Industry experts weigh in on the questions that matter

We asked some of the most successful and influential people in the promotional products industry for their take on the challenges that today’s distributors face. Their answers are insightful, bold and listed here to help you explore some of the best ways to beat the competition, and meet your goals.

Q: 73% of distributors do nearly all of their business with existing customers.* Would you advocate this approach or encourage new customer acquisition as well?

Megan Erber

Megan Erber

I think it’s important to have a healthy balance of both new customers and existing clients. Existing customers bring in a constant stream of revenue, some big, some small, but you can always count on them. Artwork is (usually) less time consuming, and once you get to know your client, you know what their needs are, their buying habits, and who their target audience is. However, most expect bigger discounts and for you to bend over backwards more.

With that being said, they are only ordering a few times a year. I cannot sit around and wait for this client to order another round of trade show items. So, my partner and I have different ways of bringing in new clients. She is more old school and has no problem picking up the phone and calling someone. I’d rather be networking, at events, local shows, happy hours, etc.

 

Steve Woodburn

Steve Woodburn

Those who focus the majority of their time on current customers without keeping a pipeline of prospects and referrals are fooling themselves. The only constant in life is change and while it may seem like you’ve got the world by the tail that too will change. People leave companies, new people come in who already have relationships, M&As are ongoing and procurement is playing a bigger and bigger role in commoditizing the purchases of everything from office and cleaning supplies to equipment and promotional products.

My feeling is if you’re not always working to build new business with new clients, you will eventually go out of business.

 

Paul Bellantone

Paul Bellantone

It is imperative that industry distributors do both effectively. Only doing business with existing customers is a risky venture and in the long run, an unsustainable business model. Companies consolidate, move, go out of business and change marketing plans and buying processes. Your prized ‘contact’ at a company can move into a new role, leave the organization, retire – there are too many variables. I advocate a continuous pipeline of new leads and prospects through referrals from your current customers along with ongoing new business networking and marketing.

There are more than 28 million businesses in the US. These small business can be a sweet spot for many in our industry. They are a great source of new and long lasting business relationships and growth.

 

Jeff Solomon

Jeff Solomon

You MUST acquire new customers!

We all have heard the stories… The buyer you work with leaves the company and the new buyer has their “go to” company. You’re out. Companies get sold and things change.

You need to keep existing customers happy and be working to earn new business.

 

 

Martin Varley

Martin Varley

I view business as always moving, so you either grow through adding more customers or you go backwards if you lose a customers when a merger takes place, a marketing strategy changes or a buyer leaves.

The risk is too great to not have a sales pipeline from new prospects.

 

 

 

Q: 84% of distributors currently win business through networking, and 68% through their website. Do you think that will change in the future?

Megan Erber

Megan Erber

Back when I first started in this industry (2004), I worked for a small distributor called gimmees.com. They were 100% online. I had their very first order and we were fastest growing distributor 2 years in a row. Fast forward to 2008, when the economy sank, it took more than just having a “great website”. You have to adapt in this industry. You have to be forward thinking and as clichéd as it sounds, you have to think outside the box.

Enter Networking. And with networking, comes social media. Social media humanizes us as people, not just order takers. This is the age of the millennials. Most everything is done online, even networking. That shouldn’t take away from networking events, local shows, happy hours with your clients… But it’s a great way to show off the other side of your business.

 

Jeff Solomon

Jeff Solomon

It’s clear that clients like to buy online. But people also like to do business with people they know, and networking is always going to be effective. Those who aren’t engaged in social media should be; it’s the future of marketing. Building your ‘voice’ on social media is about online engagement, rather than posting a steady stream of product promotions.

Dave Kerpen, CEO of Likeable Media, has a great way of putting it. “At a cocktail party, you wouldn’t walk up to someone and say, ‘Hey, I’m Dave. My stuff is 20 percent off.’ What you do is ask questions, tell stories, listen and relate to people.”

 

Martin Varley

Martin Varley

The pace of change is increasing and with new B2B entrants offering superb online sites these numbers will quickly swap round and the website (read social media) will be the major driver of revenue growth.

Promotional Products are no different to other analogous marketing services niches in this respect. If anything, we have had it easy compared to print.

 

 

Paul Bellantone

Paul Bellantone

Successful distributor companies should proficient at both networking and online lead generation. I believe the mix of networking to website acquisition will vary from distributor to distributor based on business model and past successes.

Customers and potential customers will dictate how they want to be reached, educated and sold. Distributors must have tools and talent to reach these companies where they currently exist and where they will exist in the future.

 

Q: How would you suggest a distributor differentiate themselves when everyone is selling the same products?

Martin Varley

Martin Varley

You have to be known for something, that is how you differentiate. The challenge is that the new buyers are younger and less patient; they are also less loyal. We all love Southwest Airlines for the low fares and put up with the chance of a middle seat in return for value. Those in Europe have made Ryanair the largest airline that nobody has a good word for. They are highly profitable and the fastest growing though.

First time buyers are hard to extract loyalty from, particularly with millennials, but if I had to give one piece of advice based on my need for 20 shirts for a charity last week, it is to make it easy to buy. Back to the airline analogy, that is what makes Virgin America so good, the best website in the business and yet the highest prices.

 

 

Jeff Solomon

Jeff Solomon

Don’t be a commodity sales person. If you are, you’re screwed. Today’s buyers are very comfortable buying their “stuff” online. I think a key here is selling programs, or campaigns.

