Sales and Operation Tips for Promo Product Distributors

Here are 12 ideas that’ll boost your brand, increase efficiencies and position you for consistent success.

Maybe you’ve decided to open your own distributorship in the promotional products industry. No doubt, if you’re coming in from another field, the promo world can seem foreign in a number of respects.

Or, are you a more experienced promo pro looking for the sales and operations keys that can really elevate your game? Certainly, everybody can use a refresher now and then.

No matter where you are in your career, this advice will put you on the right path for consistent growth in 2017 and beyond.

1. Find Your Niche
Are you tech savvy? Great with idea generation? Top notch in terms of execution? Well connected in a certain sector? Figuring out what space you want to play in will help you make good choices in branding and services. “Learn your strengths,” says Lorin Carlino, senior account manager at Creative Solutions (asi/170769). “Some vendors are incredibly creative thinkers that love multi-part kits that take you on a storytelling journey. Other vendors are really fantastic at sticking to the basics and positioning themselves as the type of vendor who is always thorough and pulls through.”

Once you determine what you’re really good at, you’ll be able to team up with the right suppliers and carve your true niche.

“Those who excel best understand their value to a client and don’t pretend to encompass it all,” Carlino says. “We’d love to think we do, but at the end of the day, we all shine when we are honest about what we do best.”

2. Investigate Suppliers
Partnerships are everything in business, so only work with those who’ve earned a positive track record.

“Start by researching a core group of suppliers,” says Jeff Lederer, president of Top 40 supplier Prime Line (asi/79530). “Look for suppliers who are highly rated in ESP. These companies generally provide outstanding service.”

Rosalie Marcus, founder of, has a preferred list of suppliers she shares with distributors she coaches. “You may want to work with suppliers that are close in your geographic area if most of your clients are local so you can save on some shipping charges,” she says. “But most importantly, use highly rated suppliers and always get at least a digital proof ahead of time, and preferably a sample of a product.”

If you’re a newer distributor, Lederer says you should ask suppliers if they have special programs or kits. “Prime’s welcome kit for new distributors includes catalogs, a coupon book, flyers and some free samples,” he says.

Lederer also recommends teaming up with suppliers who act as a one-stop shop for all your needs. “Consistency with pricing structure makes it more convenient for distributors. Rush-service consistency makes it easier for a distributor to focus without concern with delivery,” he says.

Of course, product selection is another important factor. “Having a huge selection also increases the chances of their end-user customer saying yes to an idea versus feeling limited and moving on to another distributor,” says Lederer.

Another thought: Before you begin working with a supplier, ask upfront for compliance certifications, particularly if you plan to provide clients with children’s promos.

3. Be Proactive With Fit
Ultimately, time and experience are the only ways to ensure a supplier is a good fit, Carlino says. That’s why she recommends distributors ask themselves certain questions on a regular basis to ensure supplier partners don’t take them for granted.

“How well do they service your account? What’s their response time? Are they offering free spec samples to help you target potential clients? How do they react when something goes wrong?” she asks.

For whatever reason, if you don’t feel comfortable working with a supplier, the relationship is probably not for you in the long run.

“Suppliers should want our business, and that should be evident in the way they treat us, much like the way you treat potential customers,” Carlino says.

4. Get the Word Out
Getting leads and winning customers are no small things. If you’re just starting out, or have hit a sales rut, turning to family and friends is a smart move.

Marcus agrees that starting with – or coming back to – the people you know is a good approach. “I would make a list of who your friends are, who your relatives are, people you went to school with, businesses that you patronize regularly. All those people could be potential clients for promotional products,” she says.

If your company is new, or if you’re rebranding, Marcus suggests sending acquaintances “some type of announcement letter with a sample promotion in it and a personalized letter. I would send it through snail mail rather than email because that’s more unusual these days.”

5. Hit the Show Circuit
What’s an excellent medium for showcasing your work, your passion and the areas where you really excel? Trade shows, Carlino says. And not just promo product ones. “Getting face time, as we all know, is invaluable, so to be able to do it without setting up a meeting or hunting down a prospect is incredibly significant.”

Marsha Londe, CEO of consultancy Tango Partners, offers up a trade show checklist. What’s first? “Dress for success and the vendors will pay more attention,” she says. “That doesn’t mean you can’t be comfortable, but be neat and clean.”

A second tip: Listen as much as you talk. “Take the time to stop at a booth and give the rep time to present an overview of the line,” she says. “The reps are ready to help. If you share information about your client’s project, they’ll make recommendations.”

You’ll also want to go to shows prepared with professional business cards, “not internet ones with flowers, animals or sunsets,” she says. It’s even better if your “card” is a promo product, like a lens cloth or pen with your name, a memorable tagline and contact info.

When you attend a non-promo industry show like a tech expo, bring along examples of what you can create. “Head over to booths of larger companies,” Londe says. “Ask if the person in charge of premiums happens to be there. Hopefully, get a direct introduction and hand them one of your swag bags. If the direct buyer isn’t there, you’ll want to ask for their name and contact info. Consistent follow-up is key.”

6. Know Your Customer’s Needs
Marcus says conducting initial in-depth interviews with potential customers is a critical step in today’s marketplace. “What’s happening in their business? Do they have any company anniversaries going on that year? Are they exhibiting at any trade shows? How do they thank their best customers? How do they reward their employees? All those things can lead to the need for a promotional product,” she says.

