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How to Grow Your Business: Advice For Advancement

All reps could use helpful guidance from time to time. Here, industry sales leaders share the best advice they ever received and how they applied it to power their success. Take the wise words to heart to send your revenue soaring.

Go ahead. Ask a high-achieving advertising specialty sales pro what the secret to her success is, and chances are you’ll hear something like this: In the modern marketplace, you need to be a consultative seller, a solutions provider. You have to stop babbling, start listening. You can’t just drop off catalogs and hope; you have to cultivate a relationship with clients and provide campaigns that produce demonstrable ROI. Do that, and customers new and long-standing will reward you with repeat business. “You must provide value,” says Heidi Thorne, owner of Thorne Communications (asi/344244).

For sure that’s great advice. Reps everywhere should be molding themselves into important partners for clients. At the same time, you can also benefit from putting into action other pertinent tips from industry sales stars. To that end, Advantages asked ad specialty aces to share some of the best business advice they ever received and how they used it to accelerate their success. Apply these practical insights to increase your sales.  

“You Have Nothing To Lose. Go for it!”

Scared. That’s not a state of being you’d ever associate with Cindy Jorgenson. Beyond being a highly driven and successful executive, the vice president and national sales manager at Brown & Bigelow (asi/148500) is an admitted adrenalin junkie who has taken on everything from skydiving to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

And yet, Jorgenson confesses, she was scared.

This was back when she was first breaking into promotional product sales. Back when she was staring at a phone with icy chills because it was time to start cold-calling. Prospecting – it just seemed so intimidating. But fortunately for the rookie, there was a promotional sales veteran – Wayne Schultz, her boss at Creative Promotions at the time --  to give her some blunt advice. “He said, ‘Why are you scared?! You have nothing to lose!’” says Jorgenson. “He got me to realize that it doesn’t make sense to be afraid to pick up the phone and ask for business. If they say no, it doesn’t matter; you didn’t lose anything because you never had it.”

Anxiety lifted, Jorgenson started prospecting with a purpose. Having Schultz’s advice in mind helped her to land her first ever promotional program – this with a large client that was in the spa business. She learned about the company after buying one of its hot tubs, rather cheekily reasoning that she’d make back what she spent on the luxury item by turning the company into a client.

It wasn’t easy.

The company president made all the buying decisions, and he proceeded to ignore Jorgenson’s attempts at connecting over the course of three months. Still, persistent and unafraid, Jorgenson had a spec sample of a logoed waterproof mat made and sent to the president. She included a letter explaining that he could send the mats to dealers, who could then provide them as gifts to consumers who buy the firm’s hot tubs. That got his attention. “He dialed my number,” she says. “I paid for the hot tub seven times over with the commissions I earned working with him in that first year alone.”

Over the years, the “you-have-nothing-to-lose” advice helped Jorgenson build a wildly successful sales career. These days, as a leader at the industry’s 25th largest distributorship by revenue, she gives the same guidance to her team, helping reps to prosper. She says: “Don’t ever let fear control you.”

“Set a Schedule and Cluster Tasks”

Heidi Thorne was exhausted. Wheeling from one side of Chicagoland to the other to see various clients in the course of a day. Caught in a multi-task scramble that made it difficult to focus. Not only was this disorganized rush running her ragged, she wasn’t being nearly as efficient as she could be. “My days were just all over the map,” she says.

Then a Brian Tracy CD put her on the path to changing that. The internationally acclaimed author, speaker and sales/business trainer emphasized the importance of properly managing a sales territory – of creating an organized schedule. Thorne, who was selling both print advertising and promotional products at the time, took the advice.

She created a route – started grouping meetings with clients based on their geographic proximity. She became more focused and orderly in other tasks, too. The results were amazing. “I probably saved a week or two of my time a month, and was able to get much more done,” says Thorne. “The big takeaway for me was that you have to cluster activities and have a set schedule.”

As the marketplace has evolved, Thorne’s organizational overhaul has continued to serve her well, especially as her business model expanded to include more web-based selling and Internet interaction with clients, as well as a lucrative venture into public speaking. “I make sure that I can take care of things in some sort of order,” she says. This entails only checking e-mail at set times during the day and establishing specific blocks of time for handling a range of activities, from crafting proposals and making website updates, to attending networking events and appointments.

Of course, Thorne’s not perfect. She’s had stretches where dizzying workday demands have knocked her off the organizational track. At one point, she even worked with a consultant who helped her get back to a more focused approach.  While tending to certain business necessities occasionally compels her to deviate from her schedule, she generally has the discipline to stay committed to the routine she’s planned for the day. “I concentrate better and I’m more efficient,” she says. “And I’m a lot less stressed.”

Helped by her organized routine, Thorne has expanded her network, provided customers with the dedicated attention they need and built her sales. “My profitability,” she says, “has been really good.”

“Work With A Mentor”

Partnering with a quality mentor can significantly benefit your business. More than once Mark Graham heard that advice from within an entrepreneurial organization he had joined. So, he decided to give it a shot. “It was an eye-opening experience,” says the CEO of Rightsleeve (asi/308922).

