The jargon in this industry sounds like a foreign language to a newbie, right?
Like many people, I came to this industry from another career. I remember sitting in my first promotional products staff meeting wondering what a placket was. My past training in sales was very feature/benefit driven. Quickly, I became completely bamboozled by the fact that we had so many products to choose from, so many features and benefits to sell.
Despite the massive product overload, I did succeed. Looking back, I wish I had found someone to guide me and translate the wealth of tribal knowledge found along the path of “least mistakes” as I worked to grow my business. Perhaps the following thoughts might help someone new to our industry focus on what is really important in starting out, to “ramp up” more successfully, possibly more quickly.
And, surprisingly, it’s not about memorizing the features and benefits of products or about pricing!
Here are 10 important points to ponder as you start out:
1. Hire a good accounting clerk if you are starting your own company and install a system of checks and balances for your cash management. If you work for someone else, understand how your client’s business will be invoiced, your client’s payments collected and all that goes with maintaining your profitable block of business, including the financial success of the company you are working for.
2. Find a person who is friendly, with excellent attention to detail, integrity and who can think on their feet. Hire them to support you with the details of the daily grind so that you can stay focused on business development, even if it's a few hours a week starting out. Help them to understand that the most important goal of your business is to make sure your client’s order delivers on time, perfectly.
3. Join PPAI and take all of its course offerings, especially if you are new to the industry. Ask about the mentoring program. Go to The Expo or regional shows to learn about the never-ending stream of products. Get involved with PromoKitchen and its mentoring program. Finally, get involved in your community and become friends with other business owners, people who will catch your passion for what you do and become clients.
4. Decide what your business strategy will be. Will you focus on selling programs? Will you provide merchandise for sports teams? Will you take a creative approach? Develop a compelling presentation of your capabilities to reinforce your niche.
5. Read to understand branding, marketing and advertising at a basic level. Promotional products play a vital role in brand awareness, and it's helpful to understand where we fit and where we can grow into a client's overall business strategy to help them accomplish their goals.
6. Learn in person with your decorators about decorating methods like embroidery, laser engraving, print and how techniques can differ so much between substrates: paper, fabric, plastics, etc. Ask a lot of questions. It’s one thing to see the end result of a screen print on a t-shirt. It’s another thing to see a screen printer actually print the t-shirt. Your client will like knowing that you know what they mean when they say that the “registration is important” in the design of the artwork.
7. Discover everything you can about your clients (and their competition), and their all important brand standards. Get your hands on their print materials to see how they utilize their logo, design and taglines. Use that knowledge in the creation of your solutions. Think through the solutions you create. How can you merge more of your client's brand messaging into your ideas? How can you get the recipient of a promotional product moved to accomplish the goal of the campaign?
8. Create a social network of peers in different industries to learn their business like digital, printing, media, creative, experiential, fulfillment, packaging, graphic design. They are also excellent referral sources and can help you craft your presentation. Must have: graphic art assistance. Figure out how to partner with a graphic artist, trade out product for services, or pay for help in this area if you do not own this skillset. (See #2. Some of the best account managers come from graphic design positions).
9. Stay focused on client goals. Solve their problems and help your clients to be superstars in their organization because they were responsible for delivering great product for their team or launch. Be the total solution for them, and you will always be their go-to company. What does that mean? It means understanding their brand strategy, their promotional calendar for the year, their unique challenges in serving their clients/associates and creating ideas that meet those needs. That is how you will set yourself apart. Sending a “catalogue” does not differentiate you. Imagine if you wanted to hire a personal shopper to help you with clothing selections and that person handed you a catalogue on your first appointment and asked you to pick out what you like. Wouldn’t you be disappointed?
10. Understand that all of this doesn't happen overnight, and that this is an industry that is also built on relationships between suppliers, distributors and decorators. Honor those relationships and learn all you can from them. You need each other and you will help each other in some way, some day. (Generally, you will need that help on the first order you are producing for the biggest client you’ve ever landed, which is when most mistakes are made). However, clients will agree that it’s not so much about the fact that you made a mistake, it’s really about how you handle the recovery. They will also tell you that they don’t want to know the gory details of how you “saved this order for them.” That’s your job. Your client really just wants their order delivered, on time and with perfection!
We veterans could write a book about each one of these 10 topics. What it really boils down to is this:
The promotional products industry is the only industry I have found where all levels of employees inside a client’s organization from the CEO on down, may want to get involved in the conversation we are having, they will have an opinion about the outcome, and always want to see what we bring to the table. It’s creative, fun and people love what we do. So take your business to the far limits of creativity and excellence and as your client’s Super Hero, enjoy the ride along the way!
Janie Gaunce is President/CEO of Grapevine Designs, headquartered in Kansas City. Janie served on the PPAI Board of Directors and is currently involved with PPAM, the PPAI L.E.A.D. program, volunteers for Operation Breakthrough, and is a member of the University of Kansas Hospital Advancement Board.