Do sales reps do anything? pt.3

The links to all the entries in this series appear at close.

It’s funny to see the range of opinion when it comes to sales reps. Honestly, when I read Zoe’s post and the comments that followed, I was cheering. And when I read Miracle’s post, I was cheering too. From here, they’re both right. For example, when Miracle said

As retailers, we care about what sells because we (honestly) don’t (usually) have the time to discuss your brand history and direction with the customer and if your line doesn’t sell it doesn’t matter…Where I will agree is that history and direction are important in regards to consistency and longevity. The retailer may be interested to know that you can perform or will continue to. But the school you went to and where you interned before you went out on your own– doesn’t matter. That you were inspired by your recent trip to the beaches of Bali, that’s for your publicist… Part of the disconnect is that DEs get married to their ideas and concept and figure that other people should be emotionally invested. Honestly, this all comes down to transactions, dollars exchanging hands.

This is so true. Like your sales rep, I don’t care either. Please, I love you but don’t waste my time with your vision or artist’s statement. So many of them seem neurotic or TMI . I don’t need that information to do my job for you. It’s extraneous and frustrating. I only think in pictures, emotions don’t make pictures in my head so making me sit through your whole vision spiel is worse than teaching a pig to sing. Besides, it seems the more blah blah blah, the less significant the line. Less is more and more is less. I’m pretty cynical these days but it so often seems that I’ll get this big long, song and dance and when I finally click through, it’s just ink on a rectangle. It’s no big deal.

Make interesting products and I’ll pretend to listen to your vision stuff while I look at the line sheets (I’m assuming there won’t be a quiz later). I’ll pass on the marketing stuff, tell me what I need to know. Toward that end, Miracle said:

And if you’re going to feel that your rep should give a **** about learning something, it needs to be something that will help them make transactions, not get touchy feely and friendly with your company. Otherwise, you could end up in the common situation of having a rep who absolutely adores, loves and admires your line, knows everything about it, but it’s not selling.

When Miracle says to give your reps something that will help them make transactions, I don’t know what that is. But then I remember when I interviewed that guy Pete, you know, the one who managed the feed store for my book? That was an interesting interview. Pete said that the clothing sales reps never helped them out with information that would help move the product. No training at all. I was trying to figure out what I could possibly teach a retailer myself (other than what I did in the book). Pete says that sales reps from the animal feed and care supply houses will provide lots of training opportunities, giving seminars to staff before opening hours but that the clothing people never do (see pgs 95-98).

I also understand Zoe’s take on sales reps. Zoe says

Question: do all sales reps think they should design? All the sales guys I’ve ever worked with are constantly telling us to design this and do this color and whatnot. This is not to be confused with letting us know the pieces that are garnering the most attention and dollars. If I hear one of my sales guys harping on doing red leather jackets one more time, I’m gonna lose it. He keeps telling me that he sees it everywhere, but I don’t. I try to be polite, saying the labels he’s citing is not in line with our customer base and brand. He apparently doesn’t want to hear it.

It didn’t occur to me that a designer would be offended with input from the sales reps regarding style direction. I mean, I get similar sorts of “advice” and listen with the assumption that 99% of it will be garbage -like the red leather jackets- but I’m always on the look out for the 1% that is inordinately useful. I’ve worked quite extensively with designers that I know did not mind style direction from me (although I always tread lightly) but it could be Zoe’s market. She does more fashion forward stuff. A bridge line so I can see that style can be a highly proprietary area in a company like that but I don’t think it’s as significant in other businesses. I think a lot of businesses appreciate the input from the field -assuming it’s a good rep with a good eye- because they’re in the market shopping all day so I think they see more than most of us. Still, I think everyone would agree that the duties of a sales rep are as Zoe describes them:

In my own (perhaps naive) mind, the sales guys do the selling and customer service. They set up meetings, collect orders, explain to them the terms of sale, do the necessary follow-up. The apparel manufacturer creates and supplies the necessary tools to sell-samples, lookbooks, line sheets, order forms, organization of trade shows. We get copies of the orders, we fulfill them. Next round. Right? No?

We only disagree why they fail to do those duties and how we can turn them around to do that or how to find reps who will. Loosely summarized, Zoe and others say reps are lazy. I agree. Miracle says reps need to be motivated by the money. I agree with that to some extent as well. I still think that as people, sales reps are as resistant to change as anyone else and it’s hard to make an effort on a new product. It’s an investment. I can imagine it’s putting some of yourself into it with no guarantee of return for your efforts. It has got to get old putting yourself on the line all the time. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it. Still, I’ve known a lot of lazy reps. And not just lazy ones, but quite a few not very bright ones.