Through the organization, Graham was fortunate to link up with a senior executive at a global advertising company. For a year, the two interacted through phone calls and in-person meetings. He gained insight into everything from employee training to profit-sharing initiatives that motivate employees.  The acumen he accumulated helped him spearhead success at Rightsleeve. “His perspectives were incredibly helpful,” he says of his mentor. 

Graham didn’t engage in the mentorship until he was a couple years into operating his distributorship. When he started, he was prospecting and selling around the clock. But looking back, he says he could have benefitted from getting a mentor earlier on. “Whether you’re an owner or a salesperson or both, it’s really important to have a mentor,” he says, noting sales reps can look to coworkers, industry colleagues or sales pros outside the promotional products arena to find trusted advisors. “Having an experienced person who is on your side – who’s there to coach you, share your experiences, and help you along the way is very valuable.”

So much does he believe in the power of mentoring that Graham helped launch PromoKitchen, an independent volunteer group that, as part of its mission, pairs experienced ad specialty pros with others in the industry who can benefit from their guidance. “It’s a way of bringing things full circle,” he says.

“Don’t Mistake Effort With Results”

It can be easy to mistake movement for progression. In reality, the two are not linked. Mark Ziskind learned this from an executive at a beverage brand he once worked for. The company leader made it clear that even the most committed, persistent prospecting is inadequate if it fails to produce desired sales. “Don’t ever mistake effort for results,’” says Ziskind, now chief operating officer at Caliendo Savio Enterprises (asi/155807).

Carrying a strong dose of reality, the executive’s cautioning, if heeded, can open a rep’s mind to fresh approaches that ultimately produce stronger sales. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work if you’re not getting the right results,” says Ziskind. “You have to change strategy to get where you want to be. You have to continually evolve.”

This principle helps power the sales team at CSE, a Top 40 distributor in the industry that increased overall sales last year by more than 11% to $37.7 million. On a daily basis, says Ziskind, reps evaluate the success of their prospecting strategies and, if necessary, change them.

Recently, reps have taken to social media to mine information about potential customers who were showing little interest initially. Such details were then used to shape reps’ outreach to the prospects, thus opening doors that had seemed sealed shut. “Sales is an activity-based profession,” says Ziskind, “but you have to be smart about the activity you engage in.”

“Mirror Your Clientele”

People do business with people they like. Early in his sales career, Steve Bove says he learned that the best way to be likable to clients is to relate to them on their level -- to act in a manner that’s in line with their own.

“You have to mirror your clientele,” says Bove, a promotional consultant at Active Imprints, a distributorship in Monmouth Junction, NJ. “The way I make a presentation to union steelworkers is far different than the presentation I’ll make to the CEO of a global medical company. In that way, you reflect who you’re selling to, and that makes them more apt to do business with you.”

While recently pitching apparel options to a union client, Bove was informal and conversational. Part of that included offering a few no- nonsense remarks about what products would work best for the buyer. This made him more relatable -- showed he was one of the guys. “By being loose, it let them know that I get them and what they need,” he says.

Taking the exact opposite tact was necessary as Bove worked to launch a reward store for a medical company. These dealings were buttoned-up, and he was at his formal professional best. “I was dealing with human resources, the president and others,” he says. “I had to be much more corporate.” 

By consistently adapting his approach to suit the client, Bove has built a strong and diverse sales portfolio. “You have to know your audience and how best to work with them,” he says.

“Treat Others the Way You Want To Be Treated”

Doug Stotts is one of the top 10 highest revenue-generating sales people in the promotional products industry. He rose to that summit, in part, by striving to always act with the Golden Rule in mind. The regional sales manager for HALO Branded Solutions (asi/356000) says. “Treating other people the way you want to be treated has always worked for me.”

Has it ever. Stotts hit the $2 million in sales mark back in 1989; he has been increasing that tally ever since. Because he’s affable, honest and quick-to-help, countless clients have referred him to peers, enabling Stotts to grow his revenue. “I offer help to fellow sales reps, clients, friends -- whomever -- with challenges they are dealing with,” he says. “I promote and refer others through social media, sharing tips and articles and other items of value at no charge. When you do that, you may be surprised how many good things come back to you.”

Stotts has also donated promotional packages to organizations tied to the world of Texas longhorn cattle. He and his wife, Sandy, raise longhorns on their Texas ranch, so it’s a natural fit. The organizations auction off the packages as part of fundraisers.

Not long ago, Stotts donated a promo package that was ultimately purchased in an auction by a cattle ranch. The winner received 24 embroidered caps, four folding Picnic Time (asi/78065) chairs that featured the ranch’s branding, a 48-quart cooler with full-color photos of prized animals and ranch name/brand, and two Columbia sportswear Tamiami shirts with branding and a bold image of a prized animal. “The package lets other breeders, who typically also own other businesses, know what I do,” says Stotts, adding that the donations have helped start relationships that lead to sales. “It always comes back to us through goodwill and referrals.”