The Immediate Plan
Three strategies to grow your business right now
By Shane Dale
1. Get New Business Now
The most important measure to take in an effort to acquire new business right away is to get on the phone. Make calls to new contacts, old contacts, people you meet at a chamber of commerce dinner. Get in touch with people and start talking.
Mike Emoff, CEO of Shumsky (asi/326300), says distributors can’t just sit around and wait for new business to come their way. That strategy, or lack thereof, simply won’t work right now. “One of the very first things that a distributor has to do is understand that it’s time not to be reactive, but proactive,” he says.
That means taking a step that’s so simple that many distributorship owners and sales reps don’t even think about it: contacting former customers. “Within every business, distributors have ex-customers that they haven’t contacted in awhile,” Emoff says. “That would be the first place that I would start.
“I would go to the reps that have those accounts and say, ‘Let’s start with people we had a relationship with.’ That’s the quickest way to bolster orders. To me, that’s pretty obvious, but I think for a lot of people, it’s not so obvious.”
To get new business now, distributors also need to change their mindset and outlook on the market. Distributors have to approach business today with a view that customers want to buy. That advice comes from Scott Gingold, owner of consulting firm Confidential Counselor.
“The first thing they have to do is have that mindset,” Gingold says. “They have to get their heads screwed on straight and realize they can’t sit in their office and hide, and hope things get better. You’ve got to be upbeat and give people a reason to do business with you. You’ve got to stop making excuses and get out there. Right now, I guarantee you there are companies out there still buying promotional products. Granted, they might be scaled down, but it’s happening.”
The next step in the hunt for new business is to get your best advocates to work for you. Paul Conant, founder of Paul Conant Consulting, says one of the best ways to get an immediate sales uptick is to institute a referral program where your top clients are motivated to give you new leads. “This is the least expensive and least intrusive way to increase your business,” he says. “You can offer an incentive to your customers and entice them to help you get referral business.”
The only drawback to referrals, Conant says, is that some clients may be reticent to ask their friends to buy from you, so it may be a good idea to not be too pushy if you sense resistance. However, those clients who are willing to refer you to the people they know can be your golden ticket to new business in very short order. “Think about it: Customers or clients that love to do business with you actually referring their friends and family to do business with you,” he says.
Conant’s suggestion is to create a program that rewards your existing clients for directly sending business your way. “Sit down and get creative, but not too complicated,” he says. “Think of what the lifetime value of a client is, and then consider a certain reward for getting the current customer or client to bring in some friends.
“For example, in a dental office, we created a refer-a-friend program that was attached to the appointment cards. If they referred a friend, and their friend made and completed an appointment, the patient was given a $25 credit toward future purchases.”
It’s important to note that 84% of sales in the United States are a result of word-of-mouth advertising, according to Conant. “If you can structure your product or service referral as advice between friends and families, then you will win the business,” he says.
Conant is also an advocate of expanding your offers to existing customers. “It’s called the add-on sale,” he says. “There is always the opportunity to upsell your customers with things such as additional products and consulting or marketing services.”
In terms of attracting new customers, there’s another simple technique that goes over a lot of distributors’ heads, according to Emoff, that will get them a warmer lead: the mutual benefit solution. “I have a close friend, Chris, who’s in the insurance business. He sells medical and health insurance to businesses in the community,” he says. “He and his company have an incredible list of clients, we have a list of our existing clients, and we share those lists.
“I’ll say to my clients, ‘Have you thought about Chris for your health insurance?’ Chris will say, ‘Have you thought about Mike for your promotional products?’ It’s about leveraging a relationship.”
Emoff is also a fan of prospecting campaigns, which includes reviewing business journals that reveal a list of the largest companies in each market. “You can instantly prospect that list,” he says. “Proactively go out the door and look for accounts in your area.”
Gingold notes that target marketing efforts can also yield new customers to call on. He cites a couple of hot markets that distributors should target right away – including politicians who are running for office in local elections, and minor league baseball teams, which are masters of self-promotion.
“That’s the kind of thing in which you have to think out of the box,” Gingold says. “It’s going to that stadium and asking, ‘Who can I talk to about fulfilling your promotional needs?’” – SD
2. Ramp Up Marketing Efforts
One of the most important ways to increase revenues immediately is to first fine-tune and increase your marketing efforts. After all, new business and new channels of revenue are the result of marketing campaigns that reveal new leads to call on. Whether it’s a new referral program, a new online social network campaign or a new targeted print advertisement, distributors have to ramp up their marketing now to take advantage of an expanding market and new opportunities.
Here, ad specialty distributors and business and management experts offer 10 ways that you can expand your marketing efforts right now.
1. Follow your dollars. “My children are enrolled in a local preschool where we pay thousands of dollars a year for school and camp,” says John Zalepka, president of Corporate Brand Inc. (asi/168854). “I couldn’t help but notice all of the imprinted T-shirts and bags I saw coming home. It wasn’t long before I was printing their stuff.”
The key is to focus your marketing attention immediately on companies and businesses you know are buying promotional products. When you see local businesses using ad specialty items or marketing their products and services in local media, those are the companies you should be targeting.