For the most part, there is no love lost between sales reps and most manufacturers. Basically, we endure them. We need them but personality-wise, we tend to be two entirely different kinds of people. Like oil and water, definitely with the back of the house. Entirely different value systems. Sales reps tend to focus more on externals, social signaling -that’s their business. Manufacturers tend to be more akin to makers and worker bees, having to balance the weights and limitations of function and foundation over externals . In a work situation, the only beef I’ve had with reps -other than one spilling a cup of coffee all over a newly completed pattern that I then had to recut; no liquid was allowed on my table for a reason– is that they don’t volunteer enough information via written reporting. For example, if there’s a problem with the fit of a given style or a portion of the collection and it’s going to be re-run next season, they should write the fitting stuff down. Verbal isn’t good enough because designers don’t always remember to convey that information to a pattern maker or whoever is entrusted to fix the thing and of course rarely do the sales rep and pattern maker get a chance to chat face to face. Lamentably, few companies have created the kind of infrastructure to support and facilitate this kind of knowledge transfer. But then again, if you’re just out of the chute and gotten lucky enough to hire your first rep, you can hesitate to demand this of your new rep so I understand that too. I don’t know how I’d do that but I’d know I’d want it. Suggestions? Ideas?

Entries in this series:
Do Sales Reps Do Anything? (Zoe)
Do Sales Reps Do Anything? pt.2 (Kathleen)
Do Sales Reps Do Anything? pt.3 (Miracle)
Do Sales Reps Do Anything? pt.4 (Zoe)

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  1. Thomas Cuningham says:

    I don’t know how new lines get started at all — because the reps don’t really want to build new businesses if it’s going to be hard work — they want to sell a line that’s going to help them with a big ad budget and a pr firm on retainer as well — because that’s an easy sell. They’d rather take a successful European brand, which has tons of $ from their domestic business to finance an U.S. expansion than an unproven US label with limited or no marketing. If you’re going to make that work, you better have a lot of buzz to substitute for the marketing money you don’t have.

  2. katie says:

    It’s all about the bottom line. As a DE who’s been around for a bit, a rep put’s their draw line first because it makes them money. I learned this the hard way being in my rep’s showroom at market.
    It’s definitely frustrating to not get as much attention from the rep, but even as you spend more years manufcturing your own line you become less emotionally attached to the designs and more concerned with the bottom line as well. It doesn’t make things less frustrating in dealing with the reps, but you can definitely see their point of view.
    For example, would you spend the majority of your time and effort fitting, finessing, marking, and grading a style that has 30 units versus a style you have 1000 units on?

  3. katie says:

    sorry, I missed reading some of the post. There is a definite lack of information regarding sell-through issues from the reps. we are constantly trying to get this very important imformation from them as well as why things aren’t selling at the wholesale level. It is so important in order to work on the next season while they are selling the current season. sadly, most of the reps are strictly order takers.

  4. Jennifer says:

    As a DE in start-up who acts as my own sales rep, along with one other person, I think there’s a strong connection between the attitude that hearing all the background of the company is “blah blah blah,” and low sales.

    Sales is all attitude, and most people are lousy at sales, even if it’s their chosen job. Rather than saying they’re lazy, I’d wonder if they’re just not very good at what they do, because a decent salesperson knows that having all the background on a product gives you the personal connection to it, which helps sell it. And for a retailer to say they don’t need to know all that for it to sell is ridiculous. Items sell better if the boutique sales staff know the item, and if they can personalize it by talking about the company, that’s even better. Unless you’re selling to Wal-Mart, boutiques certainly should be interested in the background, and sales reps even moreso. It might not be something they get to explain to each customer, but it will be invaluable for the times when they do.

  5. Jan says:

    I see both sides, too. The touchy-feely background story is the ice cream with your cake. If your cake is terrible, ice cream makes it literally easier to swallow. If your cake is delicious, ice cream heightens the great flavor. So I guess a DE would need to really consider WHY s/he is obsessive-compulsive about adding ice cream to her/his cake and WHAT THE NET EFFECT is….

  6. Kathleen says:

    People are missing the point. Background/company history = good. Very good. Nobody is talking about the background and history of the company as being blah blah blah. That is useful , interesting and was so stated.

    What we object to and call blah blah blah is the mission or vision statements we’re subjected to. In real life, this often amounts to a 30-45 minute lecture of neurotic, narcissistic ramblings of one’s inspiration provided by their relationship with their boat, the weeds in their garden, the beach or the relationship they have with themselves. People will tell you bald-faced, just how incredibly talented they are and how they’ve recently come to terms with the fact that they deserve their talent. For 45 minutes. How they prayed to God about it and God said it was a gift he was giving them exclusively because he loved them. And you see their “art” and it looks like drawings from a fourth grader. I’d think God would be kinder and more generous with his gifts than that. I could link to this stuff so you could see what I mean but I don’t want to humiliate anyone.

