February 2008
The case of the disappearing sales reps
The industry is changing and it requires certain sales skills. Not everyone will cut it.
If you were to ask most printing-company owners to choose only one employee to add to their company, who do you think they would want? The answer, nine times out of 10, would be one good sales rep. If you look at the help-wanted ads, the number-one position companies are looking for is sales reps. On, the industry online job board, at times the number of sales positions posted outstrips all other positions combined. Stories abound of companies stealing sales reps from other companies. You would think that with sales reps being in such high demand and with all those opportunities available, there should be a stampede of people rushing into printing sales.

In reality, the opposite seems to be happening. The number of sales reps in this industry is declining. Printing companies are cutting sales reps more quickly than before. One of the largest printers in Canada cut back on its sales compensation package. One printer I know who used to have 14 sales reps, scaled back to four commissioned sales reps and is quite happy with the move.
Things have changed dramatically during the last 10 years. You used to have two types of sales reps. The first were the relationship sellers who wined and dined clients. They were great buddies with all their customers. The second were the knowledge-based sales reps, the unpaid consultants. These reps brought value to clients with their ability to solve problems. They were able to maximize the value of printing for customers. Most sales reps actually fit somewhere in between the two extremes.

What’s changed is that many printing customers don’t need the first type of sales rep anymore. At the very least, they don’t have time to be wined and dined. But most important of all, they can find what they want on the Internet in less time. If you look at the really fast-growing companies in the printing industry, many of them are Internet based. The most obvious is Vistaprint which, in less than 10 years, has grown to more than US$250 million in annual sales. Other companies such as Pay for Less Printing, Pelican Printing and Amazing Print all seem to be doing well and are Internet based. They’ve eliminated sales reps by selling printing that doesn’t require a lot of knowledge to buy. These Internet-based printers need sharper marketing and search-engine optimization skills, for example, but they don’t need sales reps, and in particular, they don’t need relationship sellers.

Of course, not all printing can be bought over the Internet. Some printing requires a lot of knowledge and hand holding. You can’t just click a couple of buttons on a computer screen and get an annual report. Catalogues and magazines entail looking after many details that, if messed up, could be disastrous. And, with the push by some customers for distinctive ways of standing out from their competitors, there’s pressure on sales reps to be more knowledgeable than ever. The proliferation of different printing techniques such as lenticular, waterless, UV, stochastic, MetalFX, and hexachrome, is doing the same thing. The net results are that clients need sales reps who really know their stuff and really understand their needs.
The fundamental issue is that just any sales rep won’t do anymore. Only the really good ones, the expert, knowledgeable, consultant type—the ones who know so much that they are an asset to their clients—will do. The relationship-seller is disappearing into the sunset.
Alexander Donald is the publisher of Graphic Monthly Canada.
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