9 Promotional Products Sales Prospecting Tips
Prospecting is a necessity for any promo business, but it definitely has its ups and downs. It can occasionally feel like all your hard work just isn’t cutting it. In a world of competition, standing out against other businesses can be one of the most challenging aspects. On top of that, distributors also have to constantly think about what will grab the attention of potential clients. Strategies that have worked in the past might not necessarily work today. Whatever your approach may be, the good news is that there are ways to make promotional products sales prospecting go more smoothly.
We wanted to dig a bit deeper on the topic, including strategies that work best (and ones that don’t), how prospecting has evolved into what it is today, and any general tips and advice to learn along the way. We got the inside scoop from a number of industry vets, including John King, owner of LogoMotions - a Member of the AIA Community, Seattle; Darrell McChesney, director of sales for Team Iowa, Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Jim Peterson, founder and part-owner of Branding Stop, Lenexa, Kan.; Nick Peterson, vice president of sales, also for Branding Stop; and Kimberly Fulford, senior vice president of owner success for AIA Corporation, Neenah, Wis. and Chicago, and learned that there’s more than one way to go about prospecting. The important part is that, sometimes, it takes time and a bit of hard work to get the results you want to see.
1. Do your research (and focus in)
Prospecting is similar to a job interview. (In a way, it is one.) You wouldn’t walk into one without reading about the company beforehand, right? The same should be true for potential clients. The more you know about who you’re reaching out to, the better prepared you will be. “We do not just cast the net out there and see what comes back,” McChesney said. “Rather, we use a more targeted approach by doing some online research for businesses that fit our strengths. [This allows] for top-shelf service.”
Fulford shared the same view. Like McChesney, she recommended a targeted approach—a rifle, not a shotgun, as she put it—with a plan of action specific to each individual prospect. Choose a target (or group of targets) and focus on it, so you can devote more time to that particular prospect. “Have a plan, keep it simple—but detailed—and make sure it’s not too widespread, or it’s just not going to be as successful as it could be,” she said.
2. Choose to stand out
First impressions are extremely important for any business or salesperson to be recognized. After all, you only get one shot at them. When it comes to competition, turn any fears into an opportunity to showcase what your company can do. McChesney views this as a chance to allow his company’s creativity to shine through, and has found direct mail to be an effective channel for prospecting in this way.
“[We create] mail pieces that have been professionally put together with added promotional items [that] have caught the recipient’s eye and allowed us to show some initial creativity,” McChesney said. “We feel like the direct mail piece will serve a purpose to get us a meeting or phone call with the client. It’s not intended to be a selling tool, but more of a door-opener for us.”
While mail-pieces might not be the only option you ultimately go for, showing prospective clients something personalized, in whatever form you choose, can help you stand out.
3. Request referrals
It’s a simple but effective promotional products sales prospecting tactic that we’ve covered before, but it’s worth repeating: ask for referrals! That’s what King did. In 2014, he created an email campaign from his LinkedIn contacts, eventually surpassing his goal of adding 20 new accounts. King told us how he found so much success in the referral process.
“The critical aspect of the referral request is to identify a limited number of prospects from your top current contacts, send them an email saying something to the effect of ‘Dear J, Great to see you last week. Would you mind looking at this list of your first-degree contacts below and let me know which of these you would be comfortable providing an emailed introduction to? I can provide the introductory script,’ he said. “Very important point here: Be sure that your contact includes you in the emailed introduction so that you are connected to the prospect, or your odds of hearing from the prospect are minimal. Also, be sure to send a ‘thank you’ gift of some sort to the person that referred you.”
4. Step up your social media game
Social media has become more popular over the last few years, and while it’s great for personal use, it’s also playing an increasing role as a business tool to help bring in new clients. Some of the distributors we spoke to admitted that social media has not been one of the key elements in their prospecting, but they agreed it’s a channel they’d like to use more. “My incredible operations manager, Meredith Sprovier, is taking the lead on developing our social media presence,” said King. “I’m excited to see where it takes us.”
Fulford manages AIA’s five owner-success managers, its marketing department, and its service and delivery department, and said that social media plays a large role in the company’s prospecting. She explained that it’s one of the tools and services AIA provide to distributor partners.
“When we do the social media [for them], we’re typically doing the distributor’s Facebook, their LinkedIn page and their Instagram,” Fulford said. “It’s all about consistency. You can’t just post to social media, you know, once every six weeks. So that is how we would suggest our owners utilize it, and those are the tools we provide to them.”
Social media can work as a tool in promotional products sales prospecting as long as you’re putting in the time and being consistent in its use. It may never be your top prospecting channel, but it’s another tool in the toolkit for building relationships and making connections.
