How To Choose the Right Sales Partner

We’re all going to be spending more time with our laptops for the foreseeable future, thinking, planning and curating our thoughts. With travel off limits in most countries and likely to be suppressed over the medium term and trade shows postponed many brands are thinking about appointing agents or distributors for key export markets

Deploying a new agent or distributor is an actionable step that, done well, can step change your sales and help you navigate this new world, but done badly can set you back months and even years.

It’s always good advice to think about any relationship from the perspective of the other party. It’s worth thinking about the Brand:Agent relationship from the perspective of the Agent or Distributor. We work with and are trusted by a large number of UK and global Sales Agents and from our perspective often Agents have a twin fear:

  • On the one hand they worry that if they do too well, then the client will conclude the most efficient thing is to insource the whole sales operation and do the selling themselves. In this instance, the Agent loses the business.
  • On the other hand the Agent worries that if they grow sales too slowly then the client will conclude that someone else (perhaps an in house team, perhaps a competitor) would be able to grow sales and margin faster. In this other instance, the Agent also loses the business.

So from an Agents perspective, many have a mental model of an idealised ‘sweetspot’ of sales growth – which is fast enough in terms of sales, margin and listings to placate the client but not so fast that the client concludes they should do it themselves. So, being a successful Sales Agent can be a real challenge, walking a tightrope to retain the client and all the time grow their own business in tandem. Having set up over 35 successful Brand:Agent partnerships there are a couple of key pieces of advice that I wanted to pass on:

1. Don’t change Agents just because you can get a slightly better commercial terms elsewhere.

Changing horses in terms of Agents can be problematic – you brand is in their hands and there is a real cost to change and, try as you might to avoid it, you will lose sales momentum if you change. Granted it is easier to quantify your saving in commission than the unseen ‘lost sales’ that comes from the changeover but its just as much a real cost to you. You lose the detailed knowledge of your range, the role the products play in the life of the shopper and the brand values that it brings to the category. All that goes when you change agents and has to be rebuilt.

In addition, it’s not the case that the new Agent is automatically better than the last Agent. Your existing Agents have got you to where we are and perhaps a better tactic is to renegotiate the commercials you already have rather than make changes you might regret later.

2. Don’t change if the Chemistry is right, the effort is going in, but the results are thin, get along side the Agent and tackle the problem together

We’ve seen enough times that there can be a variety of reasons, related to currency, specific category dynamics, retailers, competitors or timing that no matter hard Agents try the doors don’t open. In that case a more fundamental rethink of the product proposition is usually in order and the Agent is able to give brands valuable feedback as part of this process.

In this instance, patience and a really honest assessment of the proposition and the options open to the brands is what’s needed. Ask what’s worked well, what hasn’t worked well and what you could do differently. Hold a refocusing meeting, setting new adjusted mutual goals or look at alternatives such as investing in some more brand sales support.

3. Do Change when there is a lack of trust or clear competitive conflicts

Unfortunately, as with other relationships, sometimes changing is the right answer. In cases where there has been a breakdown of trust or where there is a clear conflict of interest, then it is the best advice to change. The brand: Agent relationship needs to be open, free flowing and collaborative and trust issues are corrosive.

We put together and help optimise many Brand: Agent relationships and our experience that the Brand:Agent relationship is a complicated one and when its an honest and transparent one characterised by mutual respect then it stands the maximum chance of succeeding.

Avoid knee jerk reactions or feeling like the grass is always greener, but place the quality of the relationship and trust at the centre of your business dealings and be prepared to walk away if you find over time that your Agent doesn’t value these aspects as highly as you do.

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