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Guest Editorial: Sales reps are essential

Published December 29, 2020

By Ted Schweitzer

Editor's note: Schweitzer is a long-time sales rep in the Upper Midwest/Great Lakes region.

In October, industry insider Rick Vosper wrote on BRAIN about the importance of sales representatives within the bike industry. It was refreshing to have a nationally-known voice to point out the merits and importance of the job of the sales rep, a position which seems to have seen dwindling ranks and a sometimes-embattled reputation with retailers. The rise of online everything and reliance on business-to-business sites seems to have diminished this still-important job even further.

Sales reps, in my way of thinking, are just as important today as they ever were. Frequently, I make the distinction between a "sales rep" and an order taker. Sales reps straddle the razor-thin edge between serving their masters — the vendors who pay their commissions and/or employ them — and their customers, the IBD's, who the sales reps truly service. A real sales rep uses business sense, empathy, understanding of the industry, and in some cases, actual friendship, to conduct business and work for a win/win/win outcome. That is, a win for the dealer, a win for the supplier, and a win for the rep themselves.

Sales reps: present products and programs, clinic staff and — sometimes — customers, conceive of and work events with retailers, process warranties, take problems off of the dealers' plates and put them on their (the rep's/vendor's) plate, take and occasionally – even write – orders, and seasonally, even work the floor for their customers.

Order takers: just talk to the owner, manager, buyer, get their order and hit the road as soon as possible to get to the next shop. Order takers are only seeking to please their sales managers, hit their numbers and get their commissions/paycheck. Which one do you want calling on your shop?

To be sure, as Rick Vosper mentioned, echoing the sentiment of many retailers, there are reps who provide invaluable service(s) to their customers and other reps who just don't add any value, and sometimes have negative impacts on dealers. I don't know how many times I have heard dealers wish that they could dispense with using a particular rep and get that rep's commissions in extra margin on their purchases. I get that. Like any other profession/occupation, there are great reps, good reps, and reps that just plain suck, sometimes they are even dishonest. Hopefully, the latter are fewer and farther between these days.

There are, to be sure, much more complex and physically demanding jobs than that of a sales rep. Still, it is much harder and certainly less exciting than many shop people envision. I am proud to have been a sales rep for most of the past 15 years, working as a factory (employee) rep, the principal and owner of an independent sales rep business (The Q-Factor, LLC.), and most recently, as a dedicated contract sales rep, for a major company, where I was in a hybrid position. The hours were long and there is always tons of windshield time, but it is actually a great profession.

Why don't companies value reps more, both intellectually and on their balance sheets?

Most of the bicycle and greater outdoor industry relies on independent sales reps. This is the least expensive and easiest option for vendors, as they don't have to shoulder the expense of salary, insurance, other benefits, samples, travel, entertainment of customers (IBD's) and other assorted business expenses. That means that the independent rep, as the owner of their own business, or as a sub-rep of a rep agency, must bear the burden of all those expenses. And I realize that a start-up bike, accessory, apparel, or technology brand might not have the financial where-with-all to pay for all of these expenses, but what pre-supposes that the independent rep, especially one that is just starting out, also has the financial capacity to take on all of these expenses?

This is only partially, a rhetorical question: Why don't companies value reps more, both intellectually and on their balance sheets? If an employee represents an investment, such as software or physical inventory, albeit one with emotion, potential, and dedication, what makes a product manager, customer service rep, or an engineer, any more valuable than a good sales rep? Yes, I realize that there are those expenses, again: mileage, samples, hotels, food, fuel, entertainment, and then the requisite commissions, salaries, and/or bonuses, to factor into the equation, but again, this is a business investment. Is the latest software any more important than landing a large account and bringing in the sales? Added R & D and equipment are critical to the advances of products and brands, but once the products are developed and ready-to-market, who has to sell them ... the sales rep.

And an age-old question amongst sales managers and sales reps, is: "what will be the first thing out of your bag"? When the rep is an independent, the answer to that question often has to be, whatever product/line has the greatest commissions, meets the least pushback from the buyer, and can result in the largest sale. This oftentimes results in reps being more aggressive and "pushing" more than listening and letting the customer "pull" the products. Which method do you want at your shop?

It's my – admittedly self-serving - belief that if more bike and outdoor companies considered hiring reps as employees, and making an investment in them, as opposed to easily dismiss-able line items on a balance sheet, then it would result in many more win/win/win outcomes. The reps would not have to be on the hook for all of the expenses, they would be therefore freer to concentrate on promoting one brand and doing it with greater confidence and product knowledge. This arrangement could result in more consistent representation without the frequent revolving-door turnover that is common amongst the vendor/rep relationships. This translates to better long-term relationships with retailers, which results in better and more consistent sales, which makes the vendors happier and more profitable. Yes, to re-acknowledge, this is a more expensive, but more invested arrangement for the vendor, but just as the relationships get longer, deeper, and more trusting with the dealer, the same can be said for the relationship between the rep and the vendor. Happier, better educated and equipped reps, result in happier and better-serviced retailers, which again, results in more consistent and larger orders, which makes vendors happier.

The industry is always using the terms partners and partnership. As a rep, I have worked with dealers, where we were actually partnering together on events and product launches, and while dollars were obviously trading hands, this was not an adversarial situation. We accomplished the win/win/win. As a retailer and as a vendor/supplier, isn't this what we want to achieve?

Schweitzer lives in the Chicagoland area and is looking for his next sales opportunity. He can be reached at



Guess which is the rep.

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