Tackle these four key areas for long-term business improvement.
For decades promotional products distributors have done business more or less the same way, with occasional adjustments to fix one-off problems or to adapt to a new industry development.
This “business as usual” approach is becoming less and less viable. It is also increasingly presenting real barriers to growth.
We are all faced with eroding margins, intensified competition, inconsistent sales results, ongoing staff turnover and a confusing array of technology options for business automation. These are daily challenges that affect our long-term growth.
Changing the way we do business is not a quick-fix scenario. It assumes we will have to take a long, hard look at how we conduct business, identify chronic problem areas and implement comprehensive solutions instead of quick fixes.
To get started, businesses need to focus on at least four key areas to improve overall business performance and pave the way for sustainable growth.
1. Operations: Create straight-line efficiencies to reduce time and costs
Our business is all about doing the same thing, day in day out. View your operation as an assembly line—a linear set of repeatable processes and tasks. Each person in an organization needs to have a clear role definition that fits into this linear workflow.
If you want the outcome of a more efficient, straight-line operation, then develop a plan that creates fewer functional gaps and overlaps, fewer mistakes, more management visibility, more accountability, reduced operational costs and a more efficient structure for growth.
For maximum efficiency benefits, this workflow should be supported from start to finish by a fully integrated e-business automation system. This system needs to include capabilities for CRM, order management, client management, job tracking, accounting support, reporting and so forth. Select an IT solution that is the right fit for all the essential functions of your business. An integrated system that supports a clean, linear workflow will make all of your functions and activities visible and track-able in a centralized and accessible manner.
Consider alternatives to the heavy upfront costs of purchasing software. Software as a Service (SaaS)—software that is delivered remotely as a web-based service—is fast overtaking software licensing or purchase as the technology option of choice for small- and medium-sized companies. In fact, SaaS is making large enterprise-type functionality available to even the smallest of businesses. The benefits of a SaaS model include affordability, lower technology investment risks and hassle-free, ongoing support and upgrades.
For promotional products distributors who want big-company business applications at a small-business price, the SaaS model makes a whole lot of sense. A word to the wise: Select your vendor carefully. Make sure that it fully understands your business and your business needs and can provide a solution that everyone on your team will find easy to use.
2. Sales: Build focused and systematic sales practices
Companies in the promotional products industry are individual-sales driven organizations. And salespeople—by nature¯are often reactive and opportunistic. Volumes of books and articles have been written on effective sales practices. In our business, it all comes down to focus and systematic execution.
Effective sales processes are equal parts sowing, cultivating and reaping on a daily basis. It’s essential to develop a sales process that creates a proactive template for daily sales activity and provides the sales management software tools to support the process. It also requires management support to make sure the team sticks to it. A structured, repeatable customer engagement process provides the team with comfort and continuity, and will build pipelines and relationships.
The best path to success is for each sales rep to develop his or her own annual sales plan. This involves strategic thinking, an analysis of past performance and a clear plan for the future.
To develop an individual sales plan, each of your salespeople needs to consider the following:
• Past performance and areas for improvement
• Top clients and how to grow these accounts
• Top prospects and how to turn these into clients
• New prospecting markets and how to pursue these
• Productivity and how to maximize daily activity
By tackling each of these issues openly and honestly, and then creating a plan to address them proactively, each salesperson will have developed his or her own business plan toward more successful selling.
3. Marketing: Develop a year-round brand-building marketing campaign
Most of us don’t have the time or money for big marketing campaigns. And let’s face it—the typical promotional products purchase is not a strategic event. It is usually a reactive response to a specific requirement or impulse. So for distributors, marketing efforts need to address two basic needs: creating prospects and building top-of-mind brand awareness for when reactive purchase events do occur.
To address both of these, you need to develop a multi-channel approach to brand awareness. Don’t rely on just one marketing vehicle to build your brand. The more diverse the campaign, the more successful it will be. Promote yourself across different venues including your website, ongoing e-mail marketing, postcard mailers and other lower-cost marketing initiatives that continuously reach out to your customers and prospects to keep you top of mind.
Think about how your target market works, what motivates them or what they need. Sending e-mails is a quick and inexpensive way to broadcast your message, but don’t just rely on this. Mailing postcards, letters or print-on-demand brochures is also relatively inexpensive and can effectively supplement your efforts and build brand awareness.
Sit down with your team and plan ahead for the next six to 12 months. What are the key purchasing seasons? Which themes are most likely to resonate at which time of year? Develop key themes and messages, create a communications schedule across the web, e-mail and other venues and implement your promotions accordingly. The result will be more effective and consistent communications that reach out continually to build your brand awareness.
You don’t need to spend a lot—you just need to spend it intelligently. Reaching out regularly will help ensure that your target market thinks of you first when they purchase promotional products.
4. Products: Simplify the product sourcing process
How much time do your sales reps spend wading through product information from multiple sources and tracking down pricing? What about dealing with issues related to outdated information and unreliable suppliers? Think about the time and effort that would be saved by simplifying this process—by focusing your team on a core set of popular products from reliable vendors that meet the vast majority of customer requirements. The benefits would be huge—reduced sourcing cycles, more focused sales activities, easier order processing, fewer mistakes and fewer vendor issues.
This would generally entail:
• Short-listing the best vendors and a significant sampling of the most popular products across multiple categories and price ranges. Think quality over quantity.
• Presenting these products online in a centralized and readily searchable format. Make sure you provide a consistently easy search experience—one to two clicks to any product by category and/or price.
• Promoting these products through all your sales and marketing efforts.
It’s all about focus. Your clients don’t want to wade through reams of product suggestions—they only want the top picks.
You should also review your typical client lifecycle process from the first product pitch contact to post-sale follow ups. What are the best practices? Identify these key steps and communications touch points to create a consistent process for each phase of your client interaction. A client who encounters a familiar and reliably satisfactory experience with every order will be a client who keeps coming back.
Putting It All Together
While this all sounds great in theory, the reality is that these types of fundamental changes are often difficult to implement. Where do you start? Where do you find the time? What is the best way to go about it?
Making real business changes usually takes some outside guidance and support. Fortunately there are a broad range of industry-specific organizations and technologies available to help take your business to the next level. Do your research well. Most importantly, any business improvement consulting or solutions need to pay for themselves through a verifiable return-on-investment (ROI) plan. Before you engage with anyone, ask to see the projected ROI in real numbers.
It’s easy to know you have to change the way you do things and getting the help to do so can be justified with a good ROI path. The hard part of the journey is taking that first step—deciding that you want your business to change and then taking action to make it happen.
Chuck Fandos is chief executive officer of Facilis Group, a fast-growing community of North American distributors, where he is responsible for overall organizational strategy and leadership. He is also president of GatewayCDI (UPIC: GATE0002), headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, which is ranked among the top 40 distributors nationwide.