For Promo Distributors, the Key to Success in 2021 Is Changing the Conversation—by Asking the Right Questions
Let’s start with a few facts we can all agree on: Sales are down for many companies and organizations. The marketplace is uncertain. However, many companies are still open and doing business (at some level). These companies still have employees and customers. Most have (or are developing) a plan on how to adapt and pivot. A majority of companies are looking for new, innovative and creative ways to stay connected to their employees and customers, now more than ever.
There are any number of changes and challenges we will all face in 2021. If we start each day with these basic facts, we can help point each conversation in the right direction.
In 2021, the “What” matters less. “We don’t have a budget for that” or “We’re not doing that event this year” should not be the conversation. “How are you getting new customers?” and “How are you saying ‘thank you’ to your employees?” will drive more fruitful conversations. Engagement decisions are changing, and we should inject ourselves earlier in the process. We can use our decades of experience to help navigate how to work through this, making the distributor a more important partner than ever.
It requires a paradigm shift. We can no longer focus on low prices and new “widgets.” That conversation generally receives a blank stare. If we step back and do an analysis of the problem using simple Who/What/When/Where/Why, we quickly see priorities are different than they were pre-pandemic.
Historically, we could get an order if we moved from “Who do you give products to,” then to “What the client likes to give out” (sometimes expressed as “You need to see the latest…”), then to “When is the event” and once it is finalized, the “Where.” Many of us never even got to the “Why.”
This is not the case since the pandemic and resulting economic crisis. Events are canceled. “Normal events” are gone. We can no longer start with the “Who” or the “What,” because the customer gets stuck on the “When.” We offer a different perspective: Start with the “Why.” This approach is infinitely more effective, but requires more critical thinking and adding value:
• Why? The reason for the promotional product was never a trade show. Very few of us actually work in the trade show industry. It was the convenient vehicle our customer used to connect with their customers. That is not a reason—that’s an event. The reasons have always been (and still are) to strengthen bonds between a company and its employees, to improve brand recognition and reputation, to connect consumers with a brand, campaign or team/event, etc.
• Who? Marketing. HR. Sales leader. Third-party event marketer. Who are we talking to and who is their audience? This makes a big difference now. How a company may thank employees or onboard new employees is very different from offering an incentive for attending a trade show or purchasing a product.
• When? This is again a little different. If the customer is having an event, when would they like the product to show up—before or after the event? Is this in replacement of a previous, different event? If so, we must learn as much about that experience as possible. Not just the gifts given, but the whole attendee experience.
• Where? This is where our customer falls off. Their head immediately goes to: “The event isn’t happening because we can’t get everyone together.” They are fragmented and unorganized and the thought of receiving a box of “you name its” to distribute themselves just makes their head explode. We should move past the “Where” and bring it back up under the “How.”
• How? This is the real magic and our opportunity to differentiate and disrupt. Develop a robust network of supplier partners and know each one’s capabilities. Does your client need fulfillment? Kitting? One-piece minimum? Can they take inventory? These all offer different opportunities to help solve problems for your customers.
• What? Finally, we get to the product. It matters less than ever what the product is. As always, there is no silver bullet for all opportunities, but whether it’s black or silver or 100% cotton or a blend is less important than the bigger picture. “How” and “Why” are the real keys to the equation. Pro tip: Make sure you are considering and communicating shipping early and throughout the conversation.
This approach is different than what the customer is expecting of us. They may think of us as someone that can help find a product. Maybe that was your value-add. Success in 2021 will require active listening (seeking to understand) first. We have developed a robust group of strategic partners that help us provide multiple solutions to the “How” challenge.
Start customer conversations with asking the right questions to uncover the “Why,” and you may find an audience for the developed solutions on “How.” Competitors become limited if we are introducing innovative solutions.
Nathaniel “Nate” Bettinger has worked in the promotional industry since 1999 on both the distributor and supplier side. He leads the sales team at Blue Sky Marketing Group and lives outside of Chicago with his loving wife and two amazing young children. He coaches and leads a Boy Scout den, and occasionally you may find he’s unavailable, out riding his motorcycle.