How to Find Independent Sales Reps

If you have a product that you want to sell to retailers, you’re soon going to need help with sales. Following up with current and potential accounts takes a surprising amount of effort, especially as your list grows to 100+ leads, which it probably will after a single trade show. That’s a lot for one person to handle, especially if that one person is doing everything else in the business. The logical next step is to find sales reps.

In my industry, brands rely almost exclusively on commission-only independent sales reps rather than in-house reps that earn a mix of salary and commission. The reps operate as business owners themselves, picking up lines of products that go together, showing them to stores that they have relationships with, and writing orders on your behalf. They will be the primary point of contact with your customer (which, by the way, they consider as their customer).

Being a sales rep is hard work. You are knocking on a lot of doors and showing the line to a lot of people before you get any bites. Bites large enough to pay the bills with a commission check, anyway. For that reason, I recommend going with an experienced rep who has a lot of relationships in place instead of someone who is just getting started or just really likes your product and wants to help you out.

At Po Campo, we have gone through a lot of reps and, in doing so, I have developed a couple ways to find reps. Below are my methods from most successful (as in, bringing in the most and best quality orders) to the least successful.

  • Ask the buyer which reps he or she likes working with. A good rep solves problems, is organized and brings new opportunities to them, which makes the buyer more willing to purchase product from her. This is easier to do for smaller shops than bigger chains, but I say something like, “I am looking for a rep that sells to stores like yours, do you have any recommendations?”.
  • Ask other brands which reps they use and have had success with. Don’t ask direct competitors, but simpatico brands. For example, I look at what other accessory brands (hats, socks, etc) that my retailers stock and reach out to them for their recommendations. Most people are happy to share their good reps and can tell you which ones to stay away from too.
  • Ask reps for their suggestions. If you find a good rep, you can ask her for her suggestions. She might know of someone who is looking to pick up a line like yours, or someone that she knows did a good job with a line in a different territory. I put this as my third suggestion because although reps offer suggestions very readily, I feel like they judge effectiveness differently than buyers or brands do.
  • Industry rep organizations. For example, I was looking for a rep in the upper midwest and posted an ad on the MWSRA site and found someone.
  • Trade shows are a common place for reps to pick up and trade lines with other reps. There’s often a message board where you can post something. Many reps have booths with their lines, so you can find one with an assortment that would work for you.
I find reps to be better at “farming” than “hunting” meaning that they will be better at selling your line to accounts that they already have relationships with. For that reason, if you know which stores you want to sell to, make sure any prospective reps know the buyers there and have sold them within the last year or so. If you’re not sure which stores you want to be in in a certain territory, ask the rep which of her accounts will be most likely to buy your product, and that should give you a sense of where your product will end up in the best case scenario.

How do you find sales reps? Please add your suggestions in the comments below.

Finally, Something Good Happened!

The first 6-7 months of 2012 were pretty good, as far as sales were concerned anyway. I went into August with a full calendar of trade shows and a new sales team, pretty certain that I’d end the year just as strong as I started it.

But, I was wrong. Sales in August, September and October were about half as much as I was planning on, which was pretty devastating. Then my sales manager left (along with much of my sales team) when it became clear she wasn’t equipped to handle the problem. Then several stores returned their bags because they weren’t selling. Then I found out that one of our most popular styles was defective and that some customers were dealing with returns of up to 30%. Then I got turned down for a loan (after I was approved no less!) and I had to stop paying myself.

Finally, today, three good things happened.

1) The University of Chicago Business School is including Po Campo as a project case in their Marketing Research class! That means I am going to have 5 MBA students working on Po Campo for an entire quarter! This is too good to be true. Knock on wood.

2) I stood up to my manufacturer. I’ve been told I’m waaaay too nice and understanding and need to toughen up and be more forceful with my manufacturing partner, otherwise I’m just going to continue to be docked around. I really gave her a piece of my mind today, and it felt darn good. My intern said I sounded “assertive”, which is definitely a step up.

3) After seeing our bottom line go farther and farther into the red the last few months, I rolled up my sleeves to dig deeper into the Quickbooks file to see if something was wrong. I mean, I know things are bad, but really this bad? Good news, I found some oddity in the file that was having the cost of goods on some items be double what they actually were. In other words, it was only showing half as much profit as there actually should’ve been. After figuring out how to correct it, I improved our bottom line by $20,000! Hallelujah! (And why didn’t my accountant catch this?)

I hope this means that I’ve turned a corner. I’ve noticed my optimism increase as well as my general jolliness. Times sure can get bleak around a small company, but finding the patience and strength to wait it out and/or pull yourself back up can be certainly rewarding.