How to Succeed in the Changing Marketplace

Do you need sales reps? Or a new strategy? An interview with Meryl Hooker, internationally recognized writer, speaker and consultant. With nearly 25 years in sales, she brings real life experience, skill and expertise to sales warriors and companies alike.

AS: What do you see as the biggest problem small entrepreneurs have in getting sales representation?

MH: The single biggest challenge facing new and young greeting card and gift companies today is the shortage of available competent sales reps. Period. At least that’s what they think their problem is. In reality, there is a whole lot they can and should be doing to get the attention of sales reps.

Sales reps chase money. And when a company builds a sellable line that retailers are interested in, the right reps will come.

AS: When reps look for lines, what is the most attractive thing to them?

MH:  I advise my clients (who are sales reps) that you need lines which fit in with your customer base and the other lines that you represent.  For example, I carved a niche for myself in the weird humor market. If someone called me with a line that featured fairies and angels, it didn’t matter how good the line was – it didn’t make sense for my business, or the stores I called on.

You must also have a line that is adequately developed.  For example, if you have a greeting card line, you need a minimum of 36-48 cards, enough to fill a rack. If you have seven cards, you don’t have a greeting card company, you have an art collection.

Reps are not in the business of helping you develop your company. They are in the business of selling product to retail stores. As a manufacturer, card or gift company, it’s your responsibility to make sure that there is something to sell.

AS:  Would you recommend that someone with a gift line search for companies producing compatible lines, and approach their reps?

MH: Five years ago, I would have said yes. But the reality is that the landscape has shrunken considerably. The new economic landscape has killed a lot of retailers, and a lot of manufacturers. I believe the customer gets the final vote, and reps are going to pick up lines they can sell. If you are serious about growing a sales rep force, you go for the most appropriate people and let them worry about the competition.

AS: How do you see reps changing their approach to making sales to their retailers?

MH: The biggest frustration that I hear from the sales reps that I mentor, is that the old strategies aren’t working anymore. I will go on record as saying that anybody who is still making cold calls is wasting their time. There are so many new  tools available that the cold call is an antiquated way to sell in the gift industry at this level.

AS:  Are reps more engaged in social media, getting online with Facebook and communicating in different ways, such as Skype,etc?  Do you see them using more innovative ways to sell?

MH: People who are being successful, yes. The problem is that the majority of reps are still on AOL. They don’t use social media or have web pages. Have you ever tried to Google a rep? They’re not on there, nor are they taking advantage of tools that actually make the selling process easier. They are still dialing for dollars, mailing catalogs. They are not keeping up with technology. In the end, if that trend continues, I don’t see it going well. People who are embracing it are seeing results.

When I was developing my rep business, customers were sending me orders on Facebook,  posting appointment requests on my wall. There are ways sales reps and greeting card and gift companies more importantly – can position themselves in social media platforms to interact with customers, sharing content that they care about. The conversation is already happening. Are you participating in it?

This does not require you to have sales reps. Post your new designs, or a link to your catalog, to your website. Talk about all the cool stuff you are working on. Provide specials and promotions just for your Facebook customers, with special codes. It’s free. It’s the same principles of selling, but updated. The fact is that there is such a scarcity of competent and effective sales reps right now that the small companies that will survive are the ones that figure out how to sell their line themselves.

It’s the new marketplace. Social media is not going anywhere. When you’ve got companies as diverse as Amazon and Coca Cola, and your corner liquor store, who are all signing up on the same platform, it’s not rocket science to know that it’s worth paying attention to. Facebook may not be the final destination.  I hope there is some kid in a dorm room right now inventing something even more amazing

AS: So you feel that companies can be just as effective without sales reps.

MH: Quite frankly, I don’t think a company has any business working with sales reps for the first two years. It’s a disservice to the rep, and to the company. It pretty much takes you two years to figure out what the hell you’re doing.

AS: Would you say the problem reps have in embracing change is due to the average age of typical reps out there?

MH: Absolutely. There are some younger people still carving out a career as a sales rep in this industry. But what I tell businesses that come to me saying “I need a rep”, I respond, “No, you need to learn to sell your line.”

There is unprecedented change going on the industry. Selling is not a dirty word – it’s about doing business with your friends. If you are an artist of any type and asking people for money for your product, you are in sales. It doesn’t matter whether you do one-of-a-kind paintings or whether you have a line of 150 greeting cards. That commercial exchange equals selling. It is so important not to be afraid of that process. It can be intimidating. Rejection is hard.

Understand your market. Don’t go too deep too fast. You may have a terrific first run on your orders, but if nobody reorders, who cares?

AS: That’s true, it’s not about the initial sale. It’s all about repeat orders – that’s where your bread and butter is.

MH: Exactly. But what’s happening right now is a tremendous resistance to anything that is not proven, or anything that is experimental. That is just reality.

AS: Any other thoughts on how small entrepreneurs can become successful in this climate?

MH: Know that you don’t have to do this alone. There are so many resources available, not only through discussion groups on LinkedIn, but also through enlisting the help of industry experts. You can flush $5,000 trying to figure it out on your own, or you can invest a percentage of that working with somebody who can actually cut your learning curve in half and help you start making money sooner. You don’t have to fake it. It behooves you to not do that. Seek out help and ask questions.

Join Meryl for an event on October 10, 2011 at 11:00 a.m. Eastern time. This concentrated teleclass session discusses effective ways to utilize social media to identify, make real connections and build relationships with your active and prospective customers.

Comments

  1. Thanks Meryl,

    You’ve confirmed for me a lot of what I had thought.

    I had been trying to break into the gift industry with my wall decor line, but quickly realised I was trying to run before I walked, and that retailers were sticking to tried and proven lines.

    I’m now focus on interacting directly with my target audience via Facebook, and like you said learning to sell my line. I’m starting to get repeat and referral business from being more engaged.

    Thank you both. I’m going to print this so I can refer to it when I need to.

    Ali

  2. Enlightening and helpful article!

  3. After selling my hand-crafted cards for years I signed on with a rep who I saw at places I knew my line would do well in. This two year collaboration has allowed me to place my brand in some of the most prestigious stores around the world. At this point I feel I’ve learned a lot about my new customer base and learned even more about my creative process and key times to push new and seasonal lines. My rep doesn’t have any social network activity but when they find me there they ask why? I now feel ready to fly on my own.

  4. Alton, you have experienced the power of using reps – who can give you exposure exponentially in places and accounts where you would not have had access.

    As a former card rep myself, I have been involved with many lines where I was able to give a huge boost in sales volume. The most important thing is the the rep believes in your line – and this reflects their relationship with you.

    Your rep should be on social media – and communicating with their accounts in new and innovative ways – if they want to become more successful. However, many reps are still “old-school” and do business in a traditional model. This works for many buyers, but so many people are online these days, that it pays to have all your bases covered!

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