    I do not need to know any of this stuff to make a pattern for somebody and sew it up! If I were a sales rep, I’d be embarrassed to pass along these “visionary mission statements” to anyone, much less to someone I’m hoping will write some paper. I’d try to hide this stuff lest it LOSE the sale for me. This is not need to know information! If you’re having a problem finding a rep, try omitting your artists/vision statement from your pitch. Background is good but unless you’re willing to pay somebody (preferably a therapist) $100 an hour, no one is going to listen to the other stuff willingly.

    While you all may be centered and focused, don’t assume all of your colleagues are too. I don’t think you all realize what we are subjected to. Company background and history is good and interesting and it helps to sell product. We are not talking about that. Having to endure the blah blah blah of bloated, narcissistic -grandiose- and neurotic vision/mission/artist statements is very bad. Nobody, much less a buyer, needs to know you’re this messed up.

  7. Pam M. says:

    I am pretty new to this whole thing about selling a line but I can tell you that sales is sales. Communication is the key to sales and if someone goes in and starts saying all kinds of weird stuff about a line or the rep themselves are communicating in a weird way they will lose the sale. The rep has to be REAL to the person he is selling to. It comes down to caring about the line, knowing it well, having a strong desire to sell it and see it in the store or boutique. But the absolute main point will be the communication skills from the rep; friendly, not overbearing and also willing to listen, not just talk.

    It will also depend on talking to the right person or finding the right person to talk to. It will matter if the rep just starts talking willy nilly or are they waiting for the owner or manager to have a few minutes to spend with them so they have the attention to listen.

    There is a great book by Les Dane on sales, not sure of the title of it but it used to be called Big League Sales and it has all the major points of selling that still hold true today.

  8. It feels great that I can finally have some time for discussions, Kathleen, with your great blog. And sales reps is a good one to start with my own stories. In fact I also just started a blog, too, “Fashion Solutions” and I’ll be writing up comments here on it and extend some stories as well.

    Stories on sales reps are as many and diverse as designers. In my own high fashion design and manufacturing business, from early 1960s to mid-1980s, when I sold that business, I slowly developed a great team of sales reps, one with a showroom in 498 Seventh Ave. and another with a showroom in the California Mart. I began my business as my own rep, but hated selling, even though I was good at it. My advice to protégés is never answer an ad for a sales rep, rather advertise yourself, with your own terms. Most sales reps will not take on a young designer who isn’t well established with lots of retailers, and at least some in their particular territory. They refer to it as “not opening the doors” for you. My team of New York sales reps were fabulous, and too my Texas one, but the rest were frustrating. I had no problem with their trying to design, as it seems is some experiences here in the comments. My frustration was that some were always trying to hoodwink me into shipping stores that had lousy credit.

    My problem with frustrated designers was the retail store buyers. A few were good like Neiman-Marcus or Bonwit Teller, but all small retailers were problems. Like the Chinese saying, I decided to make danger into opportunity. I would meet with the buyers ahead of season, and ask what they wanted, busily sketching to see if that’s what they mean. I assure you, I knew better than they did about what consumers would buy – from my experiences as a custom designer in the 50’s and early 60s. However, when I got to designing my line I would try and incorporate some simple little thing they said. Then I would tell the sales rep that handled that buyer, to tell her that this was HER DESIGN. They always bought it. It pays to have no ego as a designer.

  9. Miracle says:

    And for a retailer to say they don’t need to know all that for it to sell is ridiculous. Items sell better if the boutique sales staff know the item, and if they can personalize it by talking about the company, that’s even better. Unless you’re selling to Wal-Mart, boutiques certainly should be interested in the background, and sales reps even moreso.

    I challenge you to run an apparel store and still be ready to stick to this statement.

    The apparel industy is one of few industries where there is a disconnect between what manufacturers think sells a product and what actually sells a product. The industry fails to take cues from other industries because DEs are convinced they are artists.

    I’m sure you find your company history exceptionally exciting, but with few exceptions, most customers do not care much. The history is relevant in terms of quality or reputation, or when you’re selling a product that appeals to a lifestyle or social construct (for example, environmentalism). Outside of that, it’s nice reading during down time, but it doesn’t move product the way you think it does.

    If you look at computers, manufacturers provide data sheets (not lofty corporate history sheets), they hold product training seminars, they provide the retailers with archives of factual product information. Most of the fluff stories are pushed by companies who have not yet built up the reliability of sales and want their fluff stories to count for something when usually, it does not.

    If you want us to know your product, then provide the information. A retailer should know every line that they carry, but I find that DEs don’t care to inform of that. They’d rather provide you with their bio than product data sheets than to highlight all the selling points of an item, in bullet point style. If you have to sit down and highlight all the selling points of your product and all you have are stories of your inspiration and style, then you’re line is in trouble because there’s another one just like it sending line sheets and calling every day.

