25 June 2024, 17:12
By Furniture News Nov 19, 2020

Meet the agent: Mike Marshall

Sales agents play a vital role in the furniture industry, acting as invaluable conduits between suppliers and retailers, and boasting a depth of experience that can only be derived from representing various, cross-sector accounts. In this interview, Furniture News introduces EMD Agencies' Mike Marshall …

Describe your approach in five words

Professional, friendly, efficient, cost-effective, forward-thinking.

Why/how did you get into this line of work?

I’ve been in the industry for over 15 years, beginning my career straight from the University of Glasgow. I began working in a local furniture store while I looked for ‘graduate employment’. 

Spotting an opportunity to grow with the expanding business, I quickly worked my way through the ranks to fulfil such roles as sales and marketing manager – where I was responsible for the launch and daily management of eight showrooms nationwide – and ultimately buyer and operations manager, where I effectively managed the relationships with suppliers and directly managed customer service, warehousing and distribution.

When the business went into administration during the recession in 2009, I took the leap to becoming self-employed by securing the agencies for a couple of my previous suppliers – figuring that if I could make a new business work throughout the recession, it would be successful long-term. 

Since then, I have continued to learn how to effectively develop sustainable relationships with buyers large and small across Scotland, and as my reputation grew, I secured the agencies for some of the industry’s most forward-thinking suppliers. 

My business has enjoyed steady growth throughout the last 11 years, and I continue to love what I do.

What have been the high and low points of your career to date?

Along with the obvious thrill of closing a big sale or opening a new account, I still believe the high point of any agent’s career is establishing – and more importantly maintaining – a close and respected relationship that sees significant and continued growth for both retailer and supplier. I believe it is key to my business, and I would class many of my customers as personal friends.

Low points are definitely when a relationship breaks down, and I’d be lying if I said this hasn’t happened to me. There are times when a supplier’s vision differs from your own, and I’ve experienced this a couple of times throughout my agency career. 

Some suppliers simply don’t recognise the value of a good agent, and others sadly take advantage of the relationships that agents have cultivated over years. 

In these situations, I do feel that agents should be better protected by the law. I have personally had occasions where suppliers have wriggled out of their legal obligations, and I have had no comeback. That said, the way I’ve learnt to deal with these situations is to dust yourself down quickly, don’t dwell on what could have been, and focus on the next opportunities that are (inevitably) out there. 

How can retailers make the most of your services?

Firstly, data. I am fortunate enough to be able to provide my customers comprehensive sales performance data (for their account and for the market in general).  This allows us to identify and react to trends and opportunities together. Stats don’t lie, but I recognise that many retailers are so busy with the general day-to-day, it can be difficult to step back and take a moment to analyse. 

Secondly, communication. I utilise various forms of media to keep my customers updated with important news, be it manufacturing updates, product offers, new launches, anything. 

Currently – with the backdrop of Covid-19 – we are all having to work differently and smarter to be effective. Whether it is using email campaign software, social media, a phone call, or a good old face-to-face appointment, I try to ensure the information is received to allow a retailer to make an informed decision. But again, I understand that retailers are bombarded with information from all angles, and it can be difficult to pick out what is and isn’t useful to their business.

It all boils down to collaboration. If you build a collaborative partnership together, you will both grow together.

… and how can suppliers working with you achieve the best outcomes?

If suppliers use the front-line knowledge that an agent gathers on the road every day, together, their business will be stronger, in my opinion. 

Agents are able to speak candidly with their customers across their whole territory. They can then feed back consumer habits, geographical trends, sales insights, service issues and much more. With this information, suppliers can adapt and improve their product offering and service levels to enable sustainable growth.

This is also where I believe an agent can be more effective than a rep, as they are able to draw information from across different product sectors, giving a more complete picture.

What working practice, from either party, frustrates you most?

As a businessman and salesman at heart, you always believe that your product, your service and your company is the best, and every retailer should see it the same way! 

Of course, that isn’t the case, and as I’ve learned and matured over the years, I have come to recognise that often your customers will help open your eyes to the negatives of your offering. This is where a collaborative partnership comes in, and allows you to feed back to the supplier where improvements can be made.