Instead of selling “stuff” to hand out at a trade show, which is what the “stuff” sellers will do, come up with a pre-show mailing to target the key buyers the client wants to reach.

Send a personalized, engraved item with a marketing message driving the prospect to the booth. At the the show have A, B and C level hand outs that specifically build on the company’s marketing message. The better items obviously go to the better clients and prospects. You will sell more products and provide value for the client.

 

Paul Bellantone

Paul Bellantone

Our most recent annual study estimates that there are more than 22,000 distributors in our industry. Distributors can all sell to the same customers, have access to the same products from the same suppliers at generally the same price under the same terms. I advocate for moving away from selling products – period.

Sell service. Sell expertise. Sell stories and success. Sell safety. Dig deeper into your customers’ business and sell to their needs – the ones they know about and the ones you can bring to light for them. Sell professionalism. In the words of one industry colleague, Suppliers sell products. Distributors sell purpose. That is the differentiator.

 

Steve Woodburn

Steve Woodburn

It’s all about adding value to the relationships you build. Value comes about through knowing your products’ features and benefits, but even more so in knowing your customer’s needs and learning everything there is to know about the industry one works in. When a client says they want to pad print a piece of leather I need to know enough and be confident enough to tell them that won’t work and to suggest a better alternative.

Knowledge comes about through a lifetime of continuing education and through asking questions so you can offer ideas and solutions that make your customer look like a hero. Order takers will never differentiate themselves, but those who seek to keep up with the ever changing world we live in will always know how to add value.

 

Megan Erber

Megan Erber

A good sales person can take an order and call it a day. A great sales person will WOW the client. Here at Brynn Speaks Promo, we offer a complete customer service experience. It’s what separates us from the competition. Giving them more than what they would ever expect – it starts with the introduction, then investing in them, connecting with them on social media, sending samples, offering Virtual Samples; it’s all about having them trust us.

We want our clients to trust us and our professional opinion. A 12 out of 10, every time. People will buy from your company because they want to do business with you. A great sales person will sell themselves, not their product.

 

Q: Our surveyed distributors rated themselves 8.19 / 10 for ‘expertise in promotional products’. How do you think that expertise can best be packaged and sold?

Jeff Solomon

Jeff Solomon

Of course we all think we are experts, but are we really? I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years and am affiliated with a Top 10 distributor company. I’ve taught education sessions and earned my MAS by taking classes for years… But there are many things I can’t do. I don’t know how to sell incentives or a safety program.

Those who have rated themselves highly… As someone with expertise, should be able to show their abilities in tangible ways. The way you package and sell your value is not telling clients what you can do… Show them what you can do.

 

Steve Woodburn

Steve Woodburn

I can tell you from experience that 90% (OK, I made up that percentage, but it’s probably accurate!) of the people in this business are flying by the seat of their pants and are nowhere close to being experts.

Most people who purchase promotional products deal with a lot of distributors who simply want to sell them stuff.

In my mind expertise is best packaged and sold when you’re with customers, asking questions, discussing options and showing with action that you understand how to help them achieve their goals. My feeling is if you have to tell someone you’re an expert or a guru then you probably aren’t.

 

Martin Varley

Martin Varley

Neurologists and Oncologists don’t rate themselves that highly, so people have either stopped learning or are delusional about ability. Knowing the difference between emboss and deboss does not make you an expert. And if the whole industry was rated at that level, why are 62% of orders sent to suppliers incomplete?

That said, I do believe that professional distributors deliver a superb service to end user customers. Distributors do a tremendous amount of ‘unpaid’ creative work, often presenting better solutions than the highly paid creative agencies that get rewarded by the hour no matter what they deliver. If I was giving advice about what knowledge to improve upon, it would certainly be on product quality and compliance and why a distributor is the ‘safety net’ that brands need more than they realize.

 

Megan Erber

Megan Erber

That’s unacceptable. Find out why it wasn’t a 10. Make it a 10. Package and sell it as a 12. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

*These statistics came from a survey  of Customer Focus users, conducted in June 2015.

About Our Industry Experts

Megan Erber is the President of Brynn Speaks Promo, LLC, and has over a decade of experience in the promotional products industry, both as a distributor and a supplier. She has been voted one of the most influential people in the industry, and has won several awards including Supplier Sales Rep of the Year and the 2014 Peake Award.

Jeff Solomon, MAS, is the publisher of the award winning site FreePromoTips.com and is a distributor affiliated with a Top 10 company. He’s the recipient of multiple Pyramid awards, and being both a publisher and distributor gives Jeff a unique perspective.

Steve Woodburn, MAS, is the Regional Sales Manager at Prime Line, prior to which he held senior positions at Pinnacle Promotions and Staples Promotional Products. He has served as a board member of PPAI, and writes insightful blogs at http://brandextenders.com/.

Paul Bellantone is the President / CEO of PPAI, the not-for-profit organization that sets standards for the promotional products industry. He has more than 15 years’ experience in the industry, and is a Certified Association Executive, as well as an avid social media user.

Martin Varley is the founder and Group Commercial Director for Customer Focus (was Trade Only). His career in promotional product started in 1987, and he has served as the Managing Director of 4Imprint Europe. He’s an in-demand public speaker and a fervent believer in the power of technology to transform business.

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