Distributor Tip: Bring Suppliers on Sales Calls

Still guarding client info from even your most trusted vendors? Here’s a trick to wow every client you present to: bring suppliers on your sales calls.

Casey Silseth needed to make a big impression. The account executive at Top 40 distributor HALO Branded Solutions (asi/356000) had a sales call scheduled with an existing client whose account could develop into significant business, if he played his cards right.

So instead of simply sending a product catalog to the client (an accounting firm) and leaving it up to them to pick out items, Silseth had a better idea. Since the client was interested in branded corporate apparel, he enlisted the help of Rachel Hare, Midwest field sales manager and Silseth’s trusted account representative from Trimark (asi/92121), who agreed to join him on the call to offer in-depth product knowledge in a bid to boost the account.

During the presentation, Hare presented an entire garment rack of spec samples, taking into account the mixed tastes of a diverse employee body. “She nailed it,” says Silseth. “They ate it up.” That day, the buyer chose seven brand-new decorated apparel styles, and since then has bought products from other vendors as well, via Silseth; as a result, the account has grown 150% in the past year to a total of $450,000. Silseth credits the seismic growth in large part to the cooperative relationships he’s established with his vendor reps, especially their willingness to join him on sales calls.

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What was a no-brainer for Silseth is, for others, nothing short of a paradigm shift in the way business has traditionally been conducted in the promotional industry: It’s not always necessary for distributors to protect end-buyer information from their suppliers. When the conditions are right (particularly for promising accounts), distributors who freely share details with trusted suppliers make them true collaborative partners, paving the way for inspired ideas, exceptional service and robust sales growth.

An ideal way for distributors to achieve that is to bring them on end-buyer calls to offer additional expertise. But the thought of hosting a joint sales call is still anathema for many distributors. For decades, the fear of suppliers selling direct was so pervasive that the only details distributors would offer up included the SKU, quantity and deadline.

But today’s market conditions are much different. End-buyers have instant access to promotional items whenever they want. To justify their margins and value, distributors can offer an in-depth consultative experience that merits end-buyers’ continued investment of their limited time and hard-earned dollars. By partnering with suppliers on sales calls, they amplify that value.

“When we bring suppliers on calls, we sell better and build stronger relationships,” says Larry Cohen, president of Top 40 distributor Axis Promotions (asi/128263). “They bring value to the table, and that’s what we have to do: figure out ways to add value for the end-buyer.”

The Trust Factor
Before asking a supplier rep to come on an upcoming sales call, distributors should consider the account: Is there a capacity for significant growth that would make it worth the supplier’s and end-buyer’s time? Perhaps it’s an existing customer that shows promise for more annual spend, as in Silseth’s case, or a new large account that would be well-served with a line of branded products, but first needs to be shown their value in the marketing mix.

When the account has real potential, the supplier’s in-depth product knowledge can result in a substantial increase in business. “Clients see that I have a team of specialty people behind me,” says Silseth, who brings suppliers about 50% of the time. “I’ve never had anyone, supplier or end-buyer, regret that the rep came along. It takes no longer than an hour, the same as if I’m there by myself, and because of their expertise, it’s a better use of time.”

The beauty of vendor-attended sales calls, says Cohen, is the pairing of their command of the products with a “shopping transaction,” when clients come face-to-face with a wide variety of items (often more than they asked for) and can make a decision by touch, fit and real-time answers and ideas. “Suppliers are the experts, we’re generalists,” he says. “Why not bring them in the door?”

In addition to product specs and case studies, suppliers also have details on sourcing and compliance. “They know if it came from a compliant factory, if the employees who made the item earn a living wage, all the safety and regulatory aspects,” Cohen says, adding that a growing swath of clients of all sizes and industries look to safety and social responsibility to bolster their brand names.

If the worry of tempting suppliers with too much exposure to end-buyers persists, Cohen advises to establish familiarity with the supplier and their business practices before putting them in front of a client. That’s standard practice for Jen Lyles, lead ignitor/co-owner of Firesign Inc. (asi/522741), who thoroughly vets all supplier reps and only brings them for clients with annual budgets north of $60,000. “I’m not bringing any strangers, no way,” she says emphatically. “We need to have an established relationship first. I have no concerns about them going direct because I trust them.”

The relationship is a two-way street, says Cohen. “That’s the symbiosis. Earn suppliers’ trust by showing you trust them.”

