Many small business owners are faced with less-than-ideal choices when it comes time to distribute their products.
Sure, web sales are great. But in order to truly scale a product-based business, that fantastic new kitchen widget or stylish line of bath towels must find its way onto retailers’ store shelves.
For most small companies, that means relying on a team of manufacturer’s sales representatives. Once upon a time, these guys drove around with catalogs and sample books in their trunks and were known as “traveling salesmen.” Today, the term of art is “value-added-resellers (VARS),” which validates the old George Carlin routine about how English gets denser and less-intelligible over time.
Whatever they are called, independent sales reps typically have three things in common: They work on straight commission, they focus on a particular product niche and they work for multiple suppliers in that niche.
You can find sales reps at places like RepHunter.net and Manaonline.org, the website of the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association. Ask your existing customers for referrals to excellent sales people who call on them regularly. Talk to your vendors and suppliers as well: A good salesperson quickly accrues a good reputation, and vice versa.
You want someone who has good relationships with buyers, is knowledgeable about your industry and products and is enthusiastic about selling your products.
A well-versed sales person can become a terrific asset for your firm. Since they maintain close touch with your business customers, they can provide timely feedback for you on how your products are selling, where to set your prices and what your competition is doing.
Things to Watch Out for
On the flip side, independent sales reps are just that: Independent. They may represent a few dozen to a few hundred product lines. Unsurprisingly, their loyalty goes to the products that sell the best and provide them with the biggest commissions.
If a product line is well-known, easy to sell and highly lucrative, you can bet it will get their best efforts. Breaking into their consciousness with a new product that may be a tougher sell can be difficult, and if your item is not top-of-mind with your rep, your product sales may languish.
Things You can Do
You can counter this tendency by making sure your reps you contract with get thorough training on your products’ features and benefits. Make sure every rep you work with is tech-savvy, so they can take advantage of software solutions that are easy and affordable, even for small companies.
Products today are more complex and the marketplace is more crowded than ever. Where in the past, quality brands “sold themselves,” today’s product differentiators may come down to superior engineering and design that may not be obvious to the untrained eye. There is also more specialization available for more applications in the market, all of which requires more time and explanation in the sales process.
Collaboration tools, like GoToMeeting.com, give you the ability to convene meetings that get remote reps together to share tips and information. Back these tools up with a well-staffed 800 number, an online FAQ (video versions are proving highly effective for many companies) and good customer relationship management software like PipeJump and your company can succeed even if your sales force is mostly on the road – and on their own.