The Necessary and Evolving Role of the A&D Sales Rep / How the pandemic showed we need sales reps more than ever

Photo: Chaosamran Studio via AdobeStock

By Claire Butwinick, and Harriet Morgan

When the pandemic began, we faced many unknowns—among those, sales reps wondered about their role as everyone worked from home and projects were put on hold. In the following months, reps became product experts turned remote collaborators; they did the heavy lifting for their designers in need of help on project specifications and tried to keep work fun for the industry in the process. Reps are invaluable to the design process—that is evident now more than ever.

Traditionally on the frontlines promoting themselves as the face of product sales and specification efforts in offices around the country, the reps regrouped. From adopting technology and sending personalized care packages to hosting collaborative, socially distant trunk shows in parking lots, sales reps are going the extra mile to bring normalcy to a difficult time while offering significant project resources to ease the burden on designers.

“We need to be experts on our products and how they perform and operate,” says Jillian Potts, a sales representative for Milliken Floor Covering. “I can help you with what’s going to be the best fit for your project, and if it’s not my product, I’ll be honest, and I’ll make a suggestion. Nobody wants a sales pitch, but people want help.”

Virtual Reality

Already fighting for their relevance in an increasingly digital world, the pandemic put the role of the sales rep to the test as designers began remote work. But as a week-long lockdown turned into months, it was clear that designers needed a collaborator to get samples in their hands but also to offer expertise and support through remote specifications.

“We’re all dealing with the impossible right now, and the sales reps make it possible by making themselves so available,” says Kristina Michelsen, a senior interior designer at CallisonRTKL in Los Angeles.

Within the first days of lockdown, reps like Michelle Anderson, a sales executive at Bentley Mills, expanded their role to adapt to the rapidly changing industry. Instead of inquiring about new projects, Anderson spent the first weeks of quarantine checking in on clients to simply see how they were doing.

“It felt rude to talk about work when we were in the early stages of the pandemic,” she says.

Nearly one year later, designers’ days are still consumed by Zoom meetings and webinars, with little room for virtual product demonstrations. Michelsen says she doesn’t have the time to attend every presentation or dive into each material e-blast, so she turns to social media to find inspiration for projects and browse new products in a quick, fun, digestible format.

“[Sometimes I] fly through general emails that come every once in a while,” she says. “As quick as I can get content, I can absorb it pretty easily if I get it [on social media]. Visuals are what I need.”

Michelle Anderson, sales representative at Bentley Mills, created @carpet_party_seattle to keep clients connected to her products.

Few sales representatives do social media better than Anderson. In Seattle, the Bentley representative started her Instagram account @carpet_party_seattle in 2017 to introduce her Pacific Northwest audience to the Los Angeles brand. Now more than four years and 5,200 followers later, Anderson’s profile has evolved into an interactive platform with custom carpet collages and countless photos of her stilettos on carpet samples. To this day, Anderson says she receives at least one sample request every time she posts a shoe selfie on carpet.

“I wanted to make my social media platform a personal brand,” she says. “Every month is a different theme to excite my clients and keep them connected to my offerings.”

Tile rep Erica Rolin found her daily routine — making sales calls in person — abruptly curtailed because of COVID. Erica decided to turn to LinkedIn. Her initial informal 1-minute “trunk show” video post had over 7,000 views, and her weekly videos continue to reach an enthusiastic audience.

Creative Collaboration

While social distancing and safety precautions challenged reps’ ability to meet in person, many have strategized unique ways to get products in front of clients. From meeting designers at their homes to creating multi-vendor pop-up shows in parking lots, reps have found creative solutions to build close relationships in a time of social isolation.

“We’re all craving some sort of personal connection with people right now—when a rep graciously meets me at my doorstep to hand me a sample or goes the extra mile to provide product samples, it’s truly invaluable,” says Michelsen. “Their willingness to take those extra steps, even when we’re facing our own challenges, is really helpful. It gives me an incentive to collaborate with them in the future.”

Brews & Views, a Coffee and happy hour truck service hosted by multiple Boise-based reps.

For Anderson, that point of connection came in the form of a retired ambulance. Purchased back in September, Anderson uses the unconventional vehicle (that she endearingly calls the Fabulance) as a mobile showroom, allowing her ample space to store samples, bring products directly to her Seattle clients, and run safe meetings inside the vehicle.