Zalepka cites another example close to home – literally – that helped bring him some new business. He had to have some windows replaced in his home recently, and he noticed that the crew hired to install the window showed up in trucks wrapped with graphics and wearing imprinted sweatshirts and embroidered caps.
“When the owner of the company came around to check on the job, guess where I met my next prospect and client?” Zalepka says. “So go ahead, ask your dry cleaner about their hangers, your coffee shop about their magnets and your pizzeria about their menus. Remember: You won’t get the business if you don’t ask for it.”
2. Get organized. To effectively market to targeted audiences, distributors first need to get their lists and systems in good shape. The response rate on a targeted mailing or promotion will only get better as you clean up and confirm the information in any list you’re using.
“Coordinate, consolidate and clarify your many lists,” says Marsha Londe, owner of Tango Partners. “Identify your groups by business, title or information that allows you to sort and target your audience. Once you’re organized, continually update. Then, you don’t have to go through this process again.
“Don’t send a mailing without first confirming or correcting your contact information. If you miss the intended recipient, you’ve wasted time and money, and missed an opportunity.”
3. Coordinate a targeted mail campaign. “Coordinate the product with the message and determine your packaging,” Londe says. “The most important element is that the product they select has to have a reason or a purpose. It has to complement or coordinate the messaging. Who’s the audience, what are the objectives, and what’s the budget and time frame?”
4. Fill the pipeline. Londe suggests that distributors plan out their next year’s worth of marketing efforts now. The reason? To fill your sales lead pipeline in case you run into a slow time.
“Suddenly there can be a lull in sales, and you don’t have anything in place because you haven’t planned,” Londe says. “If you plan ahead, come July or August, which is a really typically slow time, you can gear up for the holidays.When you’re going through next year’s Christmas list the December before, then you have one step out of the way. It’s organizing, sitting down with your team and making a plan of what you’re going to do.”
5. Update your website. When clients go looking for ad specialty vendors, the first place they often go is to the Internet. So, it’s vital to take the time right now to update your site so it reflects your brand positioning and provides easy access to information – contact points, product specs, marketing ideas, etc. Also, use the site as a place to promote your own good news – and make it prominent on the site so customers can find it immediately.
“If you’ve got news about yourself and you have a link that you can put on your website, like if you appear in an article or have a case study, put it up there,” Londe says. “You don’t want it to have old or outdated information.”
A website that effectively promotes your business, on the other hand, will have background information on the company, case studies about how you’ve run successful programs for other clients, and research (data or other information) that could help potential clients in their own business.
6. Send out e-newsletters or e-mail specials. Marketing efforts right now should be designed to keep you on the radar of your top customers and prospects. One of the best ways to do that consistently is to send out electronic newsletters on a regular basis – either weekly or monthly, but no less frequently. This will keep your company top-of-mind with clients, and it also gives you an outlet to prove your marketing and promotion expertise.
“Try sending out a one-page newsletter to your client base,” Zalepka says. “It also doesn’t cost a thing to forward along some of the many e-flyers that suppliers send to distributors. They have already come up with the creative; all you have to do is forward a client-safe copy.”
As a marketing effort, the point is simply to remain consistently relevant to your clients. Passing along information they can use to improve their own businesses can go a long way toward creating a long-term partnership.
7. Get involved locally. It’s a good idea to join the local chamber of commerce and make networking part of your new marketing efforts. However, just joining these organizations and showing up to meetings usually isn’t enough to get noticed.
“I joined a local chamber of commerce a couple of years ago, and nothing happened,” Zalepka says. “I paid for a bold listing in the directory of all of the chamber members – still nothing. Then, I joined the golf committee. I attended a few early-morning meetings, where I met other local businesspeople with similar interests. Next thing I know, they needed a giveaway for the outing, and they had a $5,000 budget. This proves that sometimes, all you have to do is get involved.”
8. Position yourself as an expert within your organizations. Make a point right now to brand yourself and your company as an expert – in whatever area your clients need an expert for. If you call on the manufacturing sector, then immerse yourself in that business and create a brand for your business around safety, for example.
“Come off as a counselor, advisor – something in the marketing area so people think about you in that vein,” says Sharon Brill, president of Raelyn Inc. (asi/303873). “Other than bringing your products to the table, bring in marketing advice. You need to show a concern for other people’s success in order to succeed yourself. You’ll come off as a valuable asset to them.”
9. Mention what you do to everyone. “I have found it helpful to keep it really simple,” Zalepka says. “Try to put what you do in the context of how it may help the other person. There are just way too many products in this industry, and it’s easy to start shoving things down people’s throats. However, this will only overwhelm someone, particularly in a social setting where people don’t need or want a sales call. Instead, listen for keys to where you may be able to explain your business naturally.
“I was recently at a party where I knew no one. I happened to wander into a circle of people chatting when this otherwise pleasant lady started ripping apart the company that was handling the fundraiser for the PTO, where she is president. They had promised order forms, mockups and samples, and completely dropped the ball. I asked a few questions and then offered solutions and insight to help her straighten her vendor out Monday morning. I wound up with an order for 1,000-plus pieces of imprinted apparel and 800 seat cushions.”
