Working with Agents – By Louise Mulgrew

If you choose to work with sales agents to help sell your products around the UK, your agents will work within a ‘territory’, either to a list of postcodes or counties. Your agent will carry your cards alongside a portfolio of other card publishers and possibly gift and jewellery companies too. The aim is, when you find a good agent, that they will manage and service all of the customers you have in their territory and hopefully be introducing you to new accounts as well. This should allow you to turn your attention away from sales to one of the million other areas of your small business that desperately needs your attention.

Agents are self-employed, unlike Reps, who are employed by a company and only sell that company’s products. Agents work on commission, which tends to sit around 20% for cards and possibly lower for other gift products. You’ll pay your agent a commission on every order taken in their territory, whether they got that order or not. This is a sticking point for lots of people and I know some publishers who don’t work with agents for this reason. At first, I thought it sounded a bit unfair too, but actually, this is the only way that you prevent being in competition with your own agent and you need to be working with your agent, not against them. Due to the exclusivity requirements of independent shops, if you have a customer in an area that you don’t want your agent to service, you are preventing them opening another account there and therefore losing them business. The same issue occurs with keeping ‘house accounts’ which we mostly avoid. If you find customers at trade shows or through other marketing streams, you can then leave this customer in the safe hands of your very organised agent, who will be in touch with them regularly to check whether they are ready to make another order.

When you have a good agent, they are invaluable. It’s amazing to see orders coming in frequently when you’ve not been chasing those yourself. Our business has benefitted hugely from agent collaboration so I would definitely encourage new publishers to consider this as an option. Unfortunately, it’s not always a positive experience and can be quite damaging to your business if you have a ‘bad’ one. We’ve never had a ‘bad’ one, in the sense that they have taken us to court when trying to part ways, or sold off all our samples, but we been through a few agent break-ups now, which have all been mutual decisions and it is generally the case that if it doesn’t seem to be working for you, it probably isn’t working for them either. As a guideline, you’d hope to be receiving about 70% of your orders in a specific territory from your agent.

When choosing an agent, you want to check which other publishers they represent, so that you can be sure there are no other cards that closely compete with yours. For example, it would be no use us having an agent that worked with another publisher with illustrated animal cards. The more diverse their portfolio, the more attractive they’ll be to a shop owner who doesn’t have a lot of time to entertain agents. Similarly, if an agent has too many publishers in their bag, you could run the risk of not being shown to the customer at all, so that’s another point to consider. In our experience, it’s worked best when an agent is predominantly focussed on cards, rather than having a couple of card publishers and then lots of jewellery and homewares. I’ve heard from customers that when buying, they either have their ‘card hat’ on or their ‘gift hat’. The customers your agent will spend most of their time on might not be the best suited to your brand or product; they’d be unlikely prioritise card shops for example, if most of their portfolio is jewellery.

There really aren’t any hard and fast rules about how to go about working with your agents; we don’t actually have an official contract with any of ours. The GCA recommends that you do have a contract, as the law will protect the agent if they feel that parting ways were unfair. Up until now though, we’ve felt that pushing for a contractual agreement would potentially scare agents off, and as a small business, I don’t think we need to worry about being sued. Our approach has become more professional over the last couple of years as we’ve learnt more about the industry. Now that we have more employees to manage our workload, we are also beginning to take a more active approach in our sales and marketing and working closely with our agents will help with this massively.

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