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Rosie Trow’s Agent Tips

Agents - Understanding These Strange Beasts!

Talk by Rosie Trow, independent agent covering the South West, The Ladder Club Seminar September 16 2005

The role of an agent

There is a strange breed of human beings out there called agents. These should not be feared, they don’t bite (very often!) and are a specialist publisher’s route to the consumer.

Put succinctly, an agent is an independent sales person who represents a number of different companies in a predetermined geographical area. They are paid by the companies they represent on a commission basis, determined by the level of sales attained.

For the majority of specialist publishers, agents are your eyes, ears and cash generators. You need to understand how agents work – and they need to understand and trust you!

Conquering the UK

You will need to find around 12 agents in order to adequately cover the UK. The norm is to find an agent for each of the following geographical areas: London, South East,

Home Counties, South West, East Anglia, Midlands, Wales, Midlands, North East, North West, Scotland, Ireland.

The money bit

Agents are paid on commission based on the trade value of orders taken. Card publishers generally pay agents a commission of between 15%-20%. In some cases small publishers opt for the higher commission figure of 20% in the belief that it will mean that their products will be shown to the retailer in advance of other companies products. This, however, is not necessarily the case. Consider paying a lower commission rate but then also build in incentives for agents to achieve a higher rate on promotions, higher value orders, new customers etc.

You will be expected to pay your agents their commission promptly, in the month following when the order was taken. eg On orders taken in September by the agents, commission should be paid to the agents in October.

The procedure is that an agent will submit an order to the publisher for processing and distribution of the stock. The publisher then sends the agent a receipt of all orders sent to the retailers (the value of this receipt may differ from the original order due to out of stocks). The agent then submits an official invoice to the publisher for his/her commission to be paid promptly. And everybody is happy!

In the unhappy situation of a bad debt or a retailer not settling the invoice, after around 90 days (when the debt collector is generally called in), the publisher has the right to ‘claw back’ the commission paid to the agent by the publisher on that account. This amount is generally offset against commission owed to the agent for that month.

The scary legalities

There are laws that can make employing an agent sound very scary. But common sense and foresight eradicates much of this fear. You should have a contract with your agents, that way each side knows what is expected of them. However, when you first start working with an agent, you could suggest a three month trial period. This will allow you and the agent a cushion of time to get to know each other and to find out whether it is a good ‘fit’ between your products and the agent’s portfolio/customer base. By the end of this three month period you should ask the agent to sign a contract or give notice of termination. (The GCA, through its legal partners, has a draft contract that is on offer to members for a fee).

Common sense tells you that an agent will not want to be carrying a range he/she cannot sell. There may be some unscrupulous agents out there, but the vast majority are great. This is a small industry and good news and bad news travel very fast!

How To Choose An Agent

There are no hard and fast rules about finding your perfect agents. There will always be an element of 'trial and error'. You can find possible agents through a combination of asking retailers for their recommendations, asking other agents, advertising in PG or on your stand at exhibitions.

When selecting an agent, a publisher needs to consider the agent may be the only person that the retailer sees from their company. First impressions count. An agent needs to be sociable, adaptable, able to hide annoyance, have a sense of humour, be able to understand a retailer’s business, but is also able to sell.

Some useful guidelines:

  • Find out what other companies they represent  - An agent's portfolio or 'bag' as it is commonly known, needs to tell a story so that the retailer is presented with a choice of products - and not repetitive competitors.
  • Food For Thought – what ‘recipe’ does the agent follow?
    • Good Recipe
    • Flour (Trend)
    • Butter (Humour)
    • Eggs (Art)
    • Milk (Sentiment)
    • Sugar (Gift range)
    • Not So Good Recipe
    • White Sugar (Handmade)
    • Brown Sugar (Hand-Finished)
    • Castor Sugar (More Handmade)
    • Demerara Sugar (More Hand-Finished)
  • Find out what type of outlets they call on
    You (probably) want your products represented across the UK. An agent should have no pre-conceived idea as to where it will sell. A town is made up of gift shops, card shops, bookshops, galleries, department store, post office, newsagents and somewhere a mile out will be a garden centre or a tourist attraction. One or more of these should be a customer.
  • Find out how often they call on each customer
    This can depend on the size of the retail account but should be an average of five times a year or more. Frequent visits are the only way to keep your product in the retailer's shop. If it sells through quickly it becomes out of sight out of mind.
  • Find out that level of sales they think they can do for you in their area
    Every agent should have a rough idea. For example, working on an average of 150 customers per a territory with just 50 of these accounts stocking your range(s) would give you:
    • 50 x 5 times a year visits
    • x a carriage paid order of £150
    • = £37,500 in a first year.
  • Find out if the geographical area you want covered is exactly what that agent covers for all the companies they represent
    A business-minded agent would want to secure the same area for all the companies they represent. This will enable them the agent to maximise the sales from the area at all times. Eg. If an agent is carrying all companies in counties A,B,C,D,E but only counties A,B,C for you, you effectively lose 2 days a week opportunities of obtaining orders.
  • Find out their attitude to helping you at trade shows
    It is perfectly acceptable to ask that an agent spends some of his/her time to help you man a stand at a trade show. (Trade shows also offer you the opportunity to arrange a ‘get together’ with your other agents).

Inside the head of an agent

  • We are all freelance and until we sell something we don't get an income.
  • We have a defined territory where we agree to represent companies to independent retailers in this area.
  • We maintain these areas as a business. The more sales we achieve for the companies we represent, the more we earn.
  • It's in our interest to work with the customer and the publishers we represent and to build trustworthy relationships.
  • We need retailers more than they need us.
  • When we have been given an appointment to visit a retail customer this is not a definite sale. It's an opportunity to present products to the retailer.

Retailers have less and less time so as an agent you have to be on the ball, know your prices and have all the product knowledge at the tip of your tongue or tips of your fingers. Retailers are more likely to try something new if the agent presents it in a confident manner, the retailer's decision to buy is normally enhanced by an agent's enthusiasm and knowledge of proven sales. Of course sometimes no matter what you do you will not get that retail buyer to say “yes” and a lot of the time it's because the retailer personally does not like the product, or they feel the size is wrong or the cat has got blue eyes and should be green.... the list is endless. In many cases, this sadly means that it's not that your product doesn't sell for them as they've not tried it! It means that the consumer doesn't get a chance to buy.

What agents want!

  • A good working relationship. Don't forget that an agent is just one person. Although as an agent, you have lots of customers and work for a number of companies you don't really 'belong' anywhere. It can be a very lonely life, so remember to talk to your agents, keep them informed and enthused!
  • Product that gives an opportunity to obtain a carriage paid order of no less than £150. This means that many agents will not be interested unless a publisher has a minimum of 96 card designs. There has to be enough choice for the retailer to easily reach a carriage-paid order, either as an initial order or, all importantly, as a reorder.
  • Finished samples that represent what the retailer will receive once ordered. Retailers buy more if they can handle the goods.
  • An order form that is clear with all company details and terms and conditions on and a space for customer signature.
  • To allow us to have input into size, design or captions that you intend to bring out with new ranges. Use us- we know what customer's objectives are and we are the ones who are up against the challenge of selling it in. We can be a daily source of free research for you that in turn help us.
  • And to be paid commission on time!

Further Information