What to Do When Things Go Wrong
Disaster can strike promo businesses in a variety of ways. Typically, it’s a minor problem with art, decoration, shipping, communication or deadlines. Occasionally, a natural disaster, like an earthquake or hurricane, could cause order delays. In extreme cases, an even more unexpected disaster, like 9/11, the 2008 recession or the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, could interfere with business on a larger scale.
The coronavirus has shut down huge swaths of the economy, putting a big dent in a lot of distributor and supplier sales. While some suppliers have completely stopped production due to mandatory state shutdowns of non-essential businesses, others are struggling with lowered sales due to limited demand. Some exceptions are managing a surge in segments of their product lines—masks, medical equipment, hand sanitizer.
“I think the real anomaly for us on the sanitizer stuff is not the short run stuff, it’s the high quantity stuff—someone coming in and saying, ‘I want 300,000,’” Brandon Mackay, president and CEO of SnugZ USA, Jordan, Utah, said while labeling hand sanitizers during a million-product backlog in late-March. “And we’re just not used to those types of orders in this industry.”
SnugZ USA mixes its sanitizer in Utah, but sources now-hard-to-find materials, like bottle caps and alcohol, elsewhere in the U.S. Amid enforcing adjustments to its production process to comply with social distancing guidelines and provide employees a safe work environment, Mackay says SnugZ USA has seen a massive spike in order volume for sanitizers. This prompted the business to temporarily stop taking new sanitizer orders on March 9—a decision the company hoped to reverse in April. On top of that, the supplier, located about six miles from the epicenter of a 5.7 magnitude earthquake on March 17, lost a day’s worth of production as a result of the natural disaster.
“I think you do [have a plan] when your business doubles, but when it’s sextuples you don’t,” he said. “When it doubles, you can throw bodies at that. You can throw resources at that. When it grows by six times its natural growth, it’s an absolute combat zone.”
On the other side of the industry, distributors and service providers are experiencing their own disasters as they scramble to navigate the promo world’s current state of uncertainty while working from home.
“I think even though this is a global impact and everybody is feeling it, the unique thing about our industry is that everybody serves different clientele, so everyone is experiencing this in a different way,” said Bobby Lehew, chief content creator for commonsku, Toronto. “Your customer might be UPS. Your customer might be an airline.”
Tom Levy, vice president of sales and marketing at Global Sourcing Connection, Riverwoods, Ill., has been checking in with clients, but admits sales have been slow. Even though his client base is diversified, it is still mainly event driven, and many events have been canceled while other projects have been put on hold until companies have a better grasp on how the future looks.
“We actually had an order for 700 shirts, and then it became ‘well, we only need 50,’ and then it became ‘just wait—it’s closed,’” he said of a local botanical garden gearing up for its busy season that he works with annually. “And we’ll do an opening order of 10,000 water bottles, so that’s not happening either.”
As you navigate your current situation, it can serve as an ideal time to plan for future disasters. No matter how small a problem may be, having a plan in place to resolve it will be a great tool for the future.
Create a plan
Using the lessons you’re learning in real time will help to develop the keys needed to resolve future disasters as well as the usual day-to-day issues.
“This industry is dealing with mini disasters all the time,” Lehew said. “From orders that go awry to importing challenges, the complexity in what we do is pretty intense. So creating your own disaster recovery plan—even if it’s a mini plan on how to handle when a project goes awry—is critical.”
And there’s no better time to focus on that than now, while end-buyers are still figuring out their paths forward. You’ll be ready to handle any influx of orders and have a system in place for any future bumps in the road.
“So, suddenly, we’re all put in this place to develop our own disaster recovery plan, even if it’s as simple as what do we do today for our business?” Lehew said. “... Taking careful notes about your experience as you go along will help you create a plan for the future. So, in other words, there’s nothing like a crisis to suddenly crystalize your priorities, and I think that’s what we’re all in the midst of doing right now.”
Lehew, who is based in Oklahoma City, has worked in this industry as a distributor through his fair share of disasters, including a three-mile-wide tornado and a debilitating ice storm. In these uncertain times, Lehew recommended staying close to your employers, customers and numbers, respectively.
