Who Owns the Relationship: The Company or The Rep?

Sales is a performance based career unlike any other because as a rep, your income depends directly on your ability to make and keep relationships over time. But who owns those relationships, the rep or the company? The question reveals what is often a contentious issue. Opinions differ about whether a company can ever truly "own" a relationship but firms contend that a relationship developed on their dime is theirs.

While not publicly discussed, practically, it's standard practice for reps to take their client list with them when switching employers. It's usually against company policy and in many cases illegal, but if a customer's contact information has made its way into a personal phone book or email, it's difficult to prove that that information was taken illegally from the company. Anecdotally, many sales managers share with us that they see a major uptick in database activity in the days and weeks leading up to a rep's resignation, suggesting an active effort to amass information.

From the company's perspective however, it's a challenge that can prove costly and difficult. A business may have legal rights to a contact, but it's nearly impossible to truly own a relationship despite having spent significant money on marketing to attract and engage that contact. If a customer trusts their sales rep or account manager and puts more importance on that relationship than the one they have with the company, there is little that can be done to stop the customer from following the rep wherever he or she works next.

The lines of division regarding data ownership in some industries are more clear than in others. For example, real estate and financial sales reps often have complete ownership of their client portfolio and can leverage that portfolio to negotiate better comp terms and sign-on bonuses. Other fields have strictly enforced policies regarding the privacy and ownership of client relationships, especially larger, more-consolidated industries such as shipping, telecommunications, and healthcare. Still others fall in the middle, these firms hire reps for their books of business but don't acknowledge that that's a criteria nor do they ask how that book of business was obtained.

As a sales rep, it's important to develop solid relationships with your customers that can pay off for years and even decades. Ideally, you find a company that respects the work you've put in to develop and maintain those relationships and rewards you for it. But given that you will likely switch employers more than once over the years, it's critical to make sure you're able to properly navigate the transitions by keeping important relationships intact, both with your clients and your previous employer, who likely wants to keep that client relationship just as much as you do.

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