STATE OF THE INDUSTRY / 2011
Eight ways to improve customer relationships and expand your business
Hire A MultiLingual Staffer
As markets become more diverse, businesses must appeal to the varying needs of their customers.
The multicultural opportunities in many communities these days can be tremendous for distributors – but only if they're equipped to capitalize on them. Two of the embroiderers who work for distributor firm Newline Trophy (asi/283175) speak Spanish, which has proved beneficial when communicating with Spanish-speaking members of the local softball and soccer teams that source trophies and awards from them.
For distributors seeking to reach local markets that are non-English speaking, or print text in a foreign language, having someone on staff who speaks more than English can be a tremendous asset.
Craig Jennings, a small-business coach, says that business owners should decide whether it would be worth hiring a multi-lingual staff member depending on how much they expect the new market will add to the business. If there is an opportunity to add as much as 10% to 15% or more to the business, it would be worthwhile to not only hire employees who speak the language, but also broaden the marketing to that demographic.
"If you decide you want to expand to the Spanish language market, your business card needs to be in Spanish, and your website needs to be in Spanish as well," says Jennings.
For those looking to make less significant adjustments, Joe Costantino, owner of Business Marketing Success, suggests seeking out a broker organization that already has sales staff dedicated to certain markets and could be hired on an independent rep basis.
"Hiring a direct sales person might be a good idea, but they still have to take the time to build relationships," says Costantino. "With a broker organization, the company may already have those relationships and can jump right into the sales."
Build A Financial Cushion For Your Business
Go to www.asicentral.com/soi4
to listen to an ASI Radio segment with tips on how to ensure you have the proper financial cushion for your business. The strategies here would be great to share with your top networking contacts.
During the economic downturn, many distributors depleted what cash reserves they may have had. A good goal for distributors now is to work on building up that financial cushion.
In the past two years, Ron West, owner of a FastSigns (asi/395000) franchise, has struggled to strengthen his company financially. "It's a goal, but it's been hard to reach over the last couple years," he says.
Craig Jennings, a business coach, recommends that company owners have enough set aside for the business to run an entire year without making money.
To get into a more comfortable financial place, distributors should make saving central to their business, determining how much they need to set aside each month or week to reach their annual goals, according to Jennings. Seeking out additional revenue streams can also help to build up a cushion.
Of course, distributors also need to take a critical look at fixed and variable costs if they're going to create a year's worth of financial cushion, as Jennings suggests. Some tough questions need to be asked: Do you need the office you're currently operating in? Are you making enough of a profit margin on every order? Are some of your clients so much of a drain on your time and your business' time that they need to be let go? If you had a sudden 20% drop in revenues, could you immediately cut out 20% of your expenses?
Distributors need to regularly analyze their expenses to ensure they're staying in line with revenues. And, they have to stay on top of their profitability and receivables – that's the only way to ensure a true financial cushion in a business.
However, Bill D'Antoni, owner of D'Antoni Promotional Products (asi/173648), came up with another way when he took on a part-time job last year in addition to running the distributorship. "It helped out tremendously," says D'Antoni. "It created a cushion, and now I'm trying to keep spending down as much as possible."
GET AN OUTSIDE OPINION
Whether seeking advice on one trouble spot in a business or how to overhaul the whole organization, distributors can get a good perspective on their operations by reaching out to a qualified outsider. Hiring a consultant to help review and revise the company's business plan, or help train staff on boosting sales, often serves as a catalyst for significant improvements.
That was what Wendy Cohen, president of Avant-Garde Printing and Promotions (asi/127845), found to be the case when she tapped Mark Anthony of Training for Success. "He helped give our salespeople pointers, but also worked with our website to put it higher on Google searches," says Cohen. "It brought fresh ideas in, and beyond just sales."
It may also be worthwhile to seek out a more long-term coach or mentor – someone who the distributor can check in with regularly over six moths, a year or longer, to track the company's progress. Networks like SCORE and American Express OPEN can connect business owners with coaches for all areas of operations, some at little or no cost.
Ron West, owner of a FastSigns (asi/395000) franchise, has tapped into his franchise's own network of field consultants who visit the local offices, as well as an informal group of other FastSigns owners who exchange tips.
"It has helped us not so much with one particular change in our operations, but more as a reinforcement and refocusing," says West. "It's easy when you're working day in and day out to forget to focus on the longer-term goals, and an outside consultant can help you do that."
Do A Reputation.com Audit
The proliferation of blogs, social media and online reviews has opened up more opportunities for prospects to learn about distributors and their offers online, but has also increased the chance for private or untrue information about a company to surface. By running an audit with the new service Reputation.com, distributors can review their online image and monitor what is being said about themselves and their company, correcting it if necessary.
Ron Thomas, president of Stowebridge Promotion Group Inc. (asi/337500), agrees that such a service would be useful, particularly due to the fact that inaccurate information can be posted about a company online with very little vetting.
"Anyone can write anything about a company online, so it can become a gossip site," says Thomas. "I'd want to know if it's something relevant or something I don't have to put a lot of weight in."
Ultimately, your online reputation is something you need to monitor, whether through Reputation.com or your own efforts. Negative customer posts or anything that's written about your company's service can influence your whole customer base and even prospects you haven't yet done business with. Anything that's written online these days about your company has to be monitored and checked for accuracy.
Joe Costantino, owner of consulting firm Business Marketing Success, says distributors absolutely have to take the time right now to audit what is being said about their companies online. He sees the effort as eminently valuable, particularly in an age when an online review can mean the difference between gaining a new order or being passed over.
