far toward the vendor side is dangerous. About fifteen years ago many vendors in the industry I am in started using a large rep firm that was looking to expand into other territories. Vendors were presented with a choice by this rep firm: your existing rep or us. Many existing reps lost those vendors, in some cases myself included. I took two actions as a result:
· I started re-examining the other vendors I already had, and vowed to work them a bit harder now that I had more free time, and
· I looked for other new vendors in slightly different product lines that would appeal to my customer base.

Some of these new vendors worked out extremely well. Some were vendors that large rep group also had, but that they were overlooking and not working!

Other reps who’d lost these lines made appointments to meet with the vendors that fired them at subsequent trade shows to basically beg back for their jobs. This would wind up being a waste of time, because oddly enough, many of those vendors would go out of business within a few years! The jilted reps would have done much better by looking for new lines at the trade show, or attending other trade shows to look for new product lines that could appeal to their customer base.

Besides wasting time asking for their territories back, these jilted reps were also presenting themselves in a bad light. Think about it, if someone is fired at any type of business, what image does the fired employee project when they go back to the company and ask for their job again and again?

Relying too much on one big account: big accounts are desirable but to sit back and rest on one big account or a few fairly large ones is dangerous as well. In economies like this, many of these types of accounts are always looking for favorable deals, lower prices…and product that may very well be those other than yours. And let’s not forget that big account could go belly up or be sold to another company who will be now making decisions outside of your territory.

A smart move when you find yourself in a situation where your business is heavily weighed in one account is to use the earnings from the commissions earned to try to expand into other territories, other account types, picking up a few new lines that can redirect you accordingly. Get into more small accounts…and then from there you can possibly move into another big account that you’ve never had a chance to sell before.

Another tactic is to try to get other product lines into that same account—not other brands of the same type of goods, but other goods entirely. Is the account a retailer that sells a multitude of product types? Most do nowadays. Are they a distributor catering to a certain industry? They have to be diverse to make money these days, so why not take advantage of your relationship with the account by selling them something else….this leads to the next point,

Relying too much on one product type: some reps see themselves as selling only widgets or microthingies—they carry tons of lines on that one product type thinking that will last them forever and they will be able to hand it down to their grandchildren. Think again.

Reps that I was competing with or selling alongside of a decade ago when one particular type of product (in our case, t-shirts) were the big commission earner, are now gone. They are selling cars or real estate or something else. They relied too much on one particular product rather than keeping their eye out for other trends that would appeal to the same customers…and better yet, in turn allow them to do business with new types of customers.

Thirty years ago it was thought people would buy phonograph records, or at least recorded music, forever. The head of the retail chain I was working for at the time had a good analogy, and it applies to sales reps as well as it does retail. He surmised that our chain was going to get involved in selling and renting video movies, where most of our competition was resisting. He said “we sell entertainment, that’s why we’re going to try selling video, whatever it takes”.

The analogy was this: in the 1930s, the railroads passed on developing and investing in interstate truck transport. They said “We’re railroads, that’s what we do, we’re not into hauling product over highways”. Last time I looked there is really only one major corporation hauling freight by rail these days: BNSF—the letters standing for decades worth of mergers that resulted in one last standing. But there are many trucking lines hauling freight over our highways—and doing a better job of getting stuff to us because not every storefront or warehouse backs up to a set of rails.

“Record” retailers that realized they sold entertainment instead of just recorded music have survived because they got into video, then video games, and any other entertainment trend they could. Those that did not, have disappeared. It’s also interesting to note even those later retailers that picked up on video when the record stores did not, but then subsequently painted themselves into a corner by not diversifying, they too are disappearing—been to a Blockbuster lately?

Nokia started out a century ago selling toilet paper…now they are one of the world’s cell phone manufacturers! So there is a lesson here. Don’t restrict yourself as a rep that only sells one kind of product. You never know how long it will last, or even if it will last at all.

You’re only as good as your last recent sale..or the ones that will be your future sales: some reps had moments of glory then they just coast along without keeping up with trends and keeping an eye out for opportunities for the future.

If you keep hearing requests from customers for product that isn’t really out there or is being offered by a competitor that isn’t keeping up with demand, get on the phone and talk to some of your trusted vendors about the opportunity that’s being ignored.

Once you’ve landed a successful sale to an account, keep up with it. Keep looking for ways to make it better. Don’t let the product get stale. Don’t let the success go to your head.

There’s probably no better example of success gone stale than the Dallas Cowboys football team. In spite of having a talented team, they continually fall way short of the kinds of success they had 15 years ago. Seeing their frustrations on the field you can’t help but feel they just don’t have the hunger required to have a championship winning team anymore.

Spending money like a drunken sailor: if you can work out of your home, why are you renting office space? If the ad you placed is not getting any quality leads, why have you continued to advertise in that magazine or website for years? If you can get around in a smaller car, why are you driving a massive SUV? If there are 20 companies out there that offer phone, internet etc service at competitive rates why aren’t you at least renegotiating with your present provider? If hardly any of your lines bother to exhibit at a particular trade show anymore, and you have not found any new quality lines at that show in years, why do you bother flying to it and renting car and hotel room—to say nothing of spending a whole week wasting time there? Cut out the fat and quit spending money like a congressman. It’s not necessarily how much money you earn, it’s how much you keep.

Summing it all up, hopefully most reps can survive this economy and emerge even stronger when it improves. Lesson learned: Stay hungry as a rep! Grow your business by expanding your customer base as well as expanding the portfolio of lines you can sell. Keep your eyes out for new opportunities—for new things to learn and profit from.