The promotional products frustration, anxiety and sometimes rude behavior that leads to division between suppliers (such as myself) and distributors. There is no doubt that our competitive business is fertile ground for highly charged emotions on both sides. Instead of partners and collaborators, we often become the “other”—or the enemy, if you will. What are we doing to each other? What are we thinking?

I propose that we all, suppliers and distributors alike, pause, reflect and refocus our relationships so that we can move forward in a more collaborative, productive and appreciative way. Regardless of which side of the fence you work on, now is the time for all of us to become more aware of our words, more respectful of each other’s position, more positive in our tone of voice and more progressive in our thinking. Negative, angry and judgmental words break relationships and hurt business for all of us. For me, a positive relationship starts with two simple words: thank you.

My company’s recent experiences with distributors have pushed these thoughts to the forefront of my mind. It occurs to me that perhaps distributors may not fully comprehend what happens in our office when we are fortunate enough to be asked to bid on a project. For a small or medium-sized supplier like us, receiving a solicitation and submitting a proposal is an all-hands-on-deck affair.
When a distributor sends out a bid shotgun-style to every supplier in his or her email address book with a 24-hour response deadline, my team (along with many others across the country, I’m sure) rushes to jump through hoops and make the distributor’s job as easy as possible in order to be the winning bidder.

Suppliers contact and cajole their manufacturers several time zones away to meet the unusually tight deadlines. Artists create and/or revise multiple designs at no charge. Executives sharpen their pencils to work out the lowest prices we can conceivably offer on as many product options as possible given the end user’s specifications and the rushed time schedule. In addition, we are often called upon to take the extra steps to educate the distributor about material choices and options, manufacturing processes and new products.

This is all part of our job and we are grateful for the opportunity to bid on projects knowing full well that we will only be awarded a small percentage of the orders we quote. Now here is the big however, and where my two simple words mentioned above come into play. Many man-hours are put into proposals that, for the most part, go unacknowledged. We are left in the dark about the status of our bid. We receive no simple “thank you” or an even simpler “bid received.”

These words would go a long way toward establishing mutually beneficial relationships in the future. Unfortunately, professional courtesy is a rare commodity in the promotional products business and it’s not often recognized as a form of strength, but it is. We take pride in our position as a supplier in the promotional products industry. We know our stuff and we look for respect and appreciation from our distributor partners.

On one hand, there needs to be sensitivity to the often-difficult position distributors find themselves in—working to please clients whose demands may ultimately reduce their potential profit. On the other hand, there are suppliers whose product quality and on-time delivery are essential to the distributor’s success. To stay competitive, suppliers must deal with rising factory costs, transportation costs, duty fees, impossible rush orders and demands for extremely low bids. There are challenges on both sides, to be sure.

We need each other for success. This is a $21 billion industry. It’s competitive, yes, but there is lots of business potential for all. It seems to me that professional courtesy between suppliers and distributors can and should find a place in our industry. I can’t help but think a new understanding of the supplier/distributor relationship is in order. The ethos of our interactions must be defined by courtesy and respect for each other’s position and challenges.

We are partners delivering products to customers, not opponents. A renewed spirit of responsiveness, good will and transparency can be a big step towards ensuring prosperity for our industry and for the next generation of suppliers and distributors.  


Penny Ledbetter is president of supplier C. Sanders Emblems, L.P. (PPAI 440381) in San Fernando, California.