Sometimes the distinction between the roles of a rep and an agent are blurred, which can be a little frustrating. Many of the roles are the same, but as an agent, you are running a business, and business costs have to be factored into decisions. This can have an effect on route plans, rotation frequency, trade shows, travel, and much more. This can get forgotten by retailers and suppliers alike – but again, if you have built that respected collaborative partnership, this is rarely an issue. 

As mentioned previously, one of the main frustrations that most agents experience is the lack of legal protection when a supplier relationship breaks down, and agents are often left with no income and no compensation.  

Due to the imbalance in size of the agency compared to the supplier, the legal scales are weighted mostly in favour of the supplier. Even with The Commercial Agents (Council Directive) Regulations 1993, I regularly hear of agents not receiving a fair deal when the relationship ends, and it has happened to me more than once!

Do any of your beliefs/approaches go against the industry grain?

I don’t think so. However, I am a firm believer in investigating and embracing new ways of doing things. As an industry, we do suffer from being a little slow to embrace new technologies, and have tendencies to hold onto the old ways of doing things – the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality. 

I regularly look at all my tasks and processes to see how I can make my business more efficient, more streamlined. To that end, I use different pieces of software and apps to improve my day-to-day work life. 

I take all my orders on a sales presenter iPad app, which allows me to send customer order acknowledgments to both the retailer and supplier before I leave the appointment – no order processing by hand in the evenings. I track my business mileage using an automated app, which generates reports for my accountant. I use a cloud-based accounting software package linked to my accountant to reconcile the books. I can do this, send invoices – even do VAT returns – from an app on my phone when I’m on the road, so no unnecessary downtime. 

I use routing software to efficiently plan my routes. I use email marketing software which allows me to track customer engagement and create customer-specific campaigns. I even use a software app which allows me to manage my business’ social media accounts. Although already proven to be effective, social media is something that I engage with very carefully and sporadically if I feel it will help achieve a specific task. As a B2B business, where there are exclusivity considerations in play, this must be done with due care and attention. 

Ultimately, I will do anything I can to become more efficient, more effective, more professional and, most importantly of all, more productive.

How do you spend your free time?

Outside of being a father of two young girls, and partner to Joanne, I’m a proud MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra)! Addicted to road cycling, I am happiest when spinning the legs in the Scottish hills, either on a Sunday morning with my local cycling club, or by myself when I can carve out the time. It’s a great way to stay fit, both physically and mentally, and gives me a few hours where I can switch off from work, family and the everyday stresses that life brings.

Within the industry, having served as the youngest president to the Scottish Furnishings Representatives Association (SFRA), I now am proud to hold the role of secretary. The SFRA has been in existence for over 50 years and is still as strong and supportive an organisation as it’s ever been. 

Whilst in competition with me on a day-to-day basis, many of the SFRA members have been very encouraging and quick to offer me advice over the years, for which I will always be grateful. I would happily offer advice to the next generation of Scottish agents, but sadly I am still the youngest member! 

The SFRA organises the Northpoint show every year, which continues to be well attended by suppliers and retailers large and small from all over the UK.

What’s the secret of your success?

I guess it depends on your definition of success. I am certainly not the wealthiest agent on the road today.  Not even close. But I do okay. For me, I see success as growth – am I improving? 

And I think the secret to my success thus far is carefully choosing who I align myself with – retailers and suppliers alike. If I have learnt anything in the 11 years I’ve been an agent, it’s this – product is important, but the people behind a business are what makes it successful.

What I mean is you can bring the best product to market, but if the attitude and mindset of the people behind the business isn’t good, ultimately it will fail. And vice versa – if the product isn’t quite right, but the attitude and mindset is, you can work together to make it a success. I have seen this time and again, and when I look to work with a new company, I always ask myself “can I build a collaborative partnership with these people?”

I am currently part of some very experienced and successful sales teams, and I draw a huge amount of support and guidance from my fellow agents south of the border, and my sales directors. Each of them has a unique skill set which I look to learn from constantly.

As long as I continue to do that, I think I’ll continue to be ‘successful’.

Mike's current agencies: Kettle Interiors, Millbrook Beds, Komfi by GNG Group, Protect-A-Bed, Gala Collezione

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