Where Have All The Sales Reps Gone?

I just spent a week road tripping in the wilds of northern Alberta. That, in itself, is not unusual for me. I do it all the time. What made it different this time was that I had cajoled the Canadian sales manager for the biggest brand we distribute to ride with me. My main objective was to work with him to promote our strategy going into the upcoming iPhone launch, which we did.

My secondary objective was to get my counterpart to come with me and go out and meet the dealers in remote areas who sell his products for us, get to know them, and strengthen those business relationships. And that objective was a runaway success.

My sales territory, Alberta, Canada is somewhat unique for two reasons. One, it’s geographically large — 661,848 km², while only having a population of just over 4 million. That means there’s a lot of open space and long drives from one town to the next.

Second, thanks to the oil and gas industry I have dealers in small, remote locations that do big city numbers. Whether their focus is commercial/industrial and fleet sales, or residential and consumer products, that deserve not only my time and attention by phone and email, but to come out and visit them regularly.

Unfortunately, with every passing year there are fewer and fewer rep positions that cover large territories. And of the reps out there that do have large territories, fewer of them are interested in travel and regular face-to-face contact with their accounts.

I know that from talking with peers in the industry. More importantly, I know that from talking with my dealers. Up in the far north, I’m the only sales rep they ever see. That’s why taking my colleague to come all the way from Toronto to meet them made such an impression.

When I was still working retail, most of the reps who visited my store had large territories. And they still made the rounds regularly. They’d show up in-store like clockwork to help drive business, whether it was leading training sessions, or even on the sales floor supported the sales staff and getting involved with the customers.

However, as these old guys have retired, brands often replace them with merchandising associates: people who cover fewer dealers and who only deal with product knowledge training and confirming that dealers are confirming to the planograms. They also get paid far less than the pros who genuinely made the effort to help their dealers sell more of their stuff.

Generally speaking, I think the sales results are far less with that approach, but hey, think of the cost savings on compensation!

It’s great to make yourself accessible to your dealers by phone and email, and I certainly make an effort to do that too. But getting out and meeting your dealers in person has advantages that you can’t get any other way.

Industry intel and gossip for one thing. You’ll hear inside scoops in person from your dealers over a cup of coffee that would never come up over the phone. Whether it’s information that’s actionable and can benefit you, or it’s “just good to know” trying to manage your territory from your desk leaves you out of the loop on things that might be critical for you to learn.

Then there’s actually knowing who your dealers are, who their customers are and what both of them need. It’s a lot harder to get a clear picture of your dealers’ business needs over the phone. If you don’t really know who they are and what they do, how can you recommend the right products and solutions to help them succeed?

More importantly, to your dealers, you’re the face of the brand. They associate it with you and the level of support your provide them. If they’re warm and fuzzy about how well you look after their needs, when they need to choose between selecting your brand or someone else’s their feelings about you, the brand rep factor heavily into their calculations.

Don’t think it doesn’t. If you’re just a voice on the phone from a thousand kilometers away then your brand is interchangeable with your competition.