When discussing an order for a potential customer’s upcoming promotional needs, Londe says distributors should ask each of these questions in order to ensure they can fully meet those needs: Who is the recipient? Why is the client using the product? What’s the theme or message of the promotion? What’s the goal and the desired results? How will the product be distributed? How many different items might be included? What’s the budget for the promotion?

The goal: “Learn what the client wants to accomplish and thus be able to recommend a product that reflects the message rather than slapping a logo on a generic item,” Londe says.

7. Focus on Solutions, Not Products
Londe believes distributors need to stop selling commodities and start providing value.

“Everyone needs basics like pens and mugs and folders, but instead of being known as the one who sells ‘stuff,’ build relationships and your reputation by being known as the marketing partner who listens, learns and recommends,” she says.

Marcus thinks focusing on the product is less important than conveying what that product can do for your customers.

“Promotional products are wonderful vehicles for solving marketing problems,” she says. “Think of a car dealer that wants to get more people in to test drive a car; they may offer a promotional giveaway on a certain day for everybody who comes in and does a test drive. Or, a new restaurant is opening and they’re offering a promotional giveaway for everybody who comes to opening night.”

Londe recalled a top recognition-award order she put together for a five-hospital system that wouldn’t have been possible without truly listening to their needs. She helped create a lapel pin in honor of its Five Star recognition program. “Every employee could wear one, and in doing so, visitors and patients could notice and would comment on the award,” she says, adding each pin, which featured five stars, cost less than a dollar but had high perceived value and fit the hospital’s needs.

“The promotional product was appropriate to the award and meant something to the recipients. Merchandise selection matched the messaging,” she says. “By understanding what the client wanted to accomplish, who the recipients were, what the message was and the intended outcome, product selection can begin.”

8. Get It Right the First Time
Make sure you deliver exactly what you promised to in order to avoid a headache with your customers, as well as your suppliers.

“Paying attention to the details and writing the order correctly before sending it to the supplier can save both of you hours of phone, text and email follow-up, aggravation and errors,” Londe says.

Programs like ASI’s ESP system, according to Londe, offer software to help distributors make order processing easier. “Create a process for yourself. Have a form to check off everything that must be included, from the PMS number to logo positioning, and especially the correct product number and product color,” she says. “Sending accurate orders from the get-go is an ideal way to build positive supplier relationships.”

Treat Suppliers with Respect

Want to build a viable, lasting supplier relationship? “Pay them on time,” says Marsha Londe, CEO of consultancy Tango Partners. “Be kind to the customer service contact. It’s not his or her fault the order has issues or delivery is delayed or an imprint is incorrect. Like you, they want your client to be satisfied, and they’re ready to work with you to deliver, solve, fix and answer questions. Not only should you never yell or bully, but you might even pay a compliment and say thank you periodically.”

9. Respond Quickly
If your customer has a question, make sure you don’t keep them waiting.

“I can’t stand when a vendor takes more than a day to get back to me or when I have to follow up a second time with them. I’m incredibly aware of the way I communicate with my own clients,” Carlino says. “I’m so adamant with my team about always responding to clients within two hours, when possible. Even if we don’t have an answer for them immediately, it’s so important to acknowledge their request as soon as possible. It’s a simple ‘We’re on it’ or ‘We’ve got it’ that goes such a far way with clients.”

Carlino says periodic updates on long-term projects are also a must. “Don’t let the client come to you for an update; get to them first. Show them you’re on top of things and stay in constant communication,” she says.

Be sure to manage expectations as well. “If you’re getting a quote from overseas and it might take a few days, let them know that in advance. Establish timelines and expectations early on to gain greater success,” Carlino says.

10. Keep an Eye on Competitors
Carlino says there’s no shame in monitoring what other distributors are up to in order to garner some ideas for your own company. “What trends are they promoting? New products? Branding techniques they find exciting?” she asks.

Carlino says she’s built a “community” with some of her competitors on Instagram. “We follow other distributors and they follow us. We like each other’s posts and we comment on them. It’s really a beautiful thing,” she says. “That said, you do want to be strategic; you don’t want to divulge too much, as others may be watching. Perhaps you want to keep your latest and greatest product find to yourself for a while.”

But new distributors shouldn’t feel guilty about capitalizing on information the competition might give away for free. “Let your competitors take the lead,” she says. “Social media has made it easy to see what others in the industry are up to. What products they think are hot, and trends they’re forecasting. How are they sharing their latest ventures? Watch, learn and then mimic, but with your own flair.”

11. Order Samples
File this one under the category of you know you should do it, but you don’t always. “When I started out, I sold an order from a catalog photo, and when the order was delivered, it didn’t look anything like the photo and it didn’t look good,” says Marcus. “I was fortunate that I had such an understanding client and didn’t lose them over that. The lesson learned there is always get a sample ahead of time to show the client, and make sure you’re working with top-rated suppliers.”

12. Know Your Stuff
Simply put, if you’re not willing to put in the time to become a knowledgeable salesperson and marketing consultant, than you won’t reach your potential. “There are a multitude of products, product lines, branding methods, and things like domestic versus overseas production. It’s not rocket science, but it does take experience and specific knowledge of how our industry works,” says Carlino.

To give yourself an edge, “be sure to attend industry trade shows, read the collateral out there, and attend industry-specific education classes. Bottom line: Be your biggest advocate for learning as much as you can,” Carlino says. “Knowledge and experience will be your best friend, as the requests you get won’t always be so straightforward.”

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