But what does it really take to make it in the multi-billion dollar promotional products business? Are there specific skills that set the best apart from the rest? What differences exist between the six figure salesperson making a handsome living in the business and the part-timer earning a reasonable income? Can you really carve out a substantial career in the promotional products industry? If so, how?
In our twenty years, we've discovered some of what it takes to be successful and, (equally as important), the roads to avoid that lead to failure.
This post aims at discovering and highlighting the skills and attitude necessary to be successful in the promotional products business. There are basically two types of reps in this business:
- the career-minded rep, the one aiming for the brass ring as a million dollar producer (or at least a six-figure salesperson)
- the part-time rep, the person who wants to supplement their existing income or earn a part-time income selling promotional products
(Disclaimer: a prominent executive in our industry once commented that as similar as distributors are in this business, we all derive our income in different ways. In other words, our respective businesses have been shaped by our core clients and these clients are extremely diverse. All this to say, what follows are my personal reflections on just a few of the traits necessary to make a career and sustain a business as a promotional products representative. Some of these characteristics are most certainly debatable. I welcome your comments on this post and hope to continue this as a dialogue with many of you who read this blog).
Subservience: The proper mental attitude comes first but not merely “a positive attitude” (though it definitely will help) but something far more surprising, a subservient attitude. There are two definitions of subservience, one is “obeying others unquestioningly” (and this is definitely not the proper meaning in our context), the more accurate definition for our use is, “serving as a means to an end”. Subservience is not a trait one likes to consider as fundamental for a successful career in sales but subservience is so critical, (particularly in B2B sales), that your attitude toward this trait could mean success or failure in the business.
If you don't have a caring attitude toward your customer's best interests then this business might not be for you. Any peddler with a catalog full of pens and pencils can get a sale but it takes a subservient posture to gain a client (one who trusts you enough to place numerous orders and who comes to rely on you as a trusted advisor). Subservience consists of listening to a client’s aims and goals and considering ones skill, aptitude and resources as in the employ of the goals of the client. As a promotional products professional, you are in the business of promoting other peoples' businesses therefore the easier-said-than-done skill of listening and responding with successful action is the key to achieving long-term success in this business. This means getting to know your client well enough to understand what is being said as well as what isn’t being said (often, equally as important). Your customers don't care about your accomplishments, they only care about what you will accomplish on their behalf.
Organizational Skills: Don’t stop reading, bear with me on this one. If you lack organizational skills it's no deal breaker but it is helpful to be somewhat organized. I don't mean the hyper-organized type, (that could kill you in this business, take it from one who knows), I mean a general propensity toward organization. If you are not an organized person you shouldn't disqualify yourself from this business but you should walk into it with the understanding that organization is the first skill you need to work on to be successful. We juggle over 800,000 products. Eight-hundred-thousand! Add to this the complexity involved in a single order and you’ve got a major opportunity for disaster. Most salespeople are not well-ordered; thankfully, organization is a skill that can and must be learned. To top it all off, you will be working with numerous clients, juggling (hopefully) numerous projects - each client wants to believe (rightly so) that they are the only client who exists - your ability to juggle their demands with effective solutions for each brand will carry you far in this business.
Ingenuity: Note - not creativity, ingenuity. Creativity is related to "involving the imagination or original ideas". Ingenuity is "cleverness or aptness of design." Though we sometimes create custom ideas from scratch, we are often working with manufacturers who have already invested sweat equity into a creative product. What we are looking for is the most ingenious way to utilize promotional products for our clients' brands. A skill in combining the heart of your client's brand with the best in creative products is an act of an intelligent, enterprising mind. We've seen exceptionally creative people flounder in this business because they lacked the marketing acumen to understand how to make this creativity work for the client on a consistent basis. We've also seen people without an ounce of creativity make a substantial income because they were astute at determining what the client really wants. In the promotional products business, creativity comes in to play when you are branding yourself and your company. Ingenuity comes into play when you are making these products work for your client.
Hunger: We have a rep right now that is one of the most hungry salespeople I've seen in some time. Late hours, early morning hours, a fierce dedication to each client; it's exhausting but she's heading toward a potentially nice income. What's odd is that she doesn't fit the traditional sales model most people have in their minds. She's thoughtful and caring toward her clients and is concerned about getting it right. She's done the math: though eager to increase her income she is working toward it with a sober mind. She knows clients will reward, sometimes handsomely, persistence and perspiration if they sense the reps dedication and desire toward their brand. If they sense a salesperson just looking to make a quick buck (and they are astute at knowing the difference), they will not put their confidence (i.e., money) in them. There are masses of the wrong kind of salesperson in this business out to make a quick buck, they might make some money on the low-hanging fruit, (a bounty that is scarce these days) but they will not make a career of it. Fortitude, tenacity, zeal, persistence, stamina and patience are critical necessities, particularly in light of our roiling economy, the seasonal purchasing habits of most clients, and the vast amount of turnover in most corporate environments.Collaboration: The promotional products business is an easy business to get into, the cost to enter this business is low (hence, the reason so many amateurs flood the market in good times and exit the industry en masse when there are no more easy sales to be had). To sustain a career or juggle a part-time income, one needs the right resources to make it all work. The right resources means not only the right supplier partners who produce quality goods in unbelievable time frames but also the resources to take a calculated risk. Resources that can back up a $40,000 order with a 100% guarantee if the customer is not satisfied and I’m not merely referring to money, I mean the most important resource a business has: it’s people. In most successful distributorships, what lies behind the smiles of brilliant and successful salespeople is a team of highly competent, responsive, dedicated and conscientious support. These people pave a much smoother path for a salesperson to open doors to bigger brands because of the immediacy of their responses and their sheer ability to make it happen. These unseen heroes enable ingenious reps to do what they do best: make connections and enhance their clients' brands. The right resources provide a platform for a successful distributorship that is scalable - an incredibly important concept that will under-gird all future growth.
Bottom line: it is relatively easy to gain a customer in this business, (customer defined as a one-time transactional sale that constitutes quick cash through the provision of a basic product) but it is surprisingly difficult to build a consistent client base, a network of contacts who rely on you as their trusted advisor. To those who achieve that sacred stature, your path can be one of gilded gold, but it will be a path that will require all the concentrated ambition, discipline and resolve necessary to sustain it.