How to Overcome Adversity: Build Success from Setbacks

Get inspired and primed for greater success. Savvy sales pros share tales of using reversals as valuable learning experiences that help power long-term gains.

Few American childhoods have gone untouched by the magic that began in Walt Disney’s imagination. And yet, Disney was once fired from a newspaper because, in the editor’s estimation, he lacked creativity.

Then there’s Oprah Winfrey. Fired from her first television job as an anchorwoman in Baltimore, Winfrey went on to build a multi-billion dollar media empire, becoming one of the most influential people in America.

These anecdotes illustrate something ad specialty sales reps must keep in mind: Even the most successful people experience setbacks; nonetheless, it’s not the knock-down that matters, but rather the individual’s reaction to it. “What distinguishes successful business people from those who are less successful is resilience and capturing the learning opportunity that failure provides,” says Tjai Nielsen, a management professor at High Point University and former executive consultant for RHR International.

In this exclusive feature, Advantages delivers motivating stories and practical advice from industry leaders who turned setbacks into powerful lessons that spur their success.

The Lessons: Take Responsibility and Never Stop Prospecting

Up, up more, and up even more again. Such was the trajectory of Kirby Hasseman’s annual sales during his early years in the ad specialty business. Then one year the bubble burst. Seemingly everything went wrong. Surefire annual reorders – big chunky deals -- disappeared. At once, the line graph charting revenue was racing south.

Did external factors beyond Hasseman’s control influence the descent? Sure. But focusing on such things, he reasoned, wouldn’t fix the situation. Instead, Hasseman opted to analyze his own actions – to take responsibility and determine what he could have done better to prevent the sales dip. “I started from the premise that it was my fault,” he says. “When I looked at the situation, it was clear that I’d become too reliant on recurring business. I had really let my prospecting drop off. I said, ‘I have to redouble my efforts with prospecting.’”

And so he did – strategically. Hasseman made a list of ideal prospects he’d like to add to his client roster. From there, he began courting the hoped-for clientele. Through tougher economic times, he used the lessons of accountability and striking a balance between prospecting and serving current accounts to improve sales as others in the industry lost business.

That success has continued: In each of the last three years, the owner of Hasseman Marketing & Communications (asi/221824) has spearheaded a company that’s recorded more than 10% annual growth. “When things are going good, you have a tendency to believe they always will,” says Hasseman. “But then life, God, the universe – they right-size you a bit. Those setbacks can become very important to your success.”

The Lessons: Learn From the Hurt and Run a Tight Operation

Sometimes a setback is like a vaccine. It causes uncomfortable effects, a slight illness even, but it inoculates you against much more serious diseases.  CEO Jordy Gamson and his colleagues at The Icebox (asi/229395) have experienced the truth of this analogy.

It all started when a trusted customer referred one of its clients – a supposed mover and shaker in the fitness field – to The Icebox. “They told us he was a good guy, one of their largest customers,” Gamson says. “That endorsement went a long way with us.”

Indeed, The Icebox extended the new client a line of credit. Shortly thereafter, however, certain red flags regarding the client reared. Unfortunately, despite instruction from Gamson to a salesperson that the man must put down deposits to cover The Icebox’s costs, the money never came. Long story short: The client turned out to be a deadbeat and The Icebox ended up with $60,000 in unpaid invoices. “It was the biggest hickey we’d had since being in business,” says Gamson.

While painful, the “hickey” did not break the distributorship. In fact, it taught the company a lesson that later helped Gamson and his team avoid a business-crippling catastrophe.

About a year after the fitness client fiasco, The Icebox won the opportunity to fulfill a massive uniform program for a national electronics chain with hundreds of locations and more than 30,000 employees.  The deal required The Icebox to hold loads of client-branded inventory – a huge capital outlay for the distributorship. Remembering the $60,000 sucker punch from a year earlier, The Icebox told the electronics chain that it required a financial safeguard that would protect the distributorship in the event the client went out of business, changed its name, was slow to pay, etc. Unwilling to provide such an assurance, the client pulled the plug on the deal. “Letting that business go, we had a sick feeling in our stomachs,” said Gamson.