10. Market yourself consistently. “Being busy is no excuse for not marketing yourself. Sure you’re busy now, but what’s your forecast for the slower months?” Zalepka says. “You need a pipeline of qualified prospects that you continually work until you convert them into clients. Pick up the telephone and call some people. Make the follow-up calls after meeting people at a networking event. Call your top 10 clients and ask them for a couple of referrals, then make those 20 calls another day. The bottom line is, do something every day.” – SD
3. Staff Up For Immediate Growth
Whether the need is a new employee to fill a void in sales or someone to assist with administrative duties, Danon Middleton, COO of Tango Partners, says distributors will have to get pickier as to whom they hire going forward if they’re to be successful in the new economy. “Instead of just hiring a body, I think they need to choose a good person who’s truly going to be an asset to their company,” she says.
That means doing a better job of diversifying staff and creating a group of employees that’s similar to a baseball team, in which everyone fills a different, necessary role, Middleton says. “When you’re building a team, you want to create a team that complements each other,” she says. “If everyone is great at sourcing products and doesn’t know how the process for filling an order works, that’s not a great team.”
Regardless of the need, it’s never preferable to make a hiring decision in a limited amount of time. But if you must do it, Linda Neumann suggests picking someone who’s experienced in the industry and will require less training.
“If you lose them, you’ve invested less in them,” says Neumann, CEO of Brilliant Marketing Ideas Inc. (asi/146083). “Training someone is very difficult in this industry. It doesn’t seem that complicated, but once you get into it and understand the little things, you see how detailed it can be.”
It’s also easier to discover whether an employee has a good work ethic if he or she has that industry experience, Neumann says. “One of the problems I’ve noticed is that sometimes you get these recent college graduates, and they don’t have the work ethic that some of the older people do,” she says. “That’s the challenge, and you can only find out that information based on references.”
Of course, owners must tailor that experience to the appropriate position, according to Middleton. “If it’s internal staff that supports the drop-ship order process in your company, you want to find someone who’s had organizational-type jobs, is this market,” she says.
Before they begin the hiring process, Middleton recommends distributors come up with three key characteristics that are important for their new employees to possess. The nature of those characteristics will depend upon the personal wishes of the employer and the position to be filled. “That’s a key thing when you look at all the resumes on Monster.com or wherever,” she says. “You want to look for three key components, and if you don’t see those three key things on their resume, toss it.”
Ken Thoreson, president of Acumen Management Group, recommends a very detailed approach for hiring new employees that can be implemented very quickly. “For each job position in the company, you need to define the ideal profile for each employee,” he says. “This would be the top-five past work experiences that you think are required to be successful. Not three, not seven – five experiences. This will help you judge the resumes and ensure that you are looking at the person correctly.”
Once distributors decide on those five essential pieces of prior work experience, Thoreson takes the process even a step further than Middleton, suggesting that they come up with not just three, but five characteristics that they desire in a new employee. “Describe the type of person you’re looking for – attention to detail, strong communication skills, etc.,” he says.
Based upon both sets of top-five criteria, Thoreson says employers should post a help-wanted advertisement on online services like Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com, along with industry newsletters. “We believe you need to advertise every 60 days, whether you are hiring or not,” he says. “The good people may not be looking when you are.”
During the interview process, Neumann says employers must ask technical, industry-related questions – in fact, she suggests giving those types of questions higher priority than questions regarding character.
“Offhand, just ask them about the things that are sometimes misunderstood, like pricing situations or other industry-type questions that are very specific,” Neumann says. “With the general questions, anyone can put on an act for a few minutes. But if they say, ‘I’m an expert in ESP searching,’ start asking them questions about ESP, like, ‘If nothing comes up in your search, how do you go about searching for it?’ And then, have them walk you through how to find it. This is something that the novice would not know.”
While time may be short, Thoreson emphasizes that distributors should make time to interview multiple candidates, which can often be done in a matter of days. He recommends that distributors with the ability to do so interview a minimum of five people for each position, and have three people from the company interview each candidate.
“Each interviewer must understand they need to take the emotion out of hiring,” Thoreson says. “The first step is to hold a telephone interview, and see if they can qualify based upon your top-five list. Each person should have a scorecard to rate each of the interviewees. The scorecard should be made up of the two top-five lists.”
Thoreson then recommends that each candidate be scored on a scale of one to five – one being worst, five being best – for each category.
When hiring on the fly, perhaps the most important aspect of the interview process isn’t what the potential hire tells the employer; it’s what the employer tells the potential hire, according to Neumann. “You need to give them the right idea of what they’re going to do in their company,” she says. “If they’re going to be overloaded, you need to tell them that.”
With that in mind, Middleton says distributors will be much more likely to make a hiring mistake if they aren’t sure what they’re looking for in a new employee. That’s why they have to ask themselves some hard questions before they ask hard questions of interviewees.
“They need to do a little reflection there so that they can then write and post a job to entice the people they’re actually looking for,” Middleton says. “The number of folks who miss the boat on that, you’d be surprised.” – SD