Do Sales Reps Do Anything? pt. 4

Links to previous entries in this series appear at close.

I’d like to respond to some points Miracle and Kathleen made in their posts responding to my original post.

Miracle: The difference between retailers/reps and designers is that we are (usually) not married to, or emotionally invested in your ideas. They are there to make money.

Speaking only for myself, I don’t want a sales guy to be emotionally invested in my ideas. I want them to be invested in making money for the both of us. An idea guy will love you one season and not the next. A guy who’s into selling and making money is less fickle. I got a whole team of sales guys who love the product but are lazy about pushing it because they live in Florida and they’re making 40K a year on another label and that’s just fine by them. When I said, “I’d love to have at least one sales guy who has a great enthusiasm for the brand, leading him to work hard…”, I meant a guy who had enthusiasm for selling the brand. He’s a sales guy. He needs to sell. And help me create a better product by giving me educated feedback so I can help him sell more so we can both make money. I don’t need people who love and gush about my ideas. I got my fanclub for that. (Mainly my dad and the boy. Hee.)

I understand what Miracle means though. I meet and read about a lot of designer who are so wrapped in their dreams and concepts that they forget this is also about business. Of course, if you’re happy to sell just a few hundred pieces a year to only those people who “truly get” your concepts, these posts obviously are not for you.

Miracle: Now the problem is compounded by the harsh reality that every showroom has their cash cow(s). And a line that isn’t performing isn’t given the resources that the better selling lines are.

This is a serious issue that requires a lot of attention, and it’s certainly something that I’m currently dealing with. Yes, I can completely understand that if my line isn’t selling as well as another one my rep deals, it’s not going to get as much attention. On the other hand, it’s still about money, and so if I call my rep and ask them why we’re not performing as well as Brand X, I want an honest answer. I don’t want the same set of lies that the lazy resort to.

Case in point. Boss calls Rep and says “Call Store X. We haven’t sold to them in a while. Why is that? Give them a call, see what’s going on with them.” Rep responds, “Boss, it’s a dead horse.” Boss says, “When’s the last time you called them?” Rep responds, “Boss, I’m telling you, you’re beating a dead horse.” Boss turns to me, the Designer. Boss says “Designer, photograph about 10 styles for Store X. They like x, y, z styles/looks, so something along that vein. Email Store X and see if they bite.” Designer does as such and secures 100 pc. order in 2 emails within 2 days. This took about 1.5 hours out of Designer’s time.

My issue here is that Rep didn’t even call Store X, just kept waving Boss off. Add to that, Rep wanted the commission because it was his territory, even though he didn’t do anything. He had his chance, you know? And with our pricepoints, a 100pc order still is a very nice commission for an hour’s work.

Kathleen: It didn’t occur to me that a designer would be offended with input from the sales reps regarding style direction.
There’s this fine line between designing the line and giving sales input. I see the former along the lines of “Those are some ugly buttons.” The latter is more like, “You know, Zoe, lots of people are asking for 2-button blazers.” Some of you may think that they are one and the same, but they’re not. The former is gut reaction opinion. I don’t need it. I have my design team for that. Not to say that I’ll flagrantly ignore and shun any opinion coming from my sales guys, but I value actual data coming from the field much more. With my design team or anyone else, I want something to back up what they have to say. You want me to change the buttons? Give me a reason. “They look cheap.” “They look like old-man buttons.” “Snaps would make this jacket more hip, with the chunky zips and stuff.” Those work. Now if my sales guys tell me his customers want a particular thing, I will listen. Example: at the company I used to work at, one of the bestsellers of the debut collection was a particular print caftan. For some reason, they didn’t run the style for the two subsequent seasons. The first collection I worked on at this company, the rep called us and said, “People are hunting down those caftans you did the first season! We need to do those again!” And we did, in a different print, and they were once again very popular.

My point in writing the original post, my excitement in reading the thoughtful responses, and my point in writing a response is because I want to articulate and maybe figure out ways for sales and manufacturing to work better together. Whining gets you nowhere; articulating the problem and trying to figure out a resolution is better. (Actually resolving something would be best, but one step at a time, no?)

