Day in the job of--sales rep

<p>Helen Evans has spent 17 years on the road for Penguin as sales representative for the north east of England. She talks to Caroline Sanderson about life as a rep, in this second article exploring jobs across the book business.</p><p> It is an uplifting experience talking to Helen Evans. She has been a sales representative for Penguin for 17 years, and still relishes her job as much as ever. "It suits me and it suits Penguin," she says.</p><p>A farmer's daughter from Nairn in Scotland, Evans graduated from Aberdeen University with a degree in geography. She then took a post-graduate course in tourism at Strathclyde University. There she met her future husband, and together they moved to England, initially settling in Burnley, Lancashire.</p><p>Evans began her career in the trade as a bookseller, as do many publishers' reps. It was, she says, "the very best grounding". Her first job was at the Burnley branch of W H Smith. When her husband took a job with Durham County Council, the couple relocated to Darlington. Evans started work as an assistant bookseller, first at Hudson's University Bookshop in Newcastle, and then at SPCK in Durham.</p><p>At SPCK she began buying stock and so came into contact with reps. And although she loved bookselling, she realised that she "didn't want to work in a bookshop for ever". In 1987, she saw an advertisement for a north-eastern sales rep with Penguin in The Bookseller, applied and got the job. </p><p>In at the deep end</p><p>"I had a rough idea of what reps did, but even so I was in at the deep end," Evans says. Her introduction to the job consisted of a tour of the former Penguin warehouse at Harmondsworth and head office in Kensington. "I met so many people. I shadowed one of the senior sales reps in Birmingham for a week, so that helped. But then I was on my own and on the road." </p><p>Since then, she has never looked back--perhaps a dangerous thing to say about someone who does so much driving. To begin with, her territory consisted of the north east of England and the Scottish Borders. Today, after several geographical changes to her patch over the years, she no longer travels north of the border, but still takes in many of the same locations she has visited for nearly two decades. "My motto is: don't upset anyone, as you never know when you're going to see them again," she laughs. Now her territory is to be found east of the Pennines, extending north to Morpeth and south to Grimsby and Huddersfield. Fortunately, she has managed to make her home bang in the middle, in Darlington, County Durham.</p><p>"When I first started the job, I just wanted to find my feet, and gain the confidence to voice my own opinions. It all comes gradually. It takes time to build relationships with customers; you have to be patient. If you're seeing people once a month, it can take you two or three visits to feel comfortable with them. I had to familiarise myself with a lot of new systems and get to grips with the huge Penguin list. It was all pretty daunting. But my bookshop experience gave me a head start, and it didn't take too long." </p><p>In those far off, pre-Epos days, all ordering was done manually on bits of paper. Evans recalls: "The printed stocklist was the rep's basic tool, and I think we also had record cards. Every chain had a different system. There were no computers, so there were reams of paperwork. It was a nightmare. You had to wait for everything to come through the post. I remember completing my weekly call report--my record of my dealings with customers that week, where I'd been, how much I'd sold, what was selling through and so on--in triplicate with carbons in between."</p><p>High-tech tools</p><p>Despite her job's distinctly low-tech past, Evans has enthusiastically embraced the new technologies that are now the stock-in-trade of most publishers' reps. "I think laptops and email are just fantastic. They have transformed the job. The weekly call reports remain an important way of communicating, but these days they are emailed to everyone in one fell swoop." </p><p>Evans is particularly attached to her laptop. "It is a fantastic selling tool. Penguin was probably the first company to devise a laptop selling system, and every rep was encouraged to use it from the start." The introduction of laptops was, she says, a huge investment at the time, and they require regular updating. But it is a concept that works. Each Penguin rep now has a broadband connection, which means that Evans uses her laptop a huge amount. </p><p>She took a nine-month European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) course two years ago at her own instigation, but with the backing of Penguin. This too has been invaluable, she says.</p><p>Mobile phones have also revolutionised her job--and lightened her pockets. "Before I got my mobile, I could have characterised the job as 'Phoneboxes, Toilets and Car Parks', all important things when you're on the road. I used to collect bags of 10p and 20p pieces so that I could use payphones. Hard to believe now."</p><p>Despite the transforming effects of modern technology, Evans emphasises that the essence of her job remains the same. Much of her time is still spent absorbing large amounts of information: trying to remember which Penguin titles are already out in the shops, and which are forthcoming. To help with this, Evans has created her own aide-m&eacute;moire--a spreadsheet of new titles, which she tailors to suit each customer.</p><p>Long distance driver</p><p>Evans is on the road a great deal, probably more than many reps because she has such a large area to cover and her customers are very spread out. She averages only about three calls a day, as it typically takes an hour or more to get from one to the next. She has 60 live accounts, some of which she visits monthly, others twice a month. These accounts include university bookshops, library suppliers and a couple of wholesalers, as well as general booksellers.</p><p>"If you don't like driving, this is not the job for you. But for me, one of the beauties of being a rep is that I go somewhere different every day." In the car, Evans, a keen sports fan, is an avid Radio 5 Live listener. When she tires of hearing the same news reports, she tunes into local music stations or puts on a CD. She has a handsfree phone in the car, but never switches it on when driving, checking any messages when she stops.