“I think those are the three most important things to do,” he said. “And if you’re staying close to your people, investing in them at this very difficult emotional time, they will, in turn, be more energized and invest in your customers. As you get close to your customers, you’ll see more and more opportunities. And as you stay close to your numbers, you’ll be able to make decisions a little bit better.”
While in-person sales meetings and events are off-limits for now, it’s still possible to keep in touch with clients. You may consider many of your clients friends, so your checkups may not differ completely from normal circumstances—just remember to be empathetic. Levy has been speaking to clients, asking how they and their families are doing. Since promo products may not be top of mind for his end-buyers, which include airlines and event marketing companies, he just lets them know he’s there for them when they’re ready.
“Basically saying, ‘Hey, look, if you need hand sanitizers, I can import them,” Levy said. “It’s going to take three weeks. If you need masks, or you have people working at a grocery store and you need them for your workers, I can get them. If you have people working at home, here’s some of the things I’ve seen that we can drop ship to their home, so here’s some ideas in case you need them.”
Work may remain slow as businesses adjust to the temporary new normal, but Lehew believes when the time is right, the promo industry will find its place in all the madness. After all, there was a reason for all those events and promotional opportunities before they got canceled. At some point, they’ll be back.
“I believe in the power of our medium to positively impact, particularly emotionally, our recipients and how they feel,” he said. “We talk about being the surprise and delight industry. Never have we needed more positivity than now, so there is an opportunity—and I say that in not an opportunistic way, just as an opportunity for us to let the medium shine. How can we, at this point in time in our history, encourage people through our medium?”
Resolve an issue
When things are running normally, some issues are preventable. But if something is missed on a proof or is just out of your control, the best thing you can do as a distributor is fix it without any hesitation.
“What’s sort of shocking about this industry is how much goes right,” Lehew said. “When I was a distributor, we had an error rate of less than 2 percent, but the 2 percent was significant. It was going to be significant to the client. I think the first thing is to not place blame on the client, nor to delay too long. It’s just to address it immediately.”
That especially holds true when you’re working with a sizable order. Whether it’s a large business you’ve worked with before or a new client you hope to secure long term, making it right is vital. “If a
client is spending $250,000 with you a year and you’ve got a $2,500 problem, that gives you a little context,” Lehew said. “Just fix the problem and move on.”
Levy agrees and doesn’t sweat it when it comes to spending money to erase an issue. “I would say over the 10 years of doing this—whatever that’s cost me, it pales in comparison to the benefits of keeping the same customers for that period of time. If it’s losing money on that one order, that’s fine. … If they leave me anyway after that, then so be it. I’ve done everything I possibly can do to keep them happy and get them what they need.”
Rely on partnerships
Usually, you’re not alone when an issue comes up. When you work with the same trusted vendors, you come to rely on them to help rectify an issue. And just how a customer may find a new distributor after a bad experience, Levy does the same if he’s not on the same wavelength with a vendor.
“They’ll make the product and then they’ll ship it,” Levy said. “And then if there’s an issue with shipping, their attitude is ‘Well, we did our job. That’s not our problem. So, too bad.’ If I ever said that to my customer, ‘Hey, I made it and it came out right. I’m sorry FedEx didn’t deliver it. That’s too bad,’ that would be the last order I ever did with them. And that was the last order I ever did with that vendor.”
At SnugZ, Mackay has seen progress over the last few years or so with suppliers and distributors working together to resolve issues, specifically regarding artwork. “We’ve just gotten to the point where if we caused the problem or we caused the error, we eat it,” he said. “And if the distributor, our partner, caused the problem, they eat it. We don’t have a lot of fighting back and forth when it comes to the artwork anymore. I think we provide enough resources and opportunities to fix things or correct things.”
That same respect should go to the end-buyer. If there’s an issue, be open, honest and proactive. “And the sooner you can respond to your client, ‘Hey, we’re not going to meet this event date,’ they can pivot toward another solution,” Lehew said. “… I think if your customer understands that you’ve got their back and you’ve done everything you can, and you truly are helpless in this situation, most people are going to be compassionate about that. But if you hide that or if you aren’t clear in your communication, you can frustrate the customer by expanding their problem resolution time.”