Management - Combat Online Sales Threats

How To Compete Against Large, Web-Based Sellers

Online ShoppingIn concept, Mike Emoff, CEO of Shumsky (asi/326300), says the big, Web-based companies that sell promotional products and routinely steal business from ad specialty distributors are not all that new. "Ten years ago and before that, you had the catalog companies," he says. "The only thing that's new is the way that they reach the consumer."

But just like the catalog-only companies of years gone by, Emoff says distributors should recognize that even those clients who typically purchase all of their promotional products online would prefer a real human being to come up with ideas and solutions for their company, rather than dealing with a faceless online store. "In today's environment, with all the cyber activity that's going on, it's really easy to not ever meet the clients," he says. "That's probably the model of the online companies that just do business online. However, people still like to meet people."

The problem, of course, is that many prospective clients aren't aware that these solutions-providers exist. Here's how you can begin to reach them.

Utilize Referrals
The first step in converting clients from buying exclusively from the big-name websites to buying from your company is through the time-honored tradition of the referral, according to Marsha Londe, owner of consulting firm Tango Partners. She suggests calling referrals yourself, rather than waiting to have your customer call on your behalf. "If you ask, ‘May I call on them and use your name as a reference?' then that makes you the active participant in moving forward," she says. "Then, I can call them and say, ‘I'm working with my existing customer on the following projects and she has encouraged me to get in touch with you.'"

Case StudyBut what if the prospective customer relates that he or she typically orders ad specialties from one of the big online companies? "Say, ‘I absolutely respect that, but my customer has been very pleased because we've brought some creative ideas and we do have some extra value that we can bring you,'" Londe says. "‘May I just meet with you and see what you're working with now?'"

State Your Case
Once you get your foot in the door, Londe says it's time to explain the advantages of doing business with you as opposed to the online-only folks – even if your prices are higher.

"That person might order coffee mugs for a trade show – but what if coffee mugs aren't the right choice?" she asks. "They're heavy to ship, they're hard to store, nobody's going to take it back in their suitcase because we're all carrying our luggage, and why do I want a coffee mug with somebody else's logo?

"My point is that person may not be ordering a product that's going to get them the results that they envision. So now, they've wasted the money that they've saved by ordering online, whereas if they work with someone who understands their company and the power of promotional products, they can be working with somebody who asks questions and says, ‘I'd like to make a recommendation.' It's that day-to-day relationship-building, service-oriented personality that makes a difference. It's the person who comes with solutions."

Set Up A Showroom
Once you talk the talk, a showroom is one of the best ways to demonstrate to your new potential customer that you can walk the walk as a solutions-provider, Londe says.

"When they go online, they're just skimming through all these pictures or items, whereas if they come into a showroom, or if you have developed case studies that show multiple products with a single logo to accomplish a purpose, suddenly you've separated yourself," she says. "Once I could get clients into my showroom, they wanted to come back."

Londe says showrooms must be kept clean and dust-free, and should include some of your new product offerings, along with those with which you've spearheaded successful promotional campaigns for previous clients. "It gives you a chance to talk about how you built a campaign for your client and why it was successful," she says. "I can go into somebody's office and I can talk up a storm about all of my accomplishments, but if I can demonstrate and show them my accomplishments, then we have a better opportunity here, and I'm no longer talking about myself. I'm talking about a client just like them."

Improve Your Own Website
Even though you're emphasizing the power of relationships over online ordering, your website still must be user-friendly and easy on the eyes in order to sway customers from the big Web-based companies, according to Londe.

"What's the first thing distributors do when they have an opportunity to check out a new client?" she asks. "They go to that client's website. I cannot tell you how many websites I go to that are using the same static, standard wording, like: ‘We have over a million products; choose anything you want.' It's terrible. There's nothing distinguishing about that website, so why would I work with that distributor?

"If they want to distinguish themselves, start with a website and if they don't have a showroom, they can put case studies and photographs on their site. All of these things make them real to the client they're wooing."

Know Your Limits
With that said, you don't want to expend too much time and energy online, says Ilene Marshall, owner of Proforma Star Incentives (asi/300094). "I think the importance of having an online presence really depends on the goals of the distributor and the markets they serve," she says. "I personally would rather spend my time and energy on meeting face-to-face with clients and prospects, rather than developing an online presence."

And besides, trying to match the online prowess of the big boys is typically a losing battle, Emoff says. "If you have a tech-savvy connection and you can put up a storefront, invest in SEO and pop up pretty high in the searches, then yeah, maybe it makes sense," he says. "But most people are so behind that it will take them thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to get in the game from a marketing perspective.

"I believe the more you do that, the more distracted you get in the core business you have, and that's going to be hurtful in the end because you're not going to do anything great."

Don't Forget Self-Marketing
Leave-behind items are important in swaying a Web-based customer your way, but Londe says you should never be cheap – especially when you're trying to demonstrate the value your business adds over the big online companies.

"Just because you're a small business with not a lot of spare cash doesn't mean you should buy the cheapest products with your name on it," she says. "Just as we tell our clients that what you buy should reflect your brand, the same thing holds true for us as distributors. It's important that we pick our giveaways and we should be generous with these marketing tools. And don't just leave a gift with a client, but leave gifts with the people around that client so that they're familiar with you and they know who you are."

Send A Personalized Thank You
It's just as important to stand out to a client who you wooed from a Web-based company during the follow-up as it was when you first earned their business. Larry Cohen, president of Axis Promotions (asi/128263), says a personalized touch goes a long way versus a quick e-mail that can get lost in the shuffle.

"Small tokens of appreciation – a thank-you note and a personalized call – all add to the relationship," he says. "We need to sell the added value we provide."

Bow Out Gracefully
It can be frustrating, but if you run into a prospective client who just isn't willing or able to appreciate your company's added value, Marshall says it's important to know when to walk away.

"Quite honestly, if I can't meet or beat the price and still be profitable, I tell them to buy from the website," she says. "I try to explain to them some of the pitfalls in doing that, but at the end of the day, it's their budget and it's difficult for them to see the time they're going to spend on that order is also going to raise the cost. We wish them luck and try to educate them as to the pitfalls. But at some point, I'm not going to do business if I'm not making money."