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Computers, compact discs, and clothing are among the thousands of products bought and sold each day. Manufacturers' and wholesale sales representatives are an important part of the sales process. They market their company's products to manufacturers, wholesale and retail establishments, government agencies, and other institutions. Regardless of the type of product they sell, their primary duties are to interest wholesale and retail buyers and purchasing agents in their merchandise and ensure that any questions or concerns of current clients are addressed. Sales representatives also provide advice to clients on how to increase sales. (Retail sales workers, who sell directly to consumers, are discussed elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Depending on where they work, sales representatives have different job titles. Many of those working directly for manufacturers are referred to as manufacturers' representatives and those employed by wholesalers generally are called sales representatives. Those selling technical products, for both manufacturers and wholesalers, are usually called industrial sales workers or sales engineers. In addition to those employed directly by firms, manufacturers' agents are self-employed sales workers who contract their services to all types of companies. Many of these titles, however, are used interchangeably.
Manufacturers' and wholesale sales representatives spend much of their time traveling to and visiting with prospective buyers and current clients. During a sales call, they discuss the customers' needs and suggest how their merchandise or services can meet those needs. They may show samples or catalogs that describe items their company stocks and inform customers about prices, availability, and how their products can save money and improve productivity. Because of the vast number of manufacturers and wholesalers selling similar products, they also try to emphasize the unique qualities of the products and services offered by their company. They also take orders and resolve any problems or complaints with the merchandise.
Depending on the products they sell, sales representatives may have additional duties. For example, sales engineers, who are among the most highly trained sales workers, typically sell products whose installation and optimal use require a great deal of technical expertise and support-products such as material handling equipment, numerical-control machinery, and computer systems. In addition to providing information on their firm's products, these workers help prospective and current buyers with technical problems by recommending improved materials and machinery for a firm's manufacturing process, drawing up plans of proposed machinery layouts, and estimating cost savings from the use of their equipment. They present this information and negotiate the sale, a process that may take several months. During their presentation, they may use a portable computer so they can have instant access to technical, sales, and other information.
Increasingly, sales representatives who lack technical expertise work as a team with a technical expert. In this arrangement, the duties of a sales representative are to make the preliminary contact with customers, introduce the company's product, and close the sale. The technical expert will attend the sales presentation to explain and answer questions and concerns. In this way, the sales representative is able to spend more time maintaining and soliciting accounts and less time acquiring technical knowledge. After the sale, sales representatives may make frequent follow-up visits to ensure that the equipment is functioning properly and may even help train customers' employees to operate and maintain new equipment.
Those selling consumer goods often suggest how and where their merchandise should be displayed. Working with retailers, they may help arrange promotional programs, store displays, and advertising.
Obtaining new accounts is an important part of the job. Sales representatives follow leads suggested by other clients, from advertisements in trade journals, and from participation in trade shows and conferences. At times, they make unannounced visits to potential clients. In addition, they may spend a lot of time meeting with and entertaining prospective clients during evenings and weekends.
Sales representatives also analyze sales statistics, prepare reports, and handle administrative duties, such as filing their expense account reports, scheduling appointments, and making travel plans. They study literature about new and existing products and monitor the sales, prices, and products of their competitors.
In addition to all these duties, manufacturers' agents who operate a sales agency must also manage their business. This requires organizational skills as well as knowledge of accounting, marketing, and administration.
Some manufacturers' and wholesale sales representatives have large territories and do considerable traveling. Because a sales region may cover several States, they may be away from home for several days or weeks at a time. Others work near their "home base" and do most of their traveling by automobile. Due to the nature of the work and the amount of travel, sales representatives typically work more than 40 hours per week.
Although the hours are long and often irregular, most sales representatives have the freedom to determine their own schedule. As a result, they may be able to arrange their appointments so that they can have time off when they want it.
Dealing with different types of people can be demanding but stimulating. In addition, sales representatives often face competition from representatives of other companies as well as from fellow workers. Companies may set goals or quotas that the representatives are expected to meet. Because their earnings depend upon commissions, manufacturers' agents are also under the added pressure to maintain and expand their clientele.
Manufacturers' and wholesale sales representatives held about 1,503,000 jobs in 1994. Three of every 4 worked in wholesale trade-mostly for distributors of machinery and equipment, groceries and related products, and motor vehicles and parts. Others were employed in manufacturing and mining. Due to the diversity of products and services sold, employment opportunities are available in every part of the country.
In addition to those working directly for a firm, many sales representatives are self-employed manufacturers' agents who worked for a straight commission based on the value of their sales. However, these workers generally gained experience and recognition with a manufacturer or wholesaler prior to going into business for themselves.
The background needed for sales jobs varies by product line and market. As the number of college graduates has increased and the job requirements have become more technical and analytical, most firms have placed a greater emphasis on a strong educational background. Nevertheless, many employers still hire individuals with previous sales experience who do not have a college degree. In fact, for some consumer products, sales ability, personality, and familiarity with brands are as important as a degree. On the other hand, firms selling industrial products often require a degree in science or engineering in addition to some sales experience. In general, companies are looking for the best and brightest individuals who display the personality and desire necessary to sell.
