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INSTRUMENT SALES REPRESENTATIVE
Alternate Career Titles:
Sales Representative, Manufacturers Representative
Career Overview: Instrument Sales Reps are responsible for visiting musical instrument retail stores in their territory, selling them instruments and sound gear, and completing sales paperwork.
Career Salary Range: $19,000 to $75,000+
Become an Instrument Sales Representative
Ed Rider is the founder of United Sales Associates, a sound gear and Instrument Sales Representative firm with territory in the southern US. “We have two customers in our business,” Rider says of the Instrument sales (or Manufacturers Rep) industry. “One of the customers would be the dealers that we call on and do business with. The other customer would be the actual manufacturers that we represent. Basically what happens is we go out and visit the dealers, we solicit orders, we get the orders in to the manufacturers, the manufacturers ship to the dealer and pay us a commission for arranging that sale. That’s what we do.
We have a couple of typical days. The reason I say ‘a couple’ is it just depends on whether we are in the office or out on the road. I’m out maybe two weeks out of three, I suppose, but if I’m in the office, what I’m doing is answering emails, fielding calls from the dealers, and making calls to the dealers. I do a lot of email blasts so I’ll have to construct those. I spend a lot of time updating my catalog. When you represent a number of manufacturers as we do — it’s currently about fifteen — obviously there’s new information showing up all the time. So we have to keep our catalog up-to-date. Also during the week, I’m typing up associate/dealer info if they’re new and that involves doing paperwork. If it happens to be a new manufacturer to the dealer, they’re going to send over new paperwork that has to be done. I spend a lot of time from the previous week of being on the road and then one of the last things we do during the week, which is probably the most important thing, is planning the next road trip. Where we’re going to go, when we’re going to leave, where we’re going to stay, who we’re going to call on — this kind of thing. So when we hit the road, we’ve got a plan on paper and know what we’re doing. That helps us a great deal. That’s what happens in the office.
When we’re out on the road, we’re making calls on the dealers, three to four per day, depending on where we are. If we’re in a larger market, for example, Columbia, South Carolina, there would be about seven or eight dealers in that town and it would take me about a day and a half, maybe two days, to work. If I’m out, going from one town to the next, about three dealers in one day is all I can get. During that week on the road, I’m still fielding calls from dealers and putting out fires, so to speak. At the end of the day, I have to complete the paperwork that was generated throughout the day. Dealers hate the paperwork so I try to do as much of it myself as I can, with every form filled out as much as I can before I even meet with the dealer. They all seem to appreciate that. Other than that and being behind the wheel driving, that’s a typical day on the road.”
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Many Manufacturers Reps come from the world of music retail. They may apply to be Sales Trainees before becoming full-fledged Reps. Opportunities for advancement will depend on the structure of the firm; some people may prefer to work in a non-traveling role within the company whereas others may aim to one day head up their own firm. Generally speaking, a Rep will advance in his or her career through building relationships and logging more time on the road, which will lead to increased sales and in turn, increased income.
Education & Training
“Obviously I’m talking about the musical instrument industry but a lot of what I’ll talk about would be true for any other industry,” Rider tells us. “If they’re deciding to get involved with the musical instrument industry, they’re going to want to study the industry and find out all they can. They’re going to want to go visit dealers, hang out and spend a little time with them, see what goes on there during the day. They’re going to want to find out what trade mags there are and perhaps get subscriptions to some of them. I’ll tell you what some of them are a little later. Some of the subscriptions are free.
I would highly recommend they take some type of motivational course, such as the Dale Carnegie course. I took it many, many years ago. I’d also recommend they learn their way around a computer, that they become an expert in Excel and Microsoft Publisher or other similar types of software. They should learn how to use email marketing software such as MailChimp or Constant Contact — something like that. I’ll finish this section by saying normal, traditional education is not really necessary for this job but neither is it discouraged. It’s not totally necessary that you have a college degree to do this. Of course, there are folks out there who won’t talk to you unless you do, so that needs to be considered, as well.”
Experience & Skills
“It would be quite helpful if they had some experience having worked in some type of position that involved customer service so they can learn what customer service is all about,” Rider says. “You might know how to make a sale but that’s never the end of it. You’ve got to take care of your customer tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next day. That’s what customer service is all about.
The other thing is, if they’re going to be a Manufacturers Rep in this industry, it certainly would help if they had experience working in a retail department so they can understand what the dealers are going through and what they’re up against.”
To be successful as a Manufacturers Rep, Rider says, “obviously they’re going to have to be a people person. It’s a difficult job to do if they don’t like people; as a matter of fact, it’s impossible. They must be analytical. I guess that’s fairly self-explanatory. They must be a self-starter.