With the industry the way it is now, I don’t think using independant sales reps with multiple lines works anymore. Showrooms are great for people who are just starting out and want the exposure that a group showroom can bring. Having an inhouse sales team looks like the best method. I see my inhouse customer service and they’re great. Partially, they have the boss’s presence in the office to get them crackin’. Another aspect is they’ve developed a comraderie with the whole staff that makes them *want* to get more orders, get bigger orders, etc., for the whole team. It’s hard to be excited about and loyal to an office 4000 miles away from you, faces you see once a year. A lot of it has to do with finding the right incentive for people. Some people thrive on positive reinforcement in the form of verbal praise and monetary bonuses; with others, the only thing that works is the threat of being fired.

The point that I’m (somewhat awkwardly) trying to make is that I think there’s a schism between manufacturers and salespeople because they work for separate entities, working for separate goals. Sales guys work for themselves, for their own bottom line, and everyone at home base working for the company. Of course, I’m not saying every (or any) company is some weird extended family that’s super happy and singing “Kumbayah” around the water cooler, but there’s definitely more of a sense of team effort than what’s extended to non-inhouse sales reps. Common goals make for better working relationships, and in the end, isn’t that what we all want?

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. katie says:

    Here, here Zoe!

    My friend that also manufactures says the same thing every time I moan about my sales reps. She says, “I have two words for you: Corporate Sales Rep.” I am convinced that is the best way to go. After bugging my sales reps about Barney’s NY over and over again, I just called the myself and got a huge order. The reps didn’t even have a reason why they didn’t contact them. Then they of course wanted my contact there, presumably to get their other lines in. But I digress….Corporate Reps usually need a base salary. This is a problem for DE’s. To acquire someone good who has the contacts you need, you are probably looking at paying out a lot of money.

  2. Maya Meirav says:

    thank you for a fascinating discussion. I’m a private designer – i work with private clients and custom-design couture garments, so i have no experience in selling to stores.
    However, i’m planning to hopefully have my own retail location within the next 2 years (i currently have a studio at home), i was thinking it would be a good idea to sell my clothes at local high-end stores (western suburbs of Boston), in order to build up the buzz.
    i ran into this blog while searching for sales reps or a group showroom in NY, since i heard that store buyers wouldn’t deal with me directly (which, considering i’m right around the corner, is extremely frustrating and inefficient, but that’s aside the point..). After reading the latest entry, i’m re-thinking my strategy – would a sales rep really make an effort to sell a new-name designer line while they have their regulars making easy cash? and to that matter, what happened to finding the “next big thing”? aren’t buyers/reps looking for the next hit that will sell well for them?
    thanks again for educating and enlightening me and others! maya

  3. Terry McKenzie says:

    Interesting conversation.

    I’ve worked the sales side both in stores and repping a line or lines (not fashion, but the issues are the same.) I am also more a “worker bee/maker” type but learned to be good at sales.

    Jeez Louise…the “Boss” in the story above should immediately fire the rep who blew off calling the account and hire a rep or group who is more responsive. It’s bad enough the account was missed to begin with, but to have the rep out and out refuse to make the effort AFTER the client noticed–I’ve never worked in a sales situation where that would be acceptable. Maybe fashion is special?

    That aside, speaking as a former inventory/merchandising manager (basically a buyer) And as a former rep (both house and indy commission group), here’s my take:

    You’re company info, history, vision, etc. is not useful sales information. It’s marketing. If that info gets public play, great! The best marketing is free marketing.

    The “story” MIGHT be of slight, passing interest to an end customer–the person who is going to purchase your item in a store…but it’s not going to make her buy. It’s not going to make store buyers buy. Period. Customers who DO make buying decisions based on the producer’s “story” are buying fair trade goods at 10,000 Villages.

    People buying boutique fashion items are involved in creating their own, personal narrative- of success or attractiveness or sexiness or competence …or whatever–it’s all about how the clothes make them feel…It’s ALL about THEM. Not you. Never you. It’s not even about the buyer. It’s about what makes the store customer shell out the dough and take a thing home. Think about it: Aside from work done by friends you admire, do YOU care about a garment’s “story?”

