What's Working in Promo Sales: Tips for Landing Orders in a Shaky Economy
The second half of 2020 has begun in earnest, leading us to hope (with millions of others sharing the same view) that these next six months will prove far kinder to commerce than the previous six. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many modifications to business and the way it’s conducted, and companies have been working exceptionally hard to strengthen not only their identities, but also the livelihoods of the clients with whom they interact. No matter if we tab them as established, new or prospective, business partners have taken center stage this year, because distributors have been working hard to understand the psychology behind their needs and their standing within the business community.
Distributor sales professionals’ ability to close deals had been dependent on a number of factors before the coronavirus swept over the world anyway, but with the current state of the global economy making every transaction even more crucial than usual, it’s a critical time to review what’s working and what’s changed in sales. To explore some sales tactics and advice for the new normal and beyond, we connected with a trio of distributors and a sales manager at a major supplier. Here’s what they had to say.
Luke Sigle, account executive for The Vernon Company, Newton, Iowa, has always performed his duties as “a super competitive person,” offering a description that he feels is apt for most of his contemporaries, too. Given that admiration for pitting his talents against others’, he has seen the pandemic as a chance to affirm his curiosity for the diversity of clients’ projects and requests, while also expressing hope that such needs will continue to receive great attention.
“I always want to see this industry excel because relationships are at its core,” Sigle said. “I really give a ton of kudos to those who, during the pandemic, have adapted their business model to have it reflect an even greater enthusiasm for showing that they care about everyone who needs their services. There’s certainly been a mental shift to how we go about helping people, and that’s been excellent because I think we’re making a strong industry even stronger. We’re experiencing an ever-changing landscape, but I believe it’s one we’ll continue to navigate pretty well.”
What eases passage through the murky waters of current commercial interactions? For Casey Silseth, director of national accounts for HALO Branded Solutions, Sterling, Ill., “ingenuity” and “perseverance” resound as answers. And Silseth had an example in recounting a move he and his peers made surrounding personal protective equipment (PPE), the must-have buy of 2020.
“During the pandemic, everyone’s events were canceled, people were losing their jobs and the last thing my clients wanted was me trying to sell them a T-shirt,” he said. “They had bigger problems to deal with [in] trying to keep the lights on and their staff employed. … In a true solution-selling scenario, we figured out how to procure what our clients needed, PPE. With HALO, we had the relationships overseas with factories, and our global sourcing team started working overtime to help us procure these highly sought-after goods. I sent one email to a client that said, ‘I hope you are doing well. I understand that I’m not normally the person you would think of when it comes to personal protective equipment, but if your standard channels for acquiring masks, sanitizer, gowns, etc. are clogged up or out of stock, please let me know. We have the ability to procure these items for you. Please say ‘hello’ to your wife, and I look forward to catching up with you at the brewery next time we can all travel again.’
“Seven minutes later, the client called me and placed an order for 100,000 sanitizers,” Silseth continued. “So I started sending that email to everyone in my client database. To date, I have sold nearly $3 million in PPE for 2020. I don’t say that to brag. I just like to showcase that we can persevere when we are willing to go outside of our comfort zone, keep working the problem and never give up.”
“Whatever has to occur to keep people going, you have to be enthusiastic about making it so,” added John Helder, branded merchandise resourcer for HALO. “End-buyers are walking and not leaping, and you have to respect this. There are people who always want to sell a Mercedes, so to speak, but there are times when a Cadillac or a Chevy is what will carry the day.”
Strengthening relationships isn't limited to those with customers, too. Now is as good a time as any to strengthen relationships with suppliers, service providers and others in the promo industry. This is a little more difficult now that in-person events are on hold, but there are plenty of virtual events that have sprung up in their place. Some of these events are even designed specifically to generate business in the current market. You can check out one of them, our Back to Business Virtual Power Meeting, here.
Paul Keely, president of King Print & Promo and a former Power Meeting attendee, says the supplier relationships he’s developed from previous Power Meetings have helped his business for years, as has the idea-sharing with fellow distributors he’s met at the events. That’s why he signed on again for the Back to Business event.