Many companies have formal training programs for beginning sales representatives that last up to 2 years. However, most businesses are accelerating these programs to reduce costs and expedite the return from training. In some programs, trainees rotate among jobs in plants and offices to learn all phases of production, installation, and distribution of the product. In others, trainees take formal classroom instruction at the plant, followed by on-the-job training under the supervision of a field sales manager.
In some firms, new workers are trained by accompanying more experienced workers on their sales calls. As these workers gain familiarity with the firm's products and clients, they are given increasing responsibility until they are eventually assigned their own territory. As businesses experience greater competition, increased pressure is placed upon sales representatives to produce faster.
These workers must stay abreast of new merchandise and the changing needs of their customers. They may attend trade shows where new products are displayed or conferences and conventions where they meet with other sales representatives and clients to discuss new product developments. In addition, many companies sponsor meetings of their entire sales force where presentations are made on sales performance, product development, and profitability.
Manufacturers' and wholesale sales representatives should be goal oriented, persuasive, and able to work both as part of a team and independently. A pleasant personality and appearance, the ability to communicate well with people, and problem-solving skills are important as well. In addition, patience and perseverance are needed because completing a sale can take several months. Because these workers may be on their feet for long periods and may have to carry heavy sample cases, some physical stamina is necessary. Sales representatives should also enjoy traveling because much of their time is spent visiting current and prospective clients.
Frequently, promotion takes the form of an assignment to a larger account or territory where commissions are likely to be greater. Experienced sales representatives may move into jobs as sales trainers-workers who train new employees on selling techniques and company policies and procedures. Those who have good sales records and leadership ability may advance to sales supervisor or district manager.
In addition to advancement opportunities within a firm, some go into business for themselves as manufacturers' agents. Others find opportunities in buying, purchasing, advertising, or marketing research.
Overall, employment of manufacturers' and wholesale sales representatives is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2005 due to continued growth in the amount of goods provided which need to be sold. Many job openings will also result from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
Job opportunities as manufacturers agents should be a little better than those for sales representatives as companies are expected to continue outsourcing their sales duties to these workers rather than using in-house or direct selling personnel because agents are more likely to work in a sales area or territory longer than representatives, creating a better working relationship and understanding how customers operate their businesses. Also, by using agents who usually lend their services to more than one company, companies can share costs with the other companies involved with that agent.
Unlike other occupations, technology is not expected to have a dramatic effect on the demand for these workers because sales workers will still needed to go to the prospective customer in order to demonstrate or illustrate the particulars about the good or service. It is expected, however, to make them more effective and productive since they are allowed to provide accurate and current information to customers during sales presentations.
Those interested in this occupation should keep in mind that direct selling opportunities in manufacturing are likely to be best for products with strong demand. Furthermore, jobs will be most plentiful in small wholesale and manufacturing firms because a growing number of these companies will rely on wholesalers and manufacturers' agents to market their products as a way to control their costs and expand their customer base.
Employment opportunities and earnings may fluctuate from year to year because sales are affected by changing economic conditions, legislative issues, and consumer preferences. Prospects will be best for those with the appropriate knowledge or technical expertise as well as the personal traits necessary for successful selling.
Compensation methods vary significantly by the type of firm and product sold. However, most employers use a combination of salary and commission or salary plus bonus. Commissions are usually based on the amount of sales, whereas bonuses may depend on individual performance, on the performance of all sales workers in the group or district, or on the company's performance.
Median annual earnings of full-time manufacturers' and wholesale sales representatives were about $32,600 in 1994. The middle 50 percent earned between $22,600 and $48,100 per year. The bottom 10 percent earned less than $15,500; the top 10 percent earned more than $69,200 per year. Earnings vary by experience and the type of goods or services sold.
In addition to their earnings, sales representatives are usually reimbursed for expenses such as transportation costs, meals, hotels, and entertaining customers. They often receive benefits such as health and life insurance, a pension plan, vacation and sick leave, personal use of a company car, and "frequent flyer" mileage. Some companies offer incentives such as free vacation trips or gifts for outstanding sales workers.
Unlike those working directly for a manufacturer or wholesaler, manufacturers' agents work strictly on commission. Depending on the type of product they are selling, their experience in the field, and the number of clients, their earnings can be significantly higher or lower than those working in direct sales. In addition, because manufacturers' agents are self-employed, they must pay their own travel and entertainment expenses as well as provide for their own benefits, which can be a significant cost.
Manufacturers' and wholesale sales representatives must have sales ability and knowledge of the products they sell. Other occupations that require similar skills are retail, services, real estate, insurance, and securities sales workers, as well as wholesale and retail buyers.
Information on manufacturers' agents is available from:
Manufacturers' Agents National Association, P.O. Box 3467, Laguna Hills, CA 92654-3467.
Career and certification information is available from:
Sales and Marketing Executives International, Suite 977, Statler Office Tower, 1127 Euclid Ave., Cleveland OH, 44115.
Manufacturers Representatives Educational Research Foundation, P.O. Box 247, Geneva, IL 60134.
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