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Twenty-one billion is a mighty big number. In dollars, that’s the annual sales in the promotional products industry. If 21 billion one dollar bills, end-to-end, were the perimeter of a pie, the pie would be 323,000 miles across. As big as that is, it’s a pie that’s cut into many pieces—20,000+ distributor companies with a total population well into six figures.
To get your share, how do you stand out? How do you distinguish yourself from everyone else? What makes you the go-to for your customers? Differentiating yourself as a resource for custom work is certainly something to consider. Here’s why…
1. You Can’t Win With Commodities
My “C” grade in Econ 101 was a long time ago, but the basic principles of supply and demand are pretty much the same—as the supply of a given commodity increases, the price decreases. And let’s face it, many promotional products are commodities.
So the supply curve is increasing, while at the same time, the demand curve is not keeping pace. This puts even more downward pressure on the price—the same pressure that puts your margins under duress. Sound familiar? If you aren’t the definitive price leader, it’s a game you cannot win. So I recommend cheating. Rather than lose at the same game, change the game. Going custom is an effective way to dodge the commodity game. There are few companies that are capable of offering custom awards, and far fewer than can do them well.
2. RFPs Are A Race To The Bottom
If the term RFP already makes your stomach churn worse than a roller coaster ride, then have a Maalox and move ahead to #3. RFPs may be unavoidable, but bear in mind the low bid will always either win or disrupt. Answer the RFP, but add a unique proposition beyond the scope of what’s requested.
If you are willing to think outside the bid and show creativity and initiative, you have a chance to be heard above the noise. Let others circle the drain while you demonstrate how something that has been created for (and with) your customers delivers real value.
3. Guard Yourself Against The Silent Killer
A budget cut is an unavoidable illness. Everyone in sales has suffered through it. They can prove lethal if left untreated, but most victims will recover and compensate soon enough.
Budget migration, on the other hand, is the silent killer—a chronic and invisible disease that siphons dollars to competing categories. (Quick gut-check: How do you feel about gift card programs?) If you hear “budget cut,” make sure it’s not just a diversion as your customer slow-walks you to the door. Re-direct wandering budgets back to you by offering lasting, iconic, custom solutions.
4. You Add No Value Without Relevancy
I understand brand loyalty—I’m a Coke vs. Pepsi guy all day long (literally.) But when it comes to airlines, I can’t say I have any loyalty. To me, when competitors offer the same service, the same experience, the same quality, all at the same approximate price, then the brand is irrelevant.
And you might be the best buggy whip manufacturer around, but who cares? Irrelevant.
Does any of this even mildly describe your business? How many competing distributors are in your market? Are they calling on your customers? If you’re just standing in line, waiting for your turn to present the same stuff others before you (and after you) have, then you are irrelevant. If you are not continuously innovating, then you are irrelevant. So show ‘em something so new it hasn’t been invented yet. That’s relevant.
5. Focus On Right Versus Right Now
In our business, we ask distributors to do something that is oftentimes uncomfortable for them. We ask them to stop (Collaborate and Listen.) and ask how the products and services your customer is seeking are being used. The question “WHY?” is powerful, and will lead you to the client’s true objectives. With those objectives identified, you can generate better solutions. Slow down and find what’s right for your customer.
It's Time to Stand Out
As salespeople, our task is to find a way to stand out from the masses. Anyone can make noise, but finding a voice that advocates the customer’s objectives will differentiate you. And customers will listen. After all, if you’re not heard, you’re just part of the herd.
For more, read this Bain & Company article about the trend toward customization:
Dave Miller is VP of Sales & Marketing at Bruce Fox, Inc. and a professional writer by virtue of the fact his company is paying him to write this blog. He has been with Bruce Fox since 1990, which somehow sounds more palatable than 26 years. If he’s wearing socks, they are probably coordinated to his mood, not his attire. The goal of his blog is to “edu-tain” (educate + entertain) promotional products distributors, with a focus on custom work. Dave finds it very awkward to write about himself in the third person.