    That narrative arc–your beginnings, inspirations, the history of your business, etc., is only interesting when someone writes a book or article about your brilliant career after you no longer need the publicity.

    About sales reps: The whole retail environment is changing drastically. The big ACCOUNTS are what matter most to sales reps. Those are the people they knock themselves out to court and accomodate. The big LINES –the lines they can;t afford to lose–are second. Everything else is just gravy. Incremental sales…a few upticks in their commission payments.

    Retail has consolidated into a few giant mega players with centralized buying in a few key markets and lots and lots of tiny retailers that no-one has time to visit. Those tiny players–the very ambitious ones–have carved out very specific niches and are going to showrooms or trade shows once or twice a year to be presented with an overwhelming amount of information, merchandise and, usually, not particularly favorable (for them) terms. If the buyer is not a “player” she is probably getting LESS attention from the rep than you are as a manufacturer.

    The only thing I ever found useful as a rep in mining the potential of a line or an account was good sales reporting. It was hard, if not impossible to come by more often than not. I looked at reports religiously to determine what was shipping and where. If you are a house rep, you MIGHT get those reports in a timely fashion. If you read them, they can give you an idea of the potential of a line and where you might push more product next season out.

    However, in commission groups, indivual reps probably never see that information. It never makes it past the group Principal’s desk. The principal may or may not use it to determing who in the group gets how much commission or bonus, but my guess is, the reps in most groups don’t see it until, maybe, the end of the season, only if they ask and then they’re looking mainly to make sure they didn’t get screwed on commission. (which happens a lot. Inventory management/sales reporting is rife with errors.)

    Buyers at big accounts are dealing with so many lines and skus that THEY don’t notice a specific line or product unless it does something remarkable–it totally tanks or customers start begging for it and there’s no product to be had. In smaller fashion lines, this is a recipe for disaster, I would imagine. In more mass-market, less time-sensitive goods, you have time to build up a record of turns for a sku through re-orders over several seasons. You can then use that history to tell buyers they need to increase initial buy-in quantities of a particular line next season out. We don’t even want to get started on how helpful being able to figure out which accounts are reordering what items through wholesalers and where the stuff ships to so you can establish sales history and trends to figure out how to sell that line better in the future. If the fashion industry has figured out how to do this, you guys are way ahead of lots of other industries selling consumer goods that are time and season sensitive.

    A question: Are you expecting your reps to sell or are you expecting them to do your marketing for you?

    Most reps DO see their job mainly as getting orders. If they are repping several lines, they need to learn a little bit about a whole lot of merchandise every selling season–enough to be able to present the MERCHANDISE to potential buyers and to tell those buyers why they should devote buying dollars and expensive retail square footage to your product.

    A rep’s enthusiasm for your vision or history or even for the objective beauty of your product is NOT going to overcome buyer resistance–and your reps, whatever their other failings, know this much. So you need to provide that rep with the infrormation that can help buyers decide to invest in your line.

    It’s not really the rep’s –or the retailer’s- business to create markets or to position your product or even to create buzz about it. They assume that you have already staked out your niche, positioned your line and marketed it to consumers in some fashion–ads, press, fashion shows, trunk sales, etc.

    Sales reps need to be able to tell buyers technical information about the product. They need to know what kind of marketing support you have put behind your product. They need to know pertinent and helpful sales history on your products in past seasons that indicates that a buyer really, really has an excellent chance of good sell-through. Buyers careers–whole retail departments–entire stores, even chains–live and die on product sell through – or lack of it.

    What sets your product apart and makes it irresistable to consumers? Price? Value? Luxury? Exclusivity? Trendiness?

    That’s the kind of info your reps need to be able to communicate to buyers–preferably in 100 words or less. With the best visual aids you can provide. Buyers are busy, sometimes insanely so, and often incredibly stressed. They work on a need to know basis, more often than not and they are pushing product in accordance with THEIR store’s vision, with one eye always on the bottom line. Good reps know this and “sell” accordingly–if they don’t, buyers will simply stop seeing them.

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