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New Roles for Sales Reps

Using technology for staying power and growth

Robert Bremers -- For most reps, their primary concerns are taking orders and getting paid commissions.  However, as manufacturers and customers acquire new information technologies, a rep's concern should turn toward how to prevent their own disintermediation (removal as intermediaries).  Due to the Internet, improvements in software, and a dramatic reduction in the cost of computers, direct order taking can now be inexpensively automated.  Reps can increase their value to the distribution channel by changing their roles to leverage these technologies in order to increase sales.  Otherwise, they will be removed from the channel as an unnecessary cost for relaying orders.

John Roberts, President of the National Association of the Specialty Food Trade, predicts that in the future, sales reps will be eliminated by EDI and the Internet.  In 1998 when he addressed a group of specialty food and candy brokers, he stated "The bad news is that the Internet will eliminate your jobs. The good news is that it won't do so until after you retire." Although the average age of his audience was 50+, this senior segment should not be lulled into a false sense of security.

Yes, the bad news is that new automation technologies are virtually eliminating the task of order taker and making horse drawn drays out of many long-established brokerages.  The good news is that agencies can not only respond, but those that do, can use these same information technologies to transcend to new higher paying roles as marketing and merchandising consultants who increase sales. 

Now is the time to examine how to add value to your sales efforts and begin the transformation because, the time required to integrate new information systems and build a sales history is substantial.  For senior brokers with aspirations of selling their brokerages and retiring, an investment in information systems now is the best way to assure that their brokerages will retain a market value.  At an increasing rate, the value of brokerages will be based on the value of their information and their ability to analyze and act upon it.

You better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone, for the times they are a changing: Bob Dylan

If brokers and reps are going to swim in the distribution channel, their contribution of value must transcend that as a drayer of orders.  To begin, choose information technologies that can accept and relay orders efficiently, track and report commissions accurately, and integrate with the information systems of your trading partners. The systems chosen must be able to analyze and present information in a format that provides tangible evidence for decision making and product education. 

Reps must be able to instantaneously provide marketing information for their retailers and vendors.  If a customer asks   "What items are at the bottom 7% of my sales that can be replaced by the new items that you are offering me?"  or, a vendor asks "Can you give me a forecast of your projected sales for next month?", your order management software must be able to provide answers to these questions in seconds with a clear and concise report based on historical data.  This is an important reason for entering line item details on your orders or importing a copy of the order from the vendor.  If the vendor takes the order directly and is relied upon to produce any reports, this will severely limit the value that an intermediary can add.

Two of the foremost services that a rep can provide to increase product sales are customer education and product availability.  When a new product line is introduced, or a catalog is revised, reps must be able to quickly obtain and manage this information in real-time for rapid dissemination to the customer.  The ability to hyperlink to related documentation on a local hard drive, network, or the Internet can dramatically reduce the retrieval time for product specifications, availability, how it is used, and a picture.  Be sure that your software can organize and store these links so that you can become the information resource that your customers come to rely on.

The Internet and new information technologies are dramatically changing the dynamics of sales transactions.  Agencies that respond quickly by learning about and adopting these new technologies can make the transition and even expand their intermediary roles by adding customer service value.  Order taking can and will be automated.  Order takers can and will be eliminated.  Sales reps that use information technology to improve customer focused services will be in greater demand than ever before.

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