weekly feature | Jan 31, 2024 |
Less time, more trust: The evolution of sales reps in a changing industry

A lot has been said about how the pandemic altered the way we work, but it’s not just about hybrid schedules and snazzier home offices. The post-Covid era has also ushered in more subtle changes in the ways designers source and shop. One byproduct of that shift? The evolution of the sales representative’s role. For many, gone are the leisurely in-person meetings exploring samples. Instead, the work is now defined by more targeted interactions—and often conducted from afar.

“The days of knocking on a designer’s door and showing them all your lines are pretty much over—designers are busier than ever, and they don’t necessarily have an afternoon to spare for a visiting rep,” says Anderson Somerselle, the founder of Somerselle, a New York–based digital-first operation that includes an online showroom experience and a team of road reps in the tri-state area. “The idea of a traditional sales rep reads very Tupperware party nowadays.”

Part of the Team
There are a number of factors that have contributed to the changes. During the pandemic, many designers experienced a massive influx of new work, robbing them of the free time required to wander a design center for inspiration. Covid restrictions didn’t help either. So, reps were forced to get creative. During lockdown, Norwalk, Connecticut–based independent rep Nancy Stout started sending her clients boxes of curated samples, bringing discovery directly to their doorstep. The practice caught on, and a lot of her clients still request more of what she calls “shop jobs” versus traditional sit-down meetings. “I’ll suggest a meeting, and they’ll say, ‘I’m too busy, but I’m looking for plaids and velvets for a den, and some blue stripes for a bedroom. Send me what you’ve got,’” says Stout.

She isn’t alone. For many reps, what were once leisurely “let’s see it all” meetings have become increasingly focused interactions between designer and rep. “Designers will call and ask, ‘Can you be here tomorrow? I need options for double-width sheers for an upstairs bedroom I’m working on,” says Darien, Connecticut–based multiline rep Crans Baldwin. “It’s interesting, but it’s nice that they know me well enough to know I’ll show up on time with something they want.”

That’s the flipside of the new normal: Many designers have less time for reps, but rely on them more. Nancy Evars of the San Francisco–based showroom Evars Collective has noticed that designers now turn to her staff in a way they didn’t 10 years ago, looping salespeople into the details of projects and asking for recommendations. “We’ll get a call, and the designers will say, ‘I’ve got a presentation next week—can I send you our FF&E budget and the inspiration board?’ I’ve even had designers send furniture plans,” she says. “We’re more like an extension of their team.”

Stout views many of the changes to her business as an indication of the trust that her clients have in her. “I think reps have only become more important to designers in recent years, because we save them time,” she says, noting that her client roster has grown year over year. “They know they can rely on us, whether that’s by mailing them samples or meeting them at their office, and they don’t have to make the trip into a design center.”

Digital Shift
Evars points out two more aspects of the shift at design firms: hybrid work models and smaller staffs. “We had a designer and her staff come into the showroom recently, and she shared that, even though they have an office, they don’t all come in on the same days. As a rep, that makes it hard to find a day when we can come in and present to them. It’s easier for them to make an appointment to come see us when they want to.”

With an increase in working from home, many designers are also keeping smaller offices than in the past, limiting the size of their memo library. They may be less inclined to have a deluge of “just in case” samples on hand, preferring instead to order exactly what they need either through their rep or online. But without the promise of refreshing a firm’s sample library, it can be trickier for road reps to get meetings with designers.

“Let’s be honest: Millennials—who are becoming the lead designers or principals at more and more firms—don’t like to talk to people unless we absolutely have to,” says Somerselle. “If something can be done online when we have a spare moment, that’s the way we’re going to do it.” To that end, he has prioritized an easy-to-use and regularly updated website that gives his clients the freedom to browse new collections and order memos on their own schedule.

In addition to ease of use for designers, digital tools can help reps connect their clients with the products they’re most likely to appreciate. To curate his collection, Somerselle uses data about what designers are ordering to tailor his communication. “We can reach out and say, ‘Here’s the latest collection from this brand you’ve liked in the past,’ or we can put together sample boxes to send to them based on what they’ve already expressed interest in,” he explains.

The catch is that maintaining a user-friendly website that’s easy for designers requires that the brands a showroom represents take the same digital-first approach. Historically, many haven’t, though the tide may finally be turning. Sarah Boardman, owner of the Milwaukee multiline showroom Woven Printed & Fired, says that she has seen even the most old-school trade brands invest in their websites in recent years, giving designers the ability to place sample requests and see full lines at all hours of the day.

For some independent salespeople without a showroom, the difficulty of getting face time with designers has motivated them to get social. Baldwin has tapped his network of regional representatives to host events where each person sets up their own table and invites their roster of local clients. “It’s hard for reps to get appointments, and it’s hard for designers to make time to see lines,” he says. “This gives designers a way to see dozens of lines in just a few hours. We’ve done 10 of these since 2021, and we’ve had 300 designers attend—for me, that’s 300 sales calls. It’s been a good workaround on both sides.”

When reps manage to get that in-person time with designers, there’s more of an emphasis on showing the best of the best in order to make the most out of your time. “I’m not going to go in and show them every single color something comes in,” says Baldwin. “I do feel bad for reps who are just starting out, because it must be really hard. If you’re calling from Kravet, they’ll probably see you, but otherwise, it might take a few months to get on the calendar of a designer you haven’t worked with before.”

While the evolving role of reps has not been without its pain points, Boardman has chosen to find the brightness in the changes. “I don’t think we’re ever going to see the days where there are 30 designers in a showroom at The Mart all standing around waiting for their samples—I think that’s gone,” she says. “But what we’ve got instead is a world where I get inquiries not just from designers in the Midwest, but designers from Canada and Texas and Florida, who all found me online. It’s different than it was before, yes, but we’re making connections that we never would have before something like Instagram was available. It’s opened up a whole new world, and that’s pretty amazing.”

Want to stay informed? Sign up for our newsletter, which recaps the week’s stories, and get in-depth industry news and analysis each quarter by subscribing to our print magazine. Join BOH Insider for discounts, workshops and access to special events such as the Future of Home conference.