But that feeling turned to sweet relief months later when Gamson saw a news report that the chain had gone out of business. “The $60,000 situation was a bad bout of indigestion, but had we gone forward with this other deal it would have been stomach cancer,” says Gamson. “The pain of that first deal gone wrong was a great teacher and motivator. It helped us really tighten up our operations. Since then, we’ve had tens of millions of dollars of transactions conducted without incident.”

The Lessons: Stay Positive and Use Your Resources

Dick Huffman is among the promotional products industry’s top 10 highest revenue-generating sales pros. But the senior account executive at Touchstone (asi/345631) isn’t shy about admitting that he’s taken his fair share of lumps. “When you get knocked down, you have to stay positive and keep getting backing up,” he says.

For Huffman, staying positive in the face of a missed opportunity helped teach him an important lesson -- and laid the groundwork for a financially fruitful new chapter in his career.

A while back, Huffman found himself in the midst of a competition for a high-volume order from a corporation. The company wanted a custom product made overseas, and was shopping around for the best service and deal. Huffman was keen to win the order, but knew that he lacked the experience and contacts to engineer a top-notch overseas custom job.

Still, lured by the potential for a sizable commission all for himself, he persisted with putting together an offering without help from people more skilled in handling such projects. As a result, his pitch never got out of the gate. “My pricing wasn’t good enough, my timing was off,” Huffman says.  

While disappointed, Huffman spun the experience into a positive by reflecting and realizing that it would have been wise to seek the help of a friend in the industry who had ample experience orchestrating overseas orders. “I should have reached out to him rather than trying to keep it all with me,” he says. “I should have taken advantage of the resources available.”

The friend Huffman had in mind happened to be Derek Block, CEO/president of Touchstone. It was Huffman’s experience on this order and the realization that Block could have been a great partner that played a motivating role in eventually influencing Huffman to join Touchstone. Since doing so, he has benefitted from robust backing on custom overseas jobs, while excelling in all his dealings to such a high level that he ranked 9th on Advantages list of the industry’s Top 10 sales reps this year. “No one bats a thousand,” says Huffman. “Be ready to learn when things don’t go your way, and then don’t repeat the same errors.” 

The Lessons: Diversify Your Client Portfolio and Have Sufficient Revenue Streams

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. It’s a cliché, but it’s also good advice. Sales rep John Resnick found this out the hard way. For a while life was roses thanks to a marketing agency with which Resnick was fortunate to partner. The agency had a household name client in the technology field that was spending millions of dollars to promote its offerings; Resnick was the agency’s go-to-guy for the promotional product components of the campaigns. “The sales amounts were huge – hundreds of thousands of dollars for one order,” he says.

Given the end-client’s steady demand and the scale of the transactions, Resnick made the agency his top priority. Essentially embedded with the firm, he devoted countless hours to providing expertise for the tech company’s initiatives. Not surprisingly, his attention to other clients and prospecting was not nearly as ample as it should have been. Despite this, his revenue numbers were off the chart – until the other shoe dropped.

Just as the promise of more massive projects brightened the horizon, the technology firm put its marketing support needs out to bid. The firm with which Resnick was allied lost the bidding war. “A huge, huge chunk of my business was gone,” says Resnick, a partner at Proforma Printing & Promotion (asi/300271). “At first I got a little depressed. But in reality, it was an incredible lesson. I learned you have to have a balanced portfolio. Having one client dominate your sales to such a degree is not a good place to be.”

Resilient, Resnick set about diversifying his client base. He did so adroitly, and as a result, he insulated himself against having the revenue rug pulled out from under him again. A couple years after the technology firm debacle, a brewery with which he had been conducting robust business went with a new provider for its apparel needs.

While Resnick continued working with the client on other orders, his business with the brewery was cut in half. And yet, his overall sales increased for the year. That was due, in significant part, to the fact that the brewery was only one piece of his larger revenue pie. “My portfolio was pretty diversified,” he says. “I did a lot of marketing to my existing channel, and I still had a strong year.”

