There is a clear, but sometimes not so obvious, difference between an agent and a rep. The latter tends to be employed on a salary, while an agent is self-employed and works solely on agreed commission.
The issue is that agents and reps get looked at in the same light, which can sometimes lead to challenging and unfair treatment of the agent.
With agents playing a crucial role in the furnishing industry, seasoned pro John Northwood shares the misconceptions that agents tend to find.
Having been in the interiors industry since the age of 16, racking up 47 years of experience, John has spent the last seven years as a self-employed sales agent after being made redundant from his former salaried rep role. It's been the best move of his career.
"I have enjoyed many roles throughout my career, these include, warehouse operative, driver, carpet fitter’s assistant, sales, management, business development, a director of my own retail business, and of course as an agent.
"I have worked with some of the top companies in their field which includes an American flooring company, a German commercial fit out company and a leading UK wallpaper company.
Life as an agent is one of the most enjoyable things that I have done throughout my career.
But - and it's one of those niggling buts that never seems to get shaken off - there is more to the enjoyable life of an agent that many don't see or seem to understand, especially from a financial point.
"The most common misconception, particularly from my customers, is that they think I am employed, believing that I am salaried and fully expensed," John revealed.
"It isn’t until I get into conversation with people and explain the role of an agent, that they finally appreciate how we work. This can sometimes be frustrating, particularly at times when I have travelled a couple of hours to see someone and they don’t turn up for our prearranged meeting. For an employed rep, it isn’t so much of an issue, for an agent, it has cost us valuable time and expense which we can’t recover."
The frustration is mainly caused by companies who don't understand how an agent works, with many still seeing agents as an employed rep, and therefore "try to control how you work, where you go and who you see and when", John explains.
"As an agent we are contracted as an individual or company, to carry out work on their behalf, so how we plan our days, where we go and how often, is our responsibility, not theirs.
"We do of course have to respect their business, follow up on their leads and enquiries, and as we are only paid on results (commission for product sold) it is in our interest to manage the business to get the maximum from it."
So, how can the misunderstanding become an understood partnership?
John continues: "Companies that are now considering taking on agents need to be educated in how we work and the benefits we can offer a company. As an example with Covid-19, I am self employed and not a limited company, so during lockdown, I was still able to communicate with most of my customers and keep the line of communication open for the brands I represent, even though some were closed.
"Whereas, a company employing reps who were furloughed, were unable to work, and these companies lost traction and possibly market share during this time. I have also sadly seen a lot of representatives being made redundant following the relaxation in lockdown.
"Companies need to embrace agents and work with us. They have to understand that we do work for more than one company, but we give each company equal share of our time based on the level of business each brand can generate.
They need to understand that yes, there are occasions we could be earning more than their Sales Director, but as we are only paid on sales, then the company is benefiting from the turnover and are not paying out any additional expenses.
"Companies (and agents) need to be loyal and develop a good working relationship. Two of the brands I represent, as an example, I have been with for six and seven years. Agents are a business, and it is crucial that companies send out their commission statements and pay on time. We generally work a month in hand, so it is so important that we receive payment promptly as this can define our next months’ time allocation for that brand."
It's fair to say that John - and most likely the majority of agents - have had their share of challenging experiences.
John spoke about a recent challenge that involved a Spanish company, which in a nutshell was a "shambles".
"It soon became apparent that they had no idea about the UK market, and were not properly prepared. It got to the point where my reputation with my customers was under threat, so I very quickly stopped working for them. I then had a struggle getting payment from them, which I ended up having to threaten legal action before they paid, with interest."
On the other side of the scale, the job entails rewarding relationships. In fact, John has a long-term company based in Scandinavia, who have always been very good in both business and communication. This even includes an all-expenses paid trip to its HQ for an annual sales conference (until recently due to Covid-19).
The gesture may be an obvious one in how to treat a client, but it is the detail and continued support through marketing material, consistent payment processing and regular communication that keeps these relationships intact and forged stronger. As John says, "working as a team is the key to a successful agent-principle relationship".
However, there are those out there that believe agents are a "quick fix solution" for generating business and can be disposed of at the drop of a hat. This stigma is something that John is trying to eradicate from the industry, but at the moment it's sticking.
"Many times I have seen and heard of companies taking on agents who have done a very good job for them, and when they are perceived as “earning too much money” they are then released and companies take on paid reps to replace them so they can control them.
"This can be a false economy. As mentioned, agents work for free and get paid on results, a rep has to have a salary, car, laptop, mobile phone, fuel and accommodation expenses, and the companies are also responsible for insurance, tax, NI and pension contributions.
"An agent covers all these expenses themselves. So we may seem to be getting paid well, but taking out all our expenses, it can reduce these earnings drastically."
Another point, and a very crucial one for both agents and companies to note, is that agents are protected by law when it comes to contract termination by a company.
Depending on the circumstances and contract, agents are entitled to compensation for termination of a contract following 12 months’ service, and providing it wasn’t for misconduct.
John, who encourages all agents to find out more about legal protection and the contractual obligations of both parties as a matter of general practice, is also an accredited agent of the Manufacturers Agents Association (The MAA), which comes with many benefits for its members.
The MAA has been representing self-employed Sales Agents in the UK & Ireland since 1909 and offers peace of mind to members seeking advice on a number of areas. Take a look at the full benefits here
As John highlighted earlier, he loves his job and would encourage anyone considering making a go of it themselves, to do just that.
With some solid words of wisdom to wrap up the interview, John advised: "Being an agent isn’t easy, and ideally you need some financial backing to fall back on in at least the first six to 12 months.
"It may take time to find the right principles to work with, but once you have a good portfolio, be prepared to put the time in, and you will be successful.
"If you can make it work, you will never want to do anything else, and certainly wouldn’t want to be employed again."