    While I agree retailers and staff need to be educated, there is a disagreement about the subject matter. I wouldn’t waste my time to learn, or teach staff, things that do not facilitate the sale. Staff is still on the clock for training, if it costs money, it needs to count. Most customers do not care where you went to school, how you were inspired, when you were founded and what inspired you to create your line. And most do not want to waste their time listening to it. But being able to say that you have the highest quality organically grown pima cotton that is pre shrunk and the blouse you made will last through many machine washings (because you’ve tested it), well that moves product. Saying that you’ve tested the fit of the trousers on hundreds of real women over a 6 month period before perfecting the fit,that moves product

    But I have rarely seen that info on a line sheet. Oh, and those companies that do that, well, they don’t try to sell you on the fluff.

    And the more of a sales pitch your line needs to move product, the less the retailer (or sales rep) is apt to take on the line. Keep in mind, there are always, ALWAYS, more lines to carry.

  10. Thomas Cuningham says:

    miracle — awesome post. I couldn’t agree with you more. It I can’t detail why my suit is better in real, factual terms, I shouldn’t be selling that suit. And my suit is better in construction, fit and value than the competition and I make sure the stores know it. Detail sheets are a great idea — I’ll make some up.

    I hate the whole “inspiration” B.S. but it was my sales agent, not me, that asked for “cool-sounding” model names — I mean, I call it a two-button jacket #4001, but i’ll name it after Iggy Pop if you think it’ll sell better.

    And it’s the press that is always looking for what “inspired” the collection. What a crock that is. And I can say this because I used to write for WWD and DNR, that the reason the press wants to talk about ‘inspiration’ is that, with very few exceptions, they know nothing about what really counts, pattern, fabrication, and the rest. It’s a lot easier to regirgitate the pr than it is to find something interesting to say about the designer.

  11. beth says:

    so if you’re a new DE and reps want an established line, what are you suppose to do but sell the line yourself at first especially if you’re not in a place like LA?

  12. jazzerina says:

    I’ve been really interested in this sales rep thread, especially since I started repping a denim line a few months ago. I’m in indep. contractor and I sell the line exclusively on the road.

    So, I am curious to know, what makes a good sales rep? How do buyers prefer to be approached? What’s the best way to secure an appointment when the store knows nothing about the line? Feedback on both ends from DE’s and buyers would be much appreciated!

  13. Lindsay King says:

    I have been reading these posts for a while and as primarily a CONSUMER with a marketing background, who has now branched into infant apparel, I have to humbly disagree with two points:

    1. The retailer does not need to know all about the company, nor do they have the time. A couple of lines should suffice in the pitch. The retailer is not going to tell the consumer the whole history of the designer (nor should they). What they can and should say, when appropriate, are things like, “This company is really hot!,” “This company only gets wool from sheep grown in some organic whatever…”, “They just won the designer of the year award,” They just had a big spread in W.” One sentence. Better yet, give the retailer a copy of a great review for them to put up. Consumers will get turned off to any big pitch. They usually want to look without a retailer breathing down their neck. And RE: sales to the retailer, it’s the personality of the seller that determines the outcome. (The old expression of selling ice to eskimos comes to mind.) And if a line really misses the mark in terms of design, price points, etc. the retailer will not buy it.

    2. Hang tags. I personally think hang tags are not that important except to convey company name and optional tag line. Contrary to what someone said on this blog, the vast majority of consumers do NOT read hang tags. People rarely read anything. As a writer, I can reliably tell you to commit that to memory. I buy like a crazy person, am very savvy RE: designers, and I never read hangtags.

    After I read the comment that almost everyone reads hangtags I asked about 10 friends, both couture buyers and more regular folks. ALL said they did not read hangtags. So yes, you need a hangag, but keep costs in mind.

    I enjoy this blog a lot, by the way. Very informative. :-)

  14. tigerlily says:

    does anyone have an opinion on whether a two-year old brand should/should not put its sales reps. under contract? They currently work for seven percent commission.

  15. T Schroeder says:

    We are a 3 year old line working with a Sales Rep who has been valuable in placing our young designer into the top boutiques and dept stores which as a result have put her in all the magazines with Paris, Jessica etc. wearing her designs. Our amazing rep has come to us now with a bullish contract. We love her and don’t want to lose her, but need to know the norm and acceptable in sales reps contracts. Terms (length of contract), show room fees, trade show fees, commission rate, length of termination notice. She wants us to guarantee percentage of order we will ship, exclusive US representation, advances on commission? I have looked everywhere on line for apparel contracts to no avail. Can anyone fill me in on the industry norms?

  16. fashion999 says:

    Reps seem to want the brand to do all the work and just hand them established accounts. Honestly I will not pay a showroom fee anymore. I would rather boost the percent I pay the rep, which in the end brings in much more $$ than the fee. I find there is no incentive to sell if there is a fee and a draw. I do think there are good reps out there, but finding one is hard work.

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