“COVID has definitely messed up our mojo, primarily because A) many of our customers have been severely restricted and are looking at spending freezes, and B) it's forced us to change the processes that have worked so well for 20-plus years,” Keely said. “[I’m] looking forward to learning how others are coping.”
Promo suppliers likewise enjoy their roles in giving distributors a boost. With tens of thousands of distributor connections, SnugZ USA, West Jordan, Utah, has certainly been doing its part to bolster its industry allies’ success rates. Steve Rone, national sales manager for SnugZ, wishes for that tie to become even tighter as the rest of 2020 unfolds, and as everyone in the field yearns for a rebound year come 2021.
“There have been so many topics to consider over the last few months, with the supply chain, opportunities to reopen the economy, the stability of our work and the scope of our partnerships being among the most documented,” Rone said. “I think we really have to hand it to people who have been embracing the craziness, meaning the pace involved in keeping orders flowing and the persistence that they’ve shown in making it known that although the pandemic has certainly altered what we’re doing, we are going to persist and thrive. That success might not immediately be on our terms, but it’s still going to be a cause to remain hopeful.”
As that prosperity takes shape, Helder holds that closing sales will come to owe more to distributors’ abilities to forge friendships than to their skillsets, although the latter are still vastly important because of the sheer number of businesses in the industry. Like his HALO colleague, he sees providing a personal touch as an honest gateway to becoming the first person to receive a call from someone in need.
“You should always want to make clear just how beneficial your services are to someone,” Helder said. “The main mission these days should be making it obvious that you offer more bang for their buck. On the product side, variable data goes a long way toward showing that. People want and need to feel special. Feed that vital thinking with personalized items.”
Learn and Adapt
With respect to closing sales, most in the industry are hoping for a relatively swift return to face-to-face interactions as a way to increase end-buyers’ confidence levels. Minus such exchanges and, perhaps, traditional sales conversations at events, conventions and other gatherings (the lack of which has Silseth forecasting the domination of email), an all-hands-on-deck attitude has intensified among distributors and suppliers. Rone believes that the new normal should prove a prime opportunity to learn even more from one another.
“I love the entire creative process, and my fellow suppliers feel the same way,” he said. “These days, and we’ve seen it with some novel PPE products and non-health-related goods, the creativity level is off the charts. I’d love to see suppliers gain more footing in the creative process so that great ideas become even greater. While challenging times are upon us and might even become more daunting, there’s no time for a doom-and-gloom feeling to receive any support, so I’m all for being about increasing trust and spotlighting what we can contribute to each other’s goals.”
Rone, who quipped that not furthering camaraderie is akin to trying to thread a needle in the dark with strangers, would fare well in a conversation with Silseth, who posited that promotional product distributors and suppliers “need to really pay attention.”
“I believe that as we come out of this economy, we are going to see a lot of highs and lows,” Silseth said. “People talk about the new normal and what that is going to look like. As of today, we are seeing a resurgence of the virus in certain states and countries. We still don’t have a viable date on a vaccine. Some companies will close their doors for good.
“We have lived in a good economy for the last eight years and an especially good economy the last three years,” he continued. “The vibe I get is companies are going to be slow to recover, and frivolous spending will be eliminated. Organizations know that they need to keep employees safe, healthy and happy. I think the focus will shift to what we can do to help clients give that feeling of safety, health and appreciation to their employees.”
Through April, May and June campaigns, HALO reaped the benefits of having made that shift, with hand sanitizer distribution to customers in the first month inspiring the company to send boxes of cloth masks and handwashing decals the next two months. Strategic e-blasts that alert them to necessities such as back-to-work kits have been successful, too.
“It’s easy to reschedule trade shows and company retreats, but what about the awards receptions and recognition events that were canceled?” Silseth asked in exploring another area through which distributors can make sales. “These employees earned something, and I think organizations are starting to realize that they can still recognize these achievements without the big trips and the fancy receptions. We are packaging together meal delivery with custom gift packages and virtual sunglass fittings to really give a ‘wow’ experience to these individuals who earned something. Since the organization isn’t paying for flights and hotels, we have gotten some really big budgets to work with as well, which allow us to get really creative with the experience.”