Being a rep is a cruise, right? Drive around, talk to retailers, long lunches, plenty of snowboarding: what could be more cush’?

Actually, the job of sales representative is hardly some slothful sinecure for aging bro/brahs. As the snowboard market has changed, the demeanor and professionalism of many reps have changed with it.

And retailers are noticing the change and are altering their orders because of it: “I still see the goofballs,” says Mill Nash, owner of Cool World Sports, a specialty board and ski shop in San Francisco. “They’re some of the worst reps I’ve ever seen, so bro/brah it’s almost comical. I let them give their spiel, but certainly I don’t have any of those lines. I have no reason to carry them.”

No reason indeed. A broader consumer demographic and broader distribution mean today’s snowboard retailers are demanding a wide variety of choices, and reps have to be able to deal with that.

“As business is flattening out and getting tougher, reps have to walk a line, they have to be good at the art of being a chameleon: wearing baggy jeans at Faction a snowboard specialty store in Seattle one day, and a suit at REI the next,” says Bryan Johnston, director of snowboarding at Salomon.

Retailer Expectations

While reps responsibilities have certainly changed, more importantly, so too have retailers’ expectations. Account service is still a priority, usually including at least one clinic a year, but retailers are demanding less tangible-but more intimate-support. “He or she needs to be an associate helping me sell the product,” says Jay Moore, owner of World Boards in Bozeman, Montana. “For example; if I didn’t order a board because it had bad graphics, then the rep should call and tell me if the company changed it to a more sellable one. It’s about being on top of it, knowing more about a line than I do and telling me so.” In other words, just as retailers have to know the reps’ product lines, reps have to know the retailers’ business. “My needs change from September to December,” says Nash, “and I need the rep to recognize that.”

As awareness of snowboarding has gone more mainstream, retailers have had to respond to a wider range of consumers, so additional time is eaten up by learning about more products, leaving less time to deal with backroom problems. “Reps need to give an honest representation of the line,” says Nash, “and they need to be a voice for me. Even though the rep represents the company, I expect him or her to be my line back to the company.” And there is a direct, even brutal correlation between the rep’s skill and the product line. “If a company has a lame rep, we will most likely drop the line,” explains Nash. “I can’t be bothered. There are too many other good lines out there for us to deal with inexperienced and inefficient reps.”

Manufacturers have seen the writing on the wall and are responding in kind. “Blood, sweat, and tears!” says Cold As Ice Owner Darcy Lee about her expectations for her reps. “I don’t expect them to do the wheeling and dealing they might with bigger lines, but to do just as much selling time.”

Robin Pinne, sales administrator for K2, agrees: “They clinic and educate, they do lots of promotions of the products and the brand through demos and events, by attending store sales, and so on. They also participate in focus groups, give us reports on how the dealers are selling through, point out trends they see, help us in forecasting, and get consumer data from demos. It’s actually a pretty long list of things they are expected to do.”

Bring Them In/Put Them Out

Companies’ demands on individual reps is not the only change. In the never-ending search for better cost control, some manufacturers-most notably Airwalk, Salomon, and Sessions-have gone from independent to in-house reps. Strategically, each has its benefits. “I couldn’t afford to pay them as in-house reps,” says Lee, who stands by her choice of indy reps. “If they don’t sell anythingthey don’t get paid. I am quite happy to pay them based on what they do.”

Salomon chose to have in-house reps from the beginning, for exactly the same reasons. “There’s nothing worse than having an independent rep who doesn’t know how they’re going to pay their bills,” says Johnston. “Ten percent of their mind is on the job, and the other 90 percent is how they’re going to afford to eat. We went in house so the reps have those basic needs covered.”

On the reps’ side of the equation-especially for independents-getting beyond those basic needs is harder than it might seem. Companies are tight-lipped about pay structures, but most concur that a rep can earn a maximum of ten-percent commission on sales. However, many reps have to pay for their samples-often amounting to thousands of dollars deducted from their commission checks-and, counterintuitively, the better the product line, the less commission is paid, with the idea that more volume makes up for less percentage points.

For the aspiring rep then, as for manufacturers, the archetypal struggle within snowboarding-’core or corporate-is the heart of the matter. Selling more is better, but selling more in more channels can literally be too much of a good thing.

