Competing for Clients in the Promotional Products Industry

Industry vets Heather Sanderson and Craig Nadel discuss ways to set yourself apart from the competition.

Heather Sanderson and Craig Nadel are no strangers to growth. The former started a boutique firm and has grown it into a Top 40 newcomer. The latter has guided his decades-old family business to new revenue heights. What do they share? A dedication to delivering for clients – and similar approaches to winning business.

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Counselor: One thing that applies to both of your companies is the idea of creativity and value-added services. Do you think it’s a requisite now, especially for companies of your size?
Heather Sanderson: Absolutely. There’s like 24,000 distributors out there today; it’s a really saturated market and you really, really have to separate yourself and shine when it comes to new products and new offerings. When you’re dealing with big Fortune 100 companies, they’ve seen everything so it’s hard to put a spin on a pen or something different. You really have to think.
Craig Nadel: I would give a different answer. Even though that is how we are modeled and that is how we go to market, I don’t think it’s required for everybody. There are lots of ways to go to market that might make sense. You can’t be all things to all people. And to me, you have to know who you are. We’re not the commodity type, do everything cheap, bare-bones kind of a company. To use an investing analogy, there are people that pay professional investors to help them decide what the appropriate choice is because they want that consultation. And then there are the people that’ll just go to Ameritrade or something and pay 8 bucks a trade because they don’t want to pay for that. I think that the world is like that, and our industry can be like that too.

Counselor: It’s certainly possible that your companies have competed for the same clients. How do you differentiate yourself when other companies are doing many of the same things you do?
HS: What we’ve tried to do is balance our portfolio so we have clients here that demand creative and custom items, and then we also have the clients that are definitely commodity driven. The commodity type of spend helps build our spend with our suppliers and helps us leverage them, but then also we have the creative client that needs a lot of service and a lot of creativity and things outside the box.
CN: There is some good competition out there. Overture is a good company; I think there are some other good companies. We win our share of those things, but I think some of those other good companies win their share too. We don’t have any monopoly on great service and creativity. I wish we did.
HS: But there’s a lot of opportunity out there and we all share in the expertise in our area. We definitely come up against different competitors, but when customers are reaching out, it’s normally because they’re not getting service, and I feel like that’s something that we’ve highlighted.

Counselor: Are there recurring factors where prospects choose another company over yours?
HS: At one point it was the size of our company. In the beginning it was that we were too small and they were concerned that they would be too much of our portfolio. CN: You hear a lot of things and the truth is I don’t think you hear the truth. There was a big piece of business that I know we were trying to get not that long ago, that we did not get and I’m not even really sure why we didn’t get it.

Counselor: Do your clients not care about price at all? Or is it just lower down on the priority list?
HS: I think that we have both. In the beginning it can be about price, but once they start having a relationship with the client, that goes away. They want the service and they don’t want to have to shop. I don’t think it always comes down to price, but there are some customers out there, that’s what they want, but we try and stay away from that. There’s a lot of work doing that.
CN: I echo that exactly. When you start a relationship with somebody, sometimes price is much more important at the beginning of a relationship and you hope that you can develop a rapport and some understanding and creativity. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. After this phone call I’m going to meet with our CFO and we’re going call one of our people in a different office. He’s got this client that we went and did the whole dog and pony show. It was mostly about price and it seems to mostly still be about price. Maybe we were hopeful it would turn into a better relationship, but this one probably isn’t going to. We make our best guess, but we miss sometimes.