"It used to be the Better Business Bureau, where you would get their plaque to hang on your wall, but now people turn to Google," says Costantino. "It's important for a business to have a positive online presence, and this would be a useful tool for that."
Start A Sales Incentive Program
Whatever the size of the company or its sales goals, creating an incentive program can add energy to the sales team and, even at its most basic level, improve business.
"We just started doing something basic, giving out a gift certificate to a restaurant or an American Express gift card," says Wendy Cohen, president of Avant-Garde Printing and Promotions (asi/127845). She runs the incentives quarterly and has found that "it definitely helps give them goals to reach and increases motivation to put forward a little effort."
For distributors already running basic incentive programs, looking at specific areas where the company's sales could be improved can give the programs more value. Toward the end of last year, Cathileen Marchese, president of Build Your Own Garment (asi/129562), sought to encourage her team to get more business from clients who had placed single, small orders.
"Clorox would call in an order, but then no one would grow it," says Marchese. "We look at anything under a certain dollar amount as an order, not an account, so we put an incentive program in place where someone who turns something into an account gets a different commission structure."
Rather than a 10% commission, someone boosting sales with a client can increase their commission to 12.5%. Though it has only been two quarters, Marchese is pleased with the results so far and describes the incentive program as a valuable change for her company.
Create New Business Cards
While a major marketing overhaul might be more than what most distributors are looking for, one small change that can make a big difference is creating new business cards. Reviewing whether a more pointed tagline, additional graphic or simply a different paper stock might make for a better first impression, distributors will find that the right tweaks on their business cards can say more about the company than its phone number and address.
With the expanding use of smartphones, it may also be worth considering to add a small QR code to a card, which takes users directly to the company website when they scan it.
"It's something physical in front of the person that drives them online and can be a powerful tool," says Rich Brooks, president of small-business Internet marketing firm Flyte. "But remember who your audience is – if it's tech-savvy and you want to establish yourself as ahead of the curve that's great, but if they probably don't own a smartphone, it can almost be an insult."
Stowebridge Promotion Group Inc. (asi/337500) revised its business cards two years ago before QR codes were being talked about, but Ron Thomas, president, says he sees potential in adding the codes in a year or so.
"By the end of the year, research is saying some 60-odd percent of phones will be smartphones, so then I can see it having more relevance," he says.
Beyond making it more likely that a prospective client will remember you next time they need help with promotional products, an eye-catching card also serves as an advertisement of what a distributor can offer.
"In this business, you sell what you show," says Del Ingrahm, owner of Calico Graphics (asi/155795), who just created a special foil-embossed card for his company that cost a bit more than a standard card. "If we show a higher-end card, something a little flashier," he says, "the prospect is going to ask us if we can make that for them, and we make a better margin on it."
Reduce Your Number Of Suppliers
An excellent way for distributors to ensure strong customer service from their vendors is to trim back on the number of suppliers they are buying from, sticking with preferred suppliers they have worked with in the past and can count on to deliver the product when needed.
"I stick with those suppliers who, when I call them, they know my name," says Barbara Bunn, owner of Barbara Bunn Specialties (asi/150120). "That has served me well."
She regularly goes through her contact list, making sure she is completely satisfied with her partners and considering alternatives to those who are not delivering to the level she would like. Not only has this helped her ensure that orders are delivered quickly and reliably, but the effort has also created situations where she can get lower prices than might be possible with a supplier from which she had not ordered as much.
The paring down of suppliers can also have an effect on distributors' cash flow. Some suppliers, if they know that a distributor will be using them for all of their coffee mug orders, for example, will offer net 30 credit terms that will help the distributors' financial status on a regular basis.
In the end, distributors often trust their preferred suppliers the most – and that gives them confidence that their orders will be flawless. Del Ingrahm, owner of Calico Graphics (asi/155795), recently vetted his list of suppliers, going with those his company ordered from most frequently. When clients ask for a very specific or unusual product, Ingrahm will occasionally reach out to new suppliers, but it is something he has learned to avoid if possible.
"Going with untested suppliers has bitten us in the butt," says Ingrahm. "We had to get a yo-yo that we weren't able to deliver."
HIRE A PART-TIMER
While a new full-time employee may not be an affordable option, hiring an intern or part-time worker can take some of the day-to-day pressure off the company by helping with administrative tasks that you as the owner or other managers don't have the time for.
Nancy Quade, owner of New Image Inc. (asi/282746), has tapped students from nearby University of Delaware to intern for her and learn about how her screen-printing and promotional products work. She finds the students to be valuable additions to the team, particularly in that it gives them a broad view of how a business operates.
"Sometimes students can have an idealized view of what they think it is that we do here, but I have to say, 'I'm not an ad agency,'" says Quade. "It may be five minutes of what a marketing person does, then five minutes of what a salesperson does – everyone here has so many hats."
Seeking out local interns can have the added benefit of enhancing the company's recognition in the community, even leading to new business. Mike Whalen, owner of Newline Trophy (asi/283175), hires students from several high schools in the area to help with manufacturing work a few hours a week.
Familiar with the company because of its internships, the high school administrators themselves have come to Whalen for promotional product needs, and as the students graduate and work at companies in the area, they have even come back to order from Newline.
"I had a student who worked for us all the way through college," says Whalen. "He now works at a bank and that bank has become a client."
STATE OF THE INDUSRTY / 2011
InternalOperations By The Numbers
Facts and figures from Counselor's State of the Industry survey that show hiring growth, cash flow improvements and diversifying industry business.
Distributor profit, staffing and payment plans.