Michelle Anderson, sales representative at Bentley Mills, created @carpet_party_seattle to keep clients connected to her products.

“If I had made this move last year, it would have been odd,” says Anderson. “I would have been the weird carpet girl with the ambulance. But these days, it’s a brilliant move because I can meet clients quite regularly in a space where I can showcase products safely, opening all five doors for proper ventilation.”

Across the ocean in Hawaii—where designers don’t have access to Material Bank—3form representative Corrina Bailey is collaborating with other reps to introduce designers to products across material platforms. Working with Knoll Textiles and Shaw Carpet’s consultants, the trio curates sample packages with themed activities for designers to enjoy with their families. And their gesture has not gone unnoticed: Bailey has already started a project with a client who received her latest holiday-themed package.

Another way sales reps have come together during the pandemic is through multi-vendor trunk shows; socially distant outdoor sales events where reps showcase their products to a select list of designer clients. Often staged in parking lots with makeshift booths under canopies or even out of car trunks, these opportunities encourage reps to cross-pollinate clients but have inadvertently become the temporary watering hole for the design community during isolation.

“The fact that anyone showed up at all shows how much people want to see other humans,” says Potts who participated in three trunk shows over the summer. “I walked away from the trunk shows thinking, ‘I can’t wait until we’re back to normal.’ And the feeling was mutual. Everyone wanted to chat and really cared.”

Reps from 3form, Knoll Textiles and Shaw team up to bring some holiday cheer to their designers.

Sample Plan

Sampling and advancements in technology considerably evolved in 2020 with the rise of Material Bank. Expediting the sampling process, Material Bank allows designers to explore samples from hundreds of manufacturers online, order them directly from the site, and receive them the next morning. While this platform has transformed the way designers access products, savvy sales reps are using the information Material Bank provides to their advantage. When a designer orders a Milliken sample from Material Bank, Potts follows up with them to provide additional technical information and offer the next steps in the specification process.

“Material Bank gets us in sync with potential clients, especially during a time where we’re not connecting in person,” says Potts. “I’m happy that we’re on Material Bank, for sure.”

Image courtesy of 3form

Instead of cutting sales reps out of specifications, Material Bank notifies reps when designers are sampling products, leading to more meaningful follow-up conversations and potential sales. Michelsen says she appreciates when reps build off her project needs by offering additional material suggestions to the ones she sampled.

Material Bank may have changed the game when it comes to sampling, but it cannot replace the sales rep’s role. Expertly trained to understand their product line inside and out, the reps’ specialized knowledge is essential to the design process. Jill Smith, an interior designer at Wold Architects and Engineers, says reps are more than salespeople; they’re material consultants providing tailored solutions from specification to installation.

“We wouldn’t specify anything we haven’t at least researched without the backing of the rep,” she says. “Material Bank is a valuable tool, but we wouldn’t use it in place of the reps. We rely on the reps for their expertise, providing information, and critical application information.”

Milliken reps at a parking lot trade show.

Unlike online platforms, sales reps are also accountable to designers whenever they specify a product. Reps not only oversee the sale, they also offer support if something goes wrong.

“The reps have a plethora of information; it saves us a ton of time,” says Smith. “When we have an installation problem, they help resolve it, show up on the job site, and work on it with us. That’s where they are invaluable.”

Here to Stay

The partnership between sales reps and designers has always been crucial, and the pandemic has only intensified that. Whether hosting a virtual check-in, sharing new products on social media, or developing new projects through online sample follow-up, reps have met the moment to get designers what they need. Through group collaboration, reps have also sprouted close relationships with clients and one another that will last beyond the pandemic.

Chances are things will never return to the way they were pre-COVID, but the value of personal relationships, ingenuity, and product knowledge are everlasting. With appropriate support from their companies, reps provide a memorable, seamless customer experience that is just as important as the product—and it’s what designers will appreciate most as we enter the next normal.

“I think, with just about everything, we have a renewed respect for interpersonal relationships and how important physical contact and communication is,” says Smith. “It’s so important to the work we do for interpersonal relationships. I think there will be a renewed ah-ha moment after the pandemic where we go, ‘I really missed these relationships.’”

Claire Butwinick is an Account Coordinator at Paxson Fay, a design-focused communications agency based in Seattle, WA. Harriet Morgan works for Design Libraries and is the resource librarian in the CallisonRTKL Los Angeles office.