</p><p>Evans attends a monthly meeting in London where she is briefed by the sales directors on all new titles. These used to be held regionally, but Penguin now feels it important to bring everyone together more regularly. Evans reports to field sales manager Carl Rolfe (Penguin no longer has regional sales managers), who in turn reports to field sales director John Faiers. </p><p>Evans also talks regularly to Sue Roe, her "mirror" in the north east. Evans works on the Penguin adult lists; Roe sells in Dorling Kindersley, Rough Guides and Penguin's other agencies and children's books. "We talk to each other a lot. It doesn't matter what list you work on, if there's a problem and you're the next one going to see a particular customer, you're the one that sorts it out." </p><p>Preparation, preparation, preparation</p><p>According to Evans, the motto of every publisher's sales rep should be "Be Prepared". "If you do enough preparation then everything else should fall into place," she says.</p><p>Time is also of the essence. Once, a Penguin rep could spend the best part of a day on each call. "Now you get much less time to see the buyer. They can't spend hours chatting. The chains might give you a slot of an hour, or perhaps an hour and a half. So it's crucial to be prepared, and know exactly what you need to get done." </p><p>Usually, selling in new titles will take up the bulk of the visit. "With Epos, stock checking is less important. These days, I'm more likely to be checking on promotions to make sure that the right titles have come in and are where they should be. I check on the sell-through, and I might point out recently reviewed titles, books of local interest, important TV tie-ins or 'Richard&amp;Judy' titles."</p><p>There are other qualities that are essential to making a success of the job. "It's an unusual job," Evans says. "You have to put yourself into it; it's very personality driven. You have to be able to get on with all sorts of people. The ability to be diplomatic and to negotiate is important. You have to take on board what your customer is saying at the same time as selling to them. It's all a balance. It's about doing your best for your customers, but at the end of the day it's also about making money for Penguin.</p><p>"You have to be adaptable. You might turn up for an appointment to find that you're seeing someone different from the person you thought you'd see. You might find yourself working on the shop floor or even in the unpacking room. There might be a fire drill and your appointment will go completely by the board.</p><p>"Finally, I would say that you've got to be motivated. Luckily, I have got a great set of customers and my colleagues generate lots of enthusiasm too."</p><p>It is also the autonomy of the job that continues to motivate Evans after so many years. "You are not exactly your own boss, but autonomy is very much encouraged. If the figures are okay, you'll be left to get on with it. The job is what you make it. You can give it your own slant to make it work better--after all, you're the one who knows your customers. And, particularly with independent bookshops, you are the person who influences their decisions."</p><p>Driven by the diary</p><p>It is hard for Evans to find much to complain about, but she admits to having up days and down days. "The driving gets you down when you're stuck in traffic. I hate being late, and I hate having to cancel appointments. If you miss your slot it could be weeks before you can arrange another one. I live by my diary--I'm booked up so far ahead it sometimes feels like I'm wishing my life away. And I still have to fit in things like holidays. I work long hours, but for me that's compensated for by the flexibility of the job." </p><p>The ability to plan her own schedule is clearly a bonus because Evans has a 10-year-old daughter. "I often find myself catching up with paperwork or doing preparation at 11 p.m. after Hannah has gone to bed. Male colleagues often ask me why on earth I need to work so late. But it works for me."</p><p>Evans thinks that the Penguin she is employed by now is the best it has ever been--the books, the publicity and promotion, and support from the chains and the independents. "There's more communication and a much greater sense of everyone pulling together." </p><p>Editors, she says, are more approachable than they used to be, and appreciate the feedback she gives them. "There's more of a conversation going on. For example, we get an email every Friday from publicity to tell us what's going to be in the weekend papers. The job feels a lot less remote these days, particularly now we have email." </p><p>Traditionally, the rep has been one of the main purveyors of communication--news and gossip--between bookshops. Does she feel that the rep is still fulfilling this role? "There is always talk and chatter about the trade within the trade. I like to discuss topical matters with accounts, but unless it has a direct relevance I keep a lot of it to myself. I think it's important to be sensitive to all my accounts, chains or independents."</p><p>Reps forever</p><p>Every now and again there are doom-laden predictions about the extinction of the rep in the book business. Evans is not unduly alarmed. She concedes that in the past 17 years, the face of bookselling has changed dramatically. But she believes that the power of bookshop managers to choose what is stocked in their shops is still considerable, even in the chains. "Despite the fact that they receive scaleouts for new titles and for promotions, they still have the ability to increase orders, even at Christmas." </p><p>Reports of the rep's demise have, she thinks, been exaggerated. "The relationship hasn't been eroded to that extent. I can't think of anyone who isn't interested to hear what I have to say. That's where trust and good relationships are so important. I can't see the day when there won't be reps, though our role is certainly changing hugely." </p><p>Helen Evans--CV </p>