“Every company obviously wants a ‘core image,” says Jay Gatlin, buyer for Boards ‘N Motion in Auburn, California. “But as soon as the brand sells out, people won’t ride it.” Selling out, according to Gatlin, is “wide distribution in too many channels.”

At the same time, business is business, and image won’t pay the bills. So sell to only small stores, and you can (in theory) stay ‘core: bigger stores, better profits-again in theory-but more chance of losing your support from the enthusiasts.

“I would love to stick with just specialty stores. I could go nuts getting volume up in my shops, but manufacturers want more volume,” says Eric Schade, an independent who reps Option, NFA, and 686 Enterprises in the Northwest. “This is the first year Option will do a test run with the flagship REI store, and in the future this kind of business will get us into places we’re not-and get me more money. But,” he adds, pointing out the thorny distribution issue, “if the shops I deal with are successful and profitable, I’ll be successful and profitable, and I don’t then have to ‘whore’ my product.”

But business being about business, them that has more gets more, so better lines mean better sales-and often better reps. “It’s easy to be a good rep when you’re being paid,” quips one industry insider.

Gatlin disagrees: “Not necessarily better, but more committed. We just had our eighth-annual swap, and as usual, the big boys such as Burton and K2 had reps there. Those reps who know they’ll be repping for years to come, they were here. Not one of our little lines’ reps showed up.

“I’d be trying to make a living, so I’d go corporate if I were to become a rep,” concludes Gatlin, “because the time I’d put in would pay better. I see time after time reps will be with one ‘core line one minute, then with another the next, then not repping, then back in the game.”

Raising The Bar

In house or indy, ‘core or corporate, the smart reps have risen to the challenge of simultaneously responding to the manufacturers and servicing the needs of the retailers.

“More and more the role of the rep is to help retailers sell, making sure product goes through the door, and dealing with problems when they come up,” says Kaipo Guerrero, K2 snowboard rep in Southern California. “For instance, if a small retailer has a warranty problem, and he can’t really spare anyone to sit on the phone dealing with it, he can often put that on the shoulders of the rep. Our job is to assist the retailers, and help get employees motivated.”

On a similar note, Schade says, “I am first and foremost a friend. My primary goal is for my retailers to be successful. I feel that the relationship building is the most important part of my job.”

Relationships are only the first step. Beyond product knowledge, the new “breed” of reps is being called on to be knowledgeable in marketing, advanced merchandising, and, most intriguingly, consumer relations, skills once reserved for the home office.

“Lots of companies have great products, so it’s coming down to who can service the account in the best way,” offers Pinne. “Reps need to be their own regional marketing experts and promote within their region. Before, a rep could rely on selling and clinicing. Now, it’s getting more sophisticated.”

That sophistication aside, the reps’ job is still measured by selling. “We expect reps to facilitate business,” says Johnston. “The job description is built around one word-service-which supersedes everything. We know that if the right product is sold to the right customer, in the vast majority of instances, there is no problem.” And while the details of how reps hit that right product scenario will continue to evolve as the industry does, certain aspects of repping are immutable. “The part that will never change is credibility of the reps. Within our industry, that is paramount,” Johnston adds.

Moore agrees, although his assessment is a bit more cynical. “The company’s reflection plays out in their rep selection,” he says. “If the rep is cheesy, you can bet the guy who hired him is cheesy, and that his boss is cheesy, too.”Relationships are only the first step. Beyond product knowledge, the new “breed” of reps is being called on to be knowledgeable in marketing, advanced merchandising, and, most intriguingly, consumer relations, skills once reserved for the home office.

“Lots of companies have great products, so it’s coming down to who can service the account in the best way,” offers Pinne. “Reps need to be their own regional marketing experts and promote within their region. Before, a rep could rely on selling and clinicing. Now, it’s getting more sophisticated.”

That sophistication aside, the reps’ job is still measured by selling. “We expect reps to facilitate business,” says Johnston. “The job description is built around one word-service-which supersedes everything. We know that if the right product is sold to the right customer, in the vast majority of instances, there is no problem.” And while the details of how reps hit that right product scenario will continue to evolve as the industry does, certain aspects of repping are immutable. “The part that will never change is credibility of the reps. Within our industry, that is paramount,” Johnston adds.

Moore agrees, although his assessment is a bit more cynical. “The company’s reflection plays out in their rep selection,” he says. “If the rep is cheesy, you can bet the guy who hired him is cheesy, and that his boss is cheesy, too.”