The Lessons: Keep Calm and Find a Solution

Sometimes, a “failure” isn’t a sales rep’s fault, but it becomes their responsibility. Items may not arrive on time or be imprinted incorrectly without a rep doing anything wrong, but as the person who made the sale and promised products, the chances are the client is going to blame you. Accepting this reality – and then calmly finding a way to make the best of a difficult situation -- is one of the most valuable lessons reps can learn. “We have to train our brains from thinking ‘Oh no!’ to ‘OK, this happened. How can I make it better?,’” says Danny Rosin, co-founder of Brand Fuel (asi/145025).  “It’s something I had to learn over the years.”

Taking a level-headed line has helped Rosin and his team during trying times – like earlier this year when a $15,000 order of light-up pens seemed doomed. At first, the job appeared to be going swimmingly. The writing instruments arrived well in advance of the client’s event – something Brand Fuel confirmed by following up with the buyer, which was a large membership services organization. “They told us,” said Rosin, “that everything was fine.”

It wasn’t.

The client had neglected to open the boxes and check the pens. Once this was done – about a day before the event – the dire reality was revealed: The batteries for the lights in an unknown number of pens were dead and the packaging that housed individual pens was damaged in instances. The client notified Rosin of this in an angry phone call. While letting the person vent, Rosin kept his cool and then proposed to bring a team of Brand Fuelers to the client’s business to assess the damage and see what could be done.

Desperate, the client agreed. Through hours of opening boxes and assessing each pen, Rosin and his colleagues discovered the majority of the pens were fine. For those that weren’t, they bought batteries or small boxes to re-kit writing instruments that had destroyed packaging. Everything was completed in time for the event. “It wasn’t perfect, but the disaster was averted,” says Rosin. “We offered a discount, but the buyer rejected it. She said, ‘You guys went above and beyond.’”

By executing such a clutch performance, Brand Fuel solidified itself as an indispensable partner to the client. “They were a $50,000 a-year client,” says Rosin. “Since then they’ve become a quarter-million dollar client.”

Handle The Aftermath Of A Setback Constructively

For competitive salespeople, coming up short can feel like a swift kick in the gut. Nonetheless, it’s important to cope with the pain and get back in the fight.  Here are tips for doing just that.

Acknowledge The Setback: Before you can turn a failure into a productive lesson, you have to admit that you’ve missed the mark.

Be Accountable: “Blaming others is useless, even if others were somehow involved,” says sales trainer and bestselling author Jeff Goldberg. “Taking responsibility allows you to claim your personal power over your life and your circumstances.” 

Analyze What Happened: Look at the situation as objectively as possible with a mind to ascertaining where the breakdown occurred. Says Goldberg: “Ask yourself where you went wrong. What contributed to your failure?”

Extract Lessons: Once you have an accurate idea of where things went awry, the natural next step is to determine what you could have done differently to produce the desired result. Build on this analysis to look at the bigger picture too: What general lessons can be derived from the experience that you can apply to your business dealings to increase your chances of succeeding in the future?
Forgive Yourself: With lessons learned, it’s important to move on. Dwelling on negative experiences will only hurt your current performance. “So you failed in one instance – it doesn’t mean you are a failure,” says Psychologist Isaura Gonzalez, CEO of Hudson Psychological Services.

Persist With Confidence: Despite a setback, you need to stay positive and believe that your desired outcomes in future endeavors will come to pass. “See the happy outcome as a given – something that is absolutely set in stone,” says Goldberg. This is key to combatting a negative mindset that will, if unchecked, become the basis for subsequent setbacks. 

Famous Overcomers

Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter, you’re in good company. Consider the setbacks these immensely successful individuals overcame and you’ll be inspired to persist when you fall short.

  • --Perhaps the most famous children’s author of all time, Dr. Seuss’ first book for kids was refused by no less than 27 publishers.
  • --Three-time Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg was rejected from the University of Southern California’s film school multiple times.
  • --Bill Gates’ first business, Traf-O-Data, failed. His partner Paul Allen later said: “Even though Traf-O-Data wasn’t a roaring success, it was seminal in preparing us to make Microsoft’s first product a couple of years later.”
  • --R.H. Macy started several retail ventures that failed before getting things right with the department store that bears his name, Macy’s.