5. Shift strategy as needed
Over time, prospecting tactics have changed. As we said up top, what worked years ago might now be just one of many components today—or it may not work at all. Being able to recognize and adapt to what works, and what doesn’t, is part of the process. King weighed in on the changes in strategies he’s noticed.
“Prospecting is vastly different now than in my early years in the industry. The traditional sales approach was to enumerate the benefits of working with my company over phone and email, drive-by product drop-offs and personal connections,” he said. “In today’s working world of short attention spans and a workforce that is often too overscheduled for a face-to-face meeting, you have to educate yourself on their company and show value right out of the gate.”
Fulford explained that her strategy has also changed. Self-branding, she said, is one strategy that has continued to work, but email isn’t quite as effective as it used to be. “I think owners used to be able to send an email or an email marketing campaign to a prospect and maybe get some attention,” she said. “That doesn’t work on its own anymore, because we all get too many emails, and getting someone to read them and not filter them out and unsubscribe has become very challenging. Whereas before, 10 years ago, [if] someone got an email, they typically read it.”
6. Race against the clock
It’s easy to lose track of time. Whether it’s getting ready in the morning, chatting with an old friend or even getting lost in the daily work grind, time tends to slip away from us. There may be 24 hours in a day, but most of us probably need 30 to get everything done.
McChesney mentioned that as one of his biggest prospecting challenges. His advice, in short: Do your best. “As a smaller distributor, there are only so many hours, manpower and money to spread around to get something done,” McChesney said. “At Team Iowa, we all wear several hats, [and] although I’m the primary sales person, I still build online stores, research and build presentations, and place orders etc. I would say we are all very in touch with the daily activity in the business.”
Even larger distributors, often with more resources at their disposal, deal with the time crunch. Nick Peterson, of Branding Stop, sees it all the time. And, for him, it’s all about providing support for his sales team in whatever way he can. “As we continue to grow and gain clients, keeping our salespeople free enough to be prospecting every day is a growing challenge,” he said. “We are trying to counteract the ‘busyness’ of account management by supplying our salespeople with talented sales support. Adding employees to help manage accounts to keep our salespeople constantly prospecting is an investment we are sure will pay off.”
7. Go the extra mile
Self promotion is one an area you don’t want to skimp on. Prospects will notice if you do, and as in a promotional products campaign, it’s critical to provide value if you want to make a lasting impression. Jim Peterson said that, at Branding Stop, they focus on the channels or mediums would best capture the attention of prospective clients, even if that means spending a little more.
“We try not to be cheap with our self-promotional efforts,” he said. “Once we have decided to call on a prospect, we are committed to a series of actions that we will engage in over time that cost significant resources, so we believe that using the cheapest self-promotional materials is not a good idea. We actually spend some real dough on our prospects, and stick with calling on them over time. It is harder for a prospect to not pick up the phone when you call if something they really dig and appreciate is sitting on their desk.”
Going that extra mile also means stepping outside your comfort zone—or, as Jim Peterson puts it, “always be prospecting.” “Don’t be afraid to ask the guy at the convenience store with a company polo on who buys their stuff,” he said. “If someone is filling their coffee up at Starbucks with a company tumbler, engage them, ask who at their company would purchase that type of thing. Our salespeople keep a journal in their car so as they drive around the city they can write down the names of companies they’ve never heard of to bring back to the office and research.”
8. Effort equals results
If you want to see results, you have to be willing to put in the effort. That’s the case with just about anything, whether it’s hitting the gym or learning a new skill. In business, it goes double. You can’t expect to acquire new clients if you’re not putting in the work. “There is no substitute for hard work,” said McChesney. “You get what you put into this industry. Some good luck doesn’t hurt either. However, if you work part time you will only get part-time results.”
King noted that this is one of the key advantages of being an individual distributor rather than part of a larger business with all the potential distractions and red tape. “The great thing about running an individual business is that you can sink or swim based on your own efforts,” he said. “There is far less distraction of office politics and other things that are entirely out of your control. The flexibility of schedule is [also] vastly important to me. When my son, Daniel, was younger, I was able to attend school meetings and coach his sports teams without having to ask for time off.”
9. Be persistent
OK, so you’ve tried one or two ways to prospect for new clients, and it doesn’t seem to be working. Don’t quit. It pays to be persistent in your approach, even if that means changing up your strategy a bit. Jim Peterson had some suggestions for what to do in these situations.
“As mentioned, we commit to calling on our prospects for a significant period of time, so if the cold calls, self-promotional mailings and emails are not grabbing their attention, we like to use what we call breakthrough strategies,” he said. “These are simply a collection of different ideas that are outside of the box as it relates to getting in front of the prospect or getting them to take your meeting. Don’t give up, commit to getting in the door and do something outrageous to get their attention. After all, we are calling on marketing people, so they will appreciate persistent and creative approaches to getting their attention.”