Rep Rules: What it takes for independent sales reps to stay in the game

Dana Caraway balances a commitment to her brands with a dedication to her customers.
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A WISE MAN ONCE SAID it was impossible to serve two masters. But as an independent sales rep, Dana Caraway, owner of sales agency Caraway & Co., doesn’t have much choice. Her job description requires that she walk the fine line between catering to the brands she represents while also serving the retailers to whom she sells. For Caraway however, with her mixed bag background that includes experience in both customer service and product development, the role is not just manageable, but nearly second nature.

And that’s why she’s so damn good at it.

DanaCaraway

“She’s not working for her own personal gain,” said Dana Davis, president of Tucson-based outdoor retail chain Summit Hut, who’s known Caraway for more than 12 years. “She takes the perspective of her retailer and tries to help them be successful in their business requirements, and by doing so, she provides great opportunities for the vendor as well.”

Not that the job is easy. Indeed, the independent sales rep role is a constant give and take between retailer and brand, and it involves a lot of time on the road. At the beginning of each selling season (there are two), Caraway interacts with the brand, learning the product line and buying thousands of dollars worth of product samples. Then she drives throughout the Western U.S. with those samples, setting up the products in hotel rooms across her territory and inviting local retailers to come in, view the line and make orders. Days often begin at 6 a.m. and end around 11 p.m., after she’s driven hundreds of miles, spent hours describing new product and gone out for a client dinner.

However, while selling is what brings in revenue, it’s only part of the sales rep role. Much of the rest of the year is spent “clinicing,” a time during which Caraway returns to the road, stopping by individual retailers and helping them manage their incoming product shipments. She spearheads product arrangement on the showroom floor, teaches the staff the ins and outs of the merchandise, lends a hand at sales events and shares creative ways to help the retailer successfully sell through the items.

In the process, Caraway gets to know the stores, regions and their respective customer bases, which then influences the type of products she suggests the retailer invest in next season. “I want the trust of the retailer,” Caraway said. “We need to know the communities we’re selling in, make sure we know the staff on the floor and know [whether the retailer] has an older or younger market.”

Based on her relationships with dozens of retailers and her knowledge of their sales data, she can also make suggestions to the vendor about what items and styles do best, informing the next round of product design. “Our brands will ask us what we think are the best sellers, so we assist the brands with their forecasting because they have to get to the manufacturers so early,” Caraway said.

Despite the unarguable value of independent sales reps, retailers have seen a decrease in their ranks, noting that more and more brands are bringing their reps in-house. Perhaps that’s because the brand wants greater control over the brand message; or it may be because the brand wants the rep focused on its line alone. Caraway noted that starting up as an independent rep presents a significant financial hurdle. In addition to buying the product line, they have to pay for gas and hotels when they’re on the road.

“You’re an entrepreneur, so even though you’re working for brands that hire you, you also have to run your own business,” Caraway said. “If you’re not picking up the phone, you’re not making money. It’s my job to sell, so if I’m not selling, I’m not going to get a paycheck.”

On the other hand, as an independent rep, Caraway gets to handpick the companies she represents. Currently Caraway & Co. hawks Prana, Evolv, Outdoor Research and Saxx Underwear, and although four brands is an admittedly small number for someone in her position (she’s repped up to eight at a time before), it allows her to “give 110 percent” to each of her clients. She also places a high value on the fit between rep and brand.

“[The brand] might be interviewing us as a team, but we also interview them,” she said. “We ask about their customer service, their expectations, what their growth goals are and decide if they’re realistic for our current market.”

Caraway agrees that the role of the independent rep is in transition—and she’s ready for it.

“We have to react quicker and in more creative ways than we did in the past,” she said. “We don’t just take an order or just go and clinic. We need engagement; we need to hear what [retailers] are dealing with out in their environment. We need to return a phone call in 24 hours, an email in 2 to 3 hours. It’s changing and if you’re not giving that service, it’ll be there from someone else.”

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