This next word my wife hates to hear me use, but they must be a chameleon. She says, ‘You can’t say that; it’ll sound like you’re lying to people!’ But when I say, ‘You need to be a chameleon,’ what I mean is if I’m calling on a dealer in south Georgia and he was born there and raised there and that’s what he knows — guess what? I’m going to play like I was born in south Georgia. But if I’m sitting in a boardroom and everyone’s wearing suits and ties, I’m going to be wearing a suit and tie. That’s what I’m saying when I say ‘you must be a chameleon.’
One other thing,” he adds. “They have to be able to handle the word ‘no’ and don’t let it get to them when somebody tells them no. Because they’re going to tell you no. Sometimes it’ll take them five or six times before they’ll wind up buying anything from you, if they wind up buying anything at all. It’s not unusual that I’ll call on a buyer three or four times before they buy anything. We expect them to get used to the fact that people are going to tell you no. It’s not a rejection of you personally. It’s just the start, basically.”
Clearly, the work lifestyle of a Manufacturers Rep involves a lot of time on the road away from home. The hours can be long. Rider explains, “When I’m on the road at the end of the day, the day has generated some paperwork that you’ve got to do to get an order together. I have to email them into the manufacturers. When I’m on the road I’m pretty much focused on this paperwork.”
That’s why it’s important for Reps to be very conscientious of their work/life balance when they’re not on calls. “When I’m not on the road, evenings and weekends I try to reserve for family,” Rider says, “but if a dealer is having a special function on a Saturday, for example, and he wants me there, I’m going to be there to back him up. I’ve done it many, many times and I’ll continue to do it. Other than that, I try to keep evenings and weekends free.”
Reps develop relationships over a length of time, often working with the same clients for years. “I primarily work with Retail Store Owners or the Buyers for Retail Store Owners. In most of the shops, the Owners do the buying but there are some shops where one or two employees are able to do the buying, as well.
Other than that, I work with Credit Managers. Each of the manufacturers all has a Credit Manager. Sometimes it seems like the whole world is on credit hold but you just have to deal with it. I work very closely with Sales Managers. The vast majority of manufacturers have a Sales Manager, who is generally my point of contact for a particular manufacturer.”
How a Rep gains employment has changed a bit over time. Rider tells us of his trajectory: “I answered an ad in the newspaper in late July 1972. The ad was for a Musical Merchandise Sales Trainee. The job was with a company in Greensboro, NC called Southland Musical Merchandise Corporation. I went in there and they offered me a job at $100 a week. Being the savvy negotiator that I am, I held out for a whopping $105.
So I started to work for Southland Musical Merchandise Corporation on August 1, 1972 as a Stock Clerk/Sales Trainee. The plan was that I was going to take a couple of years to work in the business before I actually got a territory but that’s not the way it turned out. In April 1973, their Rep who had Georgia and South Carolina came in to the office and said he had developed some health problems and the Doctor told him he couldn’t travel anymore. So he resigned. I basically went into the Manager’s office and begged for the territory. He said, ‘Alright, I’ll put you out there for a month and if it works well, you’ll stay out. If not, you’ll come back here. I agreed. So April 8, 1973, I got behind the wheel on a Sunday afternoon bound for Atlanta, GA. The following morning is when I made my first call as a Rep. I’ve been out there ever since.”
For those seeking a career in the Manufacturers Rep business, Rider has a couple suggestions. He says, “Generally I see more Reps coming out of having worked in a retail store. Most of the Reps I know, that’s where they came from. Oddly enough, I never did. I’m the exception to that rule. Probably 90% of them come out of retail.”
To land a first job in the industry, he says, “They should attend a trade show. Go to a trade show, for example, NAMM, which is in Anaheim every January and in Nashville every summer. It’s good to go to NAMM because you will see over 2,000 companies. Some of those companies have Reps of their own. Some have independent Reps. Some don’t have either. The point is, it’s relatively simple to find one to represent. There are people out there who need salespeople and sometimes they’ll hire a warm body. Honestly, I’ve seen that happen. Going to the trade shows would be the best way to get started.”
Earning income for a Rep is different than in many other fields. Pay structures vary based on the type of role one holds in the business. Rider breaks it down for us. He says, “In April ’73, when I got my first territory, I was what we call a captive Rep. A captive Rep is a Rep who only represents one company.
In 1978, I became an independent Rep. That’s when I actually started working for multiple companies. It was strictly commission-based with no salary involved; all that went away when I switched over from a captive Rep to an independent Rep. In 1978, I became an independent Rep and 1996 is when I started the Rep firm that I’m still head of today.
Generally, the captive Rep [position] involves a salary. Sometimes these positions involve a salary and a lower commission than they would pay an independent Rep. Some of them just involve a salary, period, and travel expenses are so much per diem. If you show them a hotel receipt, they’ll send you a check for $100 or whatever it is.
An independent Rep pays their own expenses. Honestly, as an independent Rep you can make more money if you’re really good, simply because by being on commission there’s no limit. Whereas being with one particular company, when you’re on a salary that’s pretty much it.
I would highly recommend if you’re going to get into this business and be an independent Rep like myself, you need to have about six months worth of living expenses put aside. The reason for that is some of the manufacturers pay on payment rather than on shipment. What I mean by that is we have companies that, whatever we sell in December, we’ll get paid for in January. We have other companies that whatever we sell in December, we’ll get paid for when the customer pays the manufacturer. Sometimes that won’t happen till February or March.
It also takes a certain amount of time to begin to build up what I would call automatic business — basically dealers who do reorders without you having to personally write the order. All of that takes a while, which is why I say you should have five or six months of living expenses put aside when you start this.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
For Manufacturers Reps, Rider tells us, “NAMM is one of the national organizations. There is another called InfoComm. NAMM stands for National Association of Music Merchants. InfoComm is an organization for people who deal in sound and video so primarily it’s Sound Contractors and Video Contractors. Independent Reps would normally have manufacturers in both those industries. It would be unusual to find a Rep who only has MI (musical instrument) and no sound dealers. They’re involved in both.”
He adds, “There are four publications I’d highly recommend to anybody who wants to be involved in this industry. Those are Music Trades magazine, MMR (which stands for Musical Merchandise Review), there’s another one called Music & Sound Retailer and the last one is a magazine called Music, Inc. These all deal with music retail dealers and are real good places to keep an eye on the industry and what’s going on.”
- “Start putting some money back. As you’ll remember, I said they’d need about five or six months of living expenses saved up.
- I would highly recommend they go out and visit dealers and just hang out there. You can learn a lot that way.
- Once they start doing this, go ahead and get some business cards printed. It makes it much easier if they decide they want to go to a trade show. If you have a business card that says you’re in the industry, you can get a badge. If you don’t, the only way you can get a badge is by getting a dealer you know to get you a visitor’s badge.
- Getting business cards made would also allow them to get subscriptions to the magazines I mentioned.
- I’d highly recommend they get themselves an Overdrive account. Overdrive is an app that’s available for iPhone, Android, or any desktop. Once you have an Overdrive account, if you have a library card, then Overdrive will take your library card and give you access to hundreds of thousands of audiobooks for free. They should listen to as many motivational audiobooks like Dale Carnegie as they can stomach. I’ve done this my entire career with tapes and CDs and I switched to Overdrive a couple years ago.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Do whatever you can do to motivate yourself, not just today but tomorrow and the next day and the next day, going on forever. Stay motivated. You can put up with a lot of baloney if you’re motivated enough.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“One of the biggest things they do not take into account is how much it costs to travel. That’s a major expense. I mean, a hotel is going to be $79-$129. With gas right now, it costs me about $35 to fill up and I fill up about three times a week. Then you’ve got to consider food, insurance on your vehicle, and what-have-you. You’re looking at about $150 a day to be on the road. If you have a sales job and they’re paying you a 7% commission and you’re spending $150 a day to be on the road, you have to be able to sell about $2,200 a day in sales just to get that $150 back.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“If I had it to do over again, would I?
The answer is yes, although it’s a lot different now than when I first started. When I started there were no cell phones. I spent more time in the phone booth than Superman did. Of course, it was 1972 dollars, but I was paying $8 for a motel and traveling for $100 a week and now it’s $150 a day. Other than that, you have to operate differently.
Back in those days we didn’t have the internet to be concerned about. That’s a big factor in this industry, to the detriment of many brick and mortar businesses and not just in our industry, but in every industry. You have to learn how to get the maximum advantage out of everything you do.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“I’m going to cheat a little bit and give you two words instead of one: faith and tenacity. Without either you’re not going to go very far.”
Ed Rider served in the army before joining the Southland Musical Merchandise Corporation in 1972 as a Sales Trainee and eventually going on to form United Sales Associates with colleague Wendel Hartman. Over the course of his thirty plus years in the business, he has received more than fifty sales awards, including several lifetime achievement awards. USA Reps’ territory covers thirteen states.