Fortunately for distributors, there are plenty of suppliers that stake their good name on being trustworthy and respecting the supply chain. “We’re committed to the traditional channel, and distributors are our true sales force,” says David Walker, vice president of field sales at Top 40 supplier Hit Promotional Products (asi/61125). “If they succeed, we succeed.” As a result, his sales reps are always ready to offer their product knowledge, whether it’s on end-user calls, at end-user shows or during facility tours with their top distributors and their clients.

If there’s any doubt of a supplier’s trustworthiness, the answer is simple: Don’t bring them.

Location Matters
After some pre-meeting planning to determine what the distributor and supplier should present (see sidebar on page 89), the call’s location should be determined with the goal of establishing a consultative atmosphere of goodwill. Recently, Cohen’s sales team brought an end-buyer interested in high-end food gifts to a supplier’s showroom in Manhattan. “They treated them to breakfast, and the supplier had the baskets on display,” he says. “They held a food and bourbon tasting so the client could try the product.”

Most of the time, however, Cohen prefers to bring the supplier rep to the end-buyer’s office for the buzz that the visit generates. “You may meet potential buyers you wouldn’t have met otherwise when they stick their head in,” he says. Other times, once the creative juices start flowing during the presentation, the initial buyer will call in a colleague with an upcoming promotional need.

Recently, London-based Outstanding Branding’s (asi/288519) largest client enjoyed a roadshow hosted by the distributor, who brought supplier reps to each of the client’s locations across the U.K. “The feedback was brilliant,” says sales & marketing director Andy Thorne. “It led to more registrations at the customer’s online store and increased orders overall. Now they ask for products from the different reps by name.”

President Shari Verrone of Stackable Sensations (asi/332999) also received a positive reaction – and more orders – from her buyers after recent joint calls with Bruce Jolesch, president and CEO at PXP Solutions (asi/78964). “I had a great talk with Shari, and she asked if I would come,” says Jolesch. “I said, ‘Sure, let’s try it out.’” Jolesch flew 1,500 miles from his facility in Dallas to Stackable Sensations’ offices in New Jersey, with some screen-printing samples in tow. He accompanied Verrone to three different clients’ offices in three states.

Turns out, it was well worth the time. The buyers were impressed with not only Jolesch’s willingness to make the time to travel to them, but also the eye-popping screen-printing techniques he brought along. Since the calls, T-shirt orders from each client have increased by an average of six. “Now we’re presenting other complementary items for each order,” says Verrone. “If they buy T-shirts for an outdoor event, we’ll ask about accessories like water bottles and lanyards. It’s led to more business and sales.”

Verrone also hosts a quarterly lunch-and-learn for her largest client when she invites them to her offices to meet with up to eight supplier reps at a time. Instead of formal sit-down presentations, the client enjoys lunch and walks the room, exploring the options at each supplier’s table. “We change up the preferred vendors each quarter so our client is intrigued with new items,” she says, adding that both she and her reps always end up with additional business by event’s end.

Adapting to the Shift
What was once considered practically chiseled in stone – that buyer identity must remain a strictly guarded secret from suppliers – has proven more malleable as the buyer-seller landscape has shifted. In a time of faceless online transactions, a joint consultative experience that adds value for the end-buyer could be the difference between a robust future for the industry, and one in which the supply chain struggles to justify its expertise and margins.

There’s an understanding that this shift can be challenging for some. “It’s outside the box of crayons we’re taught to play with,” says Charity Gibson, a sales rep for NEXT Products (asi/73871). “The distributor’s job is to come up with a creative solution for clients, and the vendor helps build that solution. But if there’s a cog-producer mentality, there’s a disconnect. Suppliers should be going on more sales calls, and know the client better.”

That won’t happen if distributors aren’t comfortable sharing client identity and need with their trusted vendor partners. “A more seamless relationship will allow our traditional model to survive any disruption,” says Hit’s Walker. “Someone still has to curate, import and decorate safe, effective product. Someone still has to maintain relationships and service the end-users.”

It’s this service that will preserve both the supply chain and the role of promotional merchandise as a key part of a client’s overall brand. “Promotional products are the grease in the marketing mix,” says Mark Ziskind, COO of Top 40 distributor CSE (asi/155807). “They have to reinforce all the money clients spend on advertising elsewhere. The more we work together, collaborate and share, the more we can harness the creativity on both sides of the equation.”


Sweet Tooth

Andy Thorne, sales & marketing director at Outstanding Branding (asi/288519), discusses candy gift ideas with David Kershner of supplier Impressions Europe on the company’s OBTV YouTube channel. Watch the episode here.

Sara Lavenduski is the senior editor for Advantages. Contact: