Looking Back, Looking Forward


It’s been said that experience is the best teacher, but there’s also significant value in listening to and learning from those who’ve gone before us.

PromoKitchen, an independent, all-volunteer promo industry organization launched in 2011, has two mandates: education to advance the industry and mentorship to share valuable knowledge with those new to the industry. In the following excerpt from PromoKitchen’s e-book, Thrive With Mentors, a cross-section of suppliers, distributors and business services pros candidly reveal what they wish they had known earlier in their careers, plus where they see the industry in 2028 and what needs to be done now to be ready.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Find an organizational system that works for you and then find the commitment and dedication to work that system each day so that you can be the most productive when you’re at work.

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
Given all the transparency in the world today, I think people need to be prepared to compete with something other than price. People are going to need to learn how to add value by being creative and providing solutions. I think that any business that focuses on just selling product will go the way of the dinosaur.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?

I would focus the business on specific industries that excited us where we could be the thought leaders, truly understanding our customer’s marketplaces and challenges/opportunities.

 Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
The obvious answers will likely be around technology, predictive analysis, AI, etc. I think we will be teaching a generation currently tied to their devices (vices) how to be human, how to interact and develop genuine in-person connections; to remind them of the importance of nature.

We will crave the “old way” but will not know how to get there.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Stop and actively listen to people. Find out what makes them tick, where their challenges intersect and how you can help them. There is always so much to learn about people if you simply take a minute to engage. That engagement is what drives more opportunities.

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
The business landscape 10 years from now will look vastly different. While we’ll certainly have more fantastic tools and technology to make things easier, at the end of the day it will still come down to people wanting to engage with people. The learning that needs to happen is how to build the keys to that. Know, like, trust and buy are the four corners of any sales process. [We need to teach ] an understanding of how those basic concepts will fit into any new tool that people will use.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
If I could go back and tell myself one thing that would make an impact on how I work today it would be, “Asking for help when you don’t know the answer doesn’t make you look foolish. In fact, quite the opposite.” The only way we can learn is by admitting ignorance and seeking wisdom. The sooner you say, “I don’t know, please teach me,” the sooner you’ll be able to acquire the knowledge you need and move on to the next lesson.

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
Things that we can teach now that will make a difference are that the foundational values and principles that drive business are evergreen. Take time to learn basic economic principles.

Understand supply and demand, as well what drives human behavior.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Surround yourself with exceptional people from day one. I spent too many years in the early stages of my business trying to figure out myself. This does not necessarily mean hiring people, it could be as simple as connecting with fellow business owners inside and outside the industry.

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
The industry will be primarily split between transactional ecommerce companies (35 percent of the industry) and agencies (55 percent of the industry) that offer value-added experiences to their customers. The remaining 10 percent will be transactional/relationship sellers. We need to be teaching creative selling, how to embrace technology so it enhances the customer experience and how to be curious about a client’s business. If we can do that now, our industry will continue to add huge value to the buyer journey.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Create daily lists. Due to my scattered nature, if I don’t create a daily list of goals to accomplish, I will not be very productive because I’ll get distracted by menial tasks.

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
By 2028, there will continue to be growth in the industry with increasing market saturation of distributors and suppliers. Consumers have multiple sources now, so why should they buy from us? We have to clearly define our value as a distributor or supplier. Those who fail to offer more value will eventually become lost in the overabundance of competitors. We need to teach people not only to identify their strengths but also how to promote those properly.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Always make sure to say “thank you” to everyone around you. A little bit of appreciation goes a long way in helping you get your own job done better.

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
There are going to be a lot more “makers” selling to end users. I think that, as distributors, we need to find a way to make something to keep ourselves relevant.

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 If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
That I have more time than I think I do. In our business, it is easy to get caught up in the fast pace, demands and fires that result in that ever-present, too-busy feeling. It is that feeling that prevented me from spending time on key development areas both personally and professionally. I am now better prioritizing where I spend my time to see the greatest impact. I am also pushing myself to say “yes” to the right kinds of things and “no” to the wrong ones. The lesson is that it is important to push myself outside of what feels comfortable and to say “yes” to things that matter.

 Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
Let’s start talking about how focusing and investing in design add measurable business value. Being design-focused has been a key differentiator for our company in a highly competitive promo space. Buyers are becoming less interested in simply placing a logo on a product and we are seeing a shift in focus on the user experience.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. This is something that took me a long time to do once I came into the outside supplier rep role, and it kicked me from behind way too many times. The mentality that you have to do all and be all will only hurt you, and you grow so much both personally and professionally when you’re able to be humble and ask for a hand when you need it.

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
It will, without a doubt, be different—more mergers, more acquisitions—but a lot will be the same as well. New companies will be growing, and I think a lot of suppliers now that have remained on the smaller scale and haven’t merged with other companies will be the big players in 10 years. I think what we need to continue to teach is adaptability, and have a growing focus on continued education so we continue to teach those coming into the industry the importance of staying in-the-know with how the industry is constantly changing.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Find a way to marry what you do with what matters most to you. When your work is connected to the things you care most about, it stops looking like work.

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
Distributorships will compete directly with suppliers for end-buyers’ orders. Our focus needs to stay lasered on the ways members of our industry can continue to provide value for buyers when competing with the factory direct.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Have the confidence to go for it and not hold back. It’s time for you (yes, you) to lead, and if you don’t step up someone else will and your opportunity will have passed. Even if you are too busy to do it, raise your hand. Don’t you want to see what you’re really capable of?

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
More customization, one-piece orders, even faster production and delivery. Traditional distributors will have to bring value beyond, “You like me, I’m honest, I know what I’m doing” to stay relevant. And traditional suppliers will have to bring value beyond, “You like us, we’re honest, we know what we’re doing” to stay relevant, too. Supply chains will tighten further, squeezing out any “extra” costs—and guess what? Some of the biggest buyers, especially those who see what we sell as commodities, see us as “extra” cost. We’ll all likely have to fight harder for our share, and maybe see our share shrink, but if we can show clients value (as they define it, not us), we will have a loyal client base that’s willing to pay us what we’re worth. And that’s pretty sweet! But you better be as good as you think you are, or as your social media portrays you to be.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Understand them before trying to sell or market to them.

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
How to be unique and provide more service; how to do more for customers than the Amazons and Walmarts in the industry; how to be a consultant rather than a “stuff-getter.”

 

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Focusing on clients who provide avenues for growth, versus a focus on transactional clients who are “one and done.” Also, leveraging my time effectively by delegating to production coordinators so that I can focus on relationship building and continued business development.

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
Consultative selling and truly listening to our client needs, rather than pushing the product of the week.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Make time for relationships in this industry. The relationships I’ve had for 15 years are invaluable. Not only do you cherish the friendship, but being able to call on someone in a time of need is very helpful and can save your world.

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
Ten years can bring a world of change. More online sales. Make ordering with you an easy button. Amazon-like customer service expectations with free everything and zero shipping.

We need to take the reins now and set our customers up with the mentality that having a promo concierge is much more valuable than any online company can offer them. However, broadening the way distributors sell promo has to happen. We must make it easy to order, communicate and deliver information to our clients. Incredible ERP and CRM systems are going to be the future.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Hire a CSR since day one, it will make a huge impact in the development of your business.

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
Customer service. People have more choices now than ever before so I will take a wild guess that in 10 years it is going to be even more difficult to differentiate yourself. So, you have to teach soft skills and great customer service to the new generation combined with the modern workplace.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Stay focused on the task at hand. Don’t chase the rabbit. I was too often distracted when I came across something that I didn’t understand that didn’t necessarily pertain to the current goal. I would stress out and waste time trying to learn something that would eventually come with time and experience. I still have to practice focusing to avoid this.

Describe the promotional item industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
Ten years from now marketing will be even more important than it is now. An expert in promotional products will be key to the success of any business. Specifically, I believe video marketing will have an even bigger role in reaching companies that desire to grow and develop new, long-lasting relationships.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Don’t get stressed over all the moving parts. Prioritize, manage expectations and don’t be afraid to designate tasks to someone else instead of trying to do everything.

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
It will be more automated and online; fewer in-person client meetings and fewer paper catalogs. What makes promos so successful is that it is a sensory, tactile marketing product and the movement online seems counterproductive to the very reason to use promos. We will need to teach the newer generation that personalizing the sales call and being as engaging as the promos we sell will be a big benefit to gaining lifelong client accounts.

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If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing that would make a huge impact on how you work today, what would that be?
Focus on long-term clients not transactions.

Describe the promo industry landscape in 2028. What will we need to be teaching now that will make a difference?
Clients will mainly purchase based on convenience or relationship. If you are a distributor that can provide both, you will be successful. It will be the same for suppliers, especially if you are not offering a unique item(s).  

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Excerpted with permission from PromoKitchen’s Thrive With Mentors, www.promokitchen.org. Request a download of the complete e-book at www.promokitchen.org/downloads.

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