Some manufacturers and suppliers believe that agents and reps are a necessary evil. Others believe that they are the most important part of their business. If you’re in charge of a company that believes the former is true, then, I’m afraid to say, your days are numbered.

I have worked as an agent and a rep for the last 20-plus years, and have had the pleasure of working with both types of principal.

My favourite sort of principal takes on a sales team and values everything they do for the business, gets them involved in product development, marketing, pricing, design and exhibitions, and makes them feel like a vital part of the operation. Your sales team are the people obtaining new accounts and driving your business forward – without them you wouldn’t have a business, because before long your existing customers would fade away, leaving you with nothing.

I’ve worked for companies which are a real joy to deal with. They paid me on time every month, even before I sent them my invoice for payment. They involved me in new product development (after all, we’re the ones who had to sell it), and sent me weekly sales reports so I knew how much business was coming in and which elements weren’t performing.

They kept me in the loop with customer interactions, supplied fully-expensed show vans to help win new business, always had up-to-date brochures and swatches available for customers, and worked with me to minimise any credit problems and customer service issues. They even sent me a Christmas present each year to show their gratitude!

Because of the way they behaved, I was more than happy to give them my pound of flesh, and we had a great relationship.

On the other hand, I’ve worked with companies who were as difficult as you could get. They’ve given me incomplete information, and looked for chances to withhold commission by not being up-front about which retailers they were dealing with. They’ve taken a long time to supply me with PoS materials, withheld order report information and pay, and contacted my customers behind my back. I’ve even been charged for show van fuel.

The list could go on – but there are plenty of these companies around, who don’t like it when you increase the business in an area so much that they have to start paying you more than they pay themselves. 

A friend of mine was loyal to a supplier and regularly pulled in good commission – but one day they were called in and told commission percentages were being lowered, and areas being taken away from the agents. As you can imagine, that was the beginning of the end for them. That company no longer works with agents, and I’m guessing its turnover has significantly dropped since.

Yes, the amount that a (good) agent can earn can be a problem – but keep in mind that it is still a very small percentage of the business they bring in, and at first often isn’t even enough to pay for their fuel to get around.

This was the case for an agent I know well, who over a long time had grown their area from turning over a very small amount into one of the company’s leading regions, and was earning a good cheque from it.

A new sales manager came in, saw this, and was so jealous that they immediately made it their goal to give them a hard time – getting involved in all interactions with the office, and questioning everything they asked for. They even started contacting the agent’s customers to ask if they were doing a good job and giving a good level of service – actively looking for things which they had done wrong so they could get them into trouble with the boss.

The agent, who had been in the job for a long time, had a lot of great relationships, and had managed to exceed their target despite sometimes terrible trading conditions, should have been left alone to do their job – instead their life was made a misery, and they had to resort to visiting the doctor due to the amount of stress being put on them. How can anyone continue to grow a business with that kind of pressure?

I believe that agents are pretty good people, who, on the whole, are very good at their jobs. Obviously, there is a minority who are lazy, unprofessional, poor communicators and stuck in their ways – but don’t you find these people in every profession?

A business without a good, focused sales team will be a dying business in no time at all. Treat your sales team as one of the most important parts of your business, not a necessary evil.

Gavin Boden is a furniture sales and marketing professional.