Stand out, be different, be fearless, innovate!
The four things above are just one of my 10 secrets of successful people. That’s right. They stand out because they are not afraid to be different and are willing to innovate. Particularly in a business where we sell the same stuff from the same suppliers to the same prospects for the same price with the same lead times, it is critical that you find your secret sauce and stake your claim—fearlessly. (Stand for something or you’ll fall for anything).
Ask most distributors how they are different and you’ll get the same answers. More of the same. It seems to me that a fear of over-promising and under-delivering prevents many from raising their standards. Make offering different commitments part of your marketing and branding strategy, and work relentlessly to stand out.
A. Legendary customer service is the true test of your competence. Your customers expect you to be at least as good as Amazon. What do you do to make your customers feel like they are your most important client? Nothing builds loyalty like customers who feel appreciated and loved (yes, loved). You should make this a weekly exercise. Think of the best customer experience you had and how you can apply it to your business.
B. Fix your mistakes. Own them. Use them to build stronger relationships. Inform your customer immediately if things are looking like they’re heading for a crash. Admit where you could have done better. Have a plan (or three), and tell them how you are handling the situation. Ask them if they have any additional thoughts on what they want you to do. Most customers will write you off as a vendor with one bad experience. Empower your people to make it right. Ritz-Carlton Hotels famously authorizes any employee to spend up to $2,500 to make sure every customer has a great experience. (Any employee? Yes, even the housekeeping staff.) Don’t try to shift the blame to your suppliers. To your clients, you are the supplier.
C. Honesty is the only policy. Going to miss the due date? Call as soon as you know. Lying to a customer is just plain stupid. It’s unforgivable. They will not only lose faith in you and quit doing business with you, they will likely spread your bad reputation to others. When conversations turn to bad businesses, you’ll be their poster child. The faster and more honestly you share bad news, the more respect you will gain from your customers.
Effectively differentiating yourself from competition and creating your own brand identity takes you out of the commodity space and into the value zone where price is out of the equation. Always be looking for ways to innovate. Leaders try new ways of delivering great value that solve customer problems, make them more efficient and makes customers feel good about themselves. How do you become an innovator? You think about it and try different things relentlessly. Such as…
1. Ask your clients how they like to buy, how they use your products and what the best promotion they ever saw was. Find out what they like about their favorite suppliers/partners in other categories. If you’re really fearless, ask them about their favorite promotional products supplier (assuming it’s not you). I’ve found that even asking what company they admire most will tell me about what they value and are looking for from me.
2. Innovation through Imitation—copy someone else’s idea. Henry Ford first saw the production line in a meat packing plant, and stole the idea and applied it to automotive assembly. Observing Apple, one might decide to break some rules or to be focused on beautiful design. What does your favorite business do that you might be able to copy and apply to your business?
3. Observe your customers. I often went to the trade shows in other industries to observe how my clients and best prospects interacted with their customers. This—and reading their trade publications—was a catalyst for new program ideas that were easy to sell because they could see that I understood their challenges. Innovative ideas that result from observing clients were never put out for bid.
4. Listen to complaints. The biggest sale I ever made came from eavesdropping on a client’s sales manager complaining about the abuses of their cash-based incentive program. I went out into the marketplace, observed the people they wanted to motivate and created a sales incentive program that redeemed more than $1 million in premium merchandise.
5. Make innovation your culture. Plan brainstorming time with your staff. Think like your customers. Step back and look objectively at yourself and your company. What thought have you thought that you never thought before?
Focus and work on setting yourself apart so that you can stand out and be known for innovation and for being exceptional.