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State of Retail: What are your expectations of sales reps?

Published July 9, 2024

A version of this feature ran in the July issue of BRAIN.

BOULDER, Colo. (BRAIN) — For our July magazine edition, we asked our State of Retail panel members: What are your expectations of sales reps? How are relations among retailers, sales representatives, and manufacturers?

CARSON CITY, Nev: Win Allen, owner Win’s Wheels

Win Allen

Our expectations of outside reps are that they actually stop by the shop and that they share the most current tech info about their product lines. Only a couple of them do. As a service-centric shop, we need to know how to set up items, what the options are, their backwards compatibility, and service intervals. A rep should also let us know about their target users, product availability, pricing and incentives. Instead, reps seem to be asking more questions about our day-to-day operations and how they can help "us" grow sales. I see relationships de-evolving as manufacturers lower margins, flood the market with product, increase buy-ins, and only call on their top dealers. Looking forward, I predict a shift to bike brand-owned retail stores, like the auto industry, with mom-and-pop stores in areas that are too small for the "big guys."

I believe the biggest change will be the service-centric shop model like mine. Service is the future of the independent bike shop.

ENCINITAS, Calif.: Steve Yeager, owner Cadence Cyclery

Steve Yeager

It seems like more brands have gone the route of outside rep agencies. I feel this helps keep a healthy level of separation between the brand and the rep. Any good sales rep needs to be in your corner — not just filling orders, but helping find answers to difficult questions. Currently, we are pretty happy with the majority of our reps. The main qualities of a good sales rep are someone who listens and is willing to lend a hand when it’s needed — from customer nights to shelving and merchandising product, they should be willing to help the retailer sell their product to the consumer. 

CHAGRIN FALLS, Ohio: Jacob English, owner Mountain Road Cycles

Jacob English

I think relationships between manufacturers, reps, and retailers have stagnated, and we need to get back to a middle ground as we continue to recover from a global pandemic. There is too much turnover with sales reps, and a lack of shared history breeds problems. We retailers are here to sell manufacturers’ products and our stores' brands — and we both need to profit. Let's work together. Communication is first and foremost. Reps, please make appointments; don’t just drop in. You have no idea what is going on in our day, and we can't drop everything when you show up. Please go above and beyond just telling dealers, "Yes, it could be done" — actively help retailers with warranties and credit. It’s too disconnected between the three departments right now, and that leads to more work for us and the consumers.

CHICAGO: Gillian Forsyth, owner BFF Bikes

Gillian Forsyth

The reps that I gravitate toward provide me with enough insight to help me through difficult times. I view our relationships as partnerships. If they are good to me, I am good to them. There are reps who don't do anything, and there are reps that truly want to see my store be a success. These reps are my eyes and ears in the industry. When I moved locations, one of my reps actually helped haul all the bike boxes from one store to the other (three blocks away). I will never forget that. While this isn't part of my expectations, help like this goes a long way. 

As more manufacturers go direct-to-consumer, it is creating a lot more competition for brick-and- mortar retailers. I don't see this going away and while as a local bike store our mission is to get more people on bikes, we count on bike sales to help fund our group rides, clinics and other events. No sales equals no store, period. Of course, there will always be service/repairs, but we can't count on that alone, especially in a city with high rent, high taxes, and high wages. We have already seen a few closures in our area, people who have been in the business for their entire career. It is exhausting competing with the big brands, their marketing and their sales.

NEWINGTON, N.H.: Steve Gerhartz, owner Seacoast E-Bikes

Steve Gerhartz

The only thing I expect from sales reps is a timely response to my inquiries and a proactive approach to helping us achieve better results for their brands. In the last couple of years, it seems there is better and more frequent communication, but there’s a long way to go. In today’s world, data is king, and it seems that manufacturers are either reluctant to share theirs or do not have the capability to capture it in a meaningful way. For example, most manufacturers have retail websites where customers are browsing for products. Why not share the results showing which products in a given area are getting the most hits which would not only help them forecast production but also help dealers decide what inventory to stock? I predict that the bicycle business will undergo dramatic change in the very near future, and manufacturers who are not investing in their digital infrastructure, especially as it relates to artificial intelligence, will fall behind and eventually drop out.

WINTHROP, Wash.: Julie Muyllaert, co-owner Methow Cycle & Sport

Julie Muyllaert

Ideally, sales reps serve as ambassadors for the company and products they represent as well as the shops and accounts that they serve. We expect timely communication about new products, sales programs, promotions and opportunities. We also expect occasional visits so they can better understand our shop culture, rural location, and market characteristics. Many reps meet our expectations, and some don't. For us, one factor that contributes to a good working relationship is honest communication, which sometimes involves having hard conversations. Another factor is their understanding that the relationship is a partnership: our success, the company's success and their success is interdependent. Most of our reps understand this and are working in an increasingly challenging environment. We see a lot of companies reducing outside reps and severing long-term rep relationships. There are more expectations for retailers to do business virtually and travel to numerous shows, regional showrooms, and tech clinics. In short, many companies appear to have forgotten the role of relationships in this business and are passing along more expenses to retailers. We believe that these actions are short-sighted and will not serve the company's interests or the bike industry well in the medium and long term.

AUSTIN, Texas: Audrey and Mark Sze-To, owners Electric Avenue

Audrey and Mark Sze-To

We expect that sales reps communicate articulately and cordially, and that they do so frequently enough to manage customer needs and expectations. Generally, these expectations are met. However, more experienced or thoughtful representatives anticipate customer needs weighed with company needs, and move forward with sales strategies. We think the key factors of an effective working relationship are timely assistance and intelligent problem solving with respect to sensitivity to customer needs and concerns. Due to a more competitive industry, we are seeing a higher level of service, but more austere business terms. Reps should more often consider helping to foster sustainable growth of the industry, and not just focus on increasing their own short-term compensation or revenue. This way, they will be more successful in the long run.

LITTLE FALLS, Minn.: David Sperstad, owner Touright Bicycle Shop

David Sperstad

I don't have many expectations for sales reps, so in a sense they are being met. As a small shop, we tend to be low on the priority list for most companies. I work to develop a good relationship with reps, though. They know their product, and together we get to know if their product would be good for us. They need to know me and my customers, and not be just a salesperson, but a representative of their products. Reps who badmouth other stores or brands make one wonder if they talk about our store in the same way. 

It feels as if manufacturers see us as disposable and replaceable. Yet, the reality is, brands can be replaced. We are the local face of the brand. If we treat a customer poorly, it is a reflection of the brands we have available. I've come to learn that the brand I carry isn't important. I'm the brand. People don't come here because we sell XYZ Brand, but because they have heard that we will treat them well and help them buy what they need, not what we want to sell. And this treatment is much like what I want from a sales rep.

ALAMEDA, Calif.: Larry Tetone, event coordinator Alameda Bicycle

Larry Tetone

Our rep expectations vary depending on the size of the brand. For larger brands, it’s informing me of upcoming program terms, offers and new product launches, shipping discounts, and margin-boosted deals on bikes and accessories. A lot of times my buying can go from a no to a yes just by changing some of the terms. For smaller brands, it’s periodic check-ins, streamlining my workflow by telling me about what you have seen working in the area, pre-generating list of top-selling items, and resolving warranty issues. Our relationships vary brand to brand, but what’s been surprising to me is discovering how much of an impact a company's ethos really has on who it employs. While reps come and go, I can say both our best and our most difficult manufacturer relationships have remained the same for the better part of the last decade. Good companies are that way because they choose to hire good folks, and those folks tend to care more than most about our shop and how it’s doing.

David Sperstad.
Topics associated with this article: From the Magazine

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