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7 Creative Lessons Learned at skucon Chicago

This year’s sold out skucon Chicago on July 12th brought together a diverse and energetic group of distributors and suppliers from the promotional products industry. From veterans with 30+ years in the industry to total newbies, the result was an eclectic and vibrantly creative, collaborative atmosphere overflowing with great ideas and stories. The sku-munity gathered at the beautiful Virgin Hotel in Chicago to learn about what makes great design, how to inject humanity back into the sales process, what it takes to become a successful thought leader, the secrets of storytelling in marketing, and how to propel your ideas into motion, among many other creative topics. Attendees enjoyed great networking opportunities and gained valuable insights into the future of the promotional products industry from Paul Bellantone (PPAI) and Tim Andrews (ASI). Here are 7 creative lessons we took away from the skucon Chicago presenters, applicable to every promo products professional:

1. It’s okay to fail.

A common thread among the keynote presentations and workshops was the topic of “failure” — and what we learn from it. It’s inevitable that we’ll all experience a setback, feelings of discontent, or project that winds up as an epic flop at one point in our careers. It even happens to the top promo industry leaders such as Paul Bellantone and Tim Andrews, along with Tonia Allen Gould and Bill Petrie, who all shared some of their more humbling experiences with the audience. We make mistakes, miss the mark, and sometimes we lose or upset our customers as a result. It’s part of how we learn what works and what doesn’t, and it helps us redefine our vision. We have to take risks in order to grow– and sometimes, failure is just the catalyst we need to break the cycle and spur the big idea that takes us to the next level of career satisfaction.

 2. Don’t be afraid!

“Share an idea with a competitor,” challenged Mark Graham, co-founder of commonsku, in his opening introduction. That’s a scary idea for some of us, but it can actually be a great way to network, brainstorm, and get feedback from other experienced and like-minded professionals in the industry.

“Don’t let fear stop you from being you,” adds Bill Petrie.  “A little friction in the sales process is okay. It allows us to inject our humanity into the process.”

In order to grow as suppliers and distributors, we must branch out and try new forms of marketing and outreach. We must develop new ideas, consider new audiences, new approaches, and make new connections to avoid becoming stagnant. Tim Andrews, president and CEO of ASI and Paul Bellantone, president and CEO of PPAI both cited “resistance to change” as one of our industry’s biggest hindrances. (Watch the video of their fireside chat here) “There’s still a lot of fear out there,” explained Tim. He noted that the best distributors aren’t afraid– and as a result, they can make better decisions about where to invest their time and resources.

Tonia Allen Gould encouraged the crowd to “chase the danger,” and let go of the fear that holds us back from putting our ideas and dreams into motion. That’s exactly how she found herself writing and publishing her own children’s book, Samuel T. Moore of Corte Magore, a creative dream that she’d been holding onto for many years. But she didn’t stop there. She set out to procure an island, initially as a way to market her book– then founded the Finding Corte Magore Project, to help serve poverty-stricken kids in Nicaragua by providing access to sustainable and long-term educational resources.

3. Be human, especially when selling.

“The more digital we get, the more people crave human interaction,” said Bill Petrie, President of Brandivate Marketing. In his presentation on bringing humanity back into the sales process, Bill pointed out how easy it is to lose sight of the fact that a sale is still a transaction that involves people.

“70% of the buying experience is based on how the customer feels they are being treated,” Bill explained. As such, the consumer dictates the sales process, and it’s the distributor’s job to understand their pain points, their purchasing journey, and then make the buying process as easy as possible.

Distributors should also aim to move their customers through the stages of the buying process as quickly as possible. Some customers may not want to be sold, of course (there will always be objections) — but the best distributors communicate an understanding of those resistance points to mitigate them during the sales process.

How is this done? By focusing on the small things, like acknowledging price up front with your customers. When the price of an order is viewed as an exchange of value ( ie: these promo products will help you connect with 3,000 new customers) instead of just “payment” — then you can relate on a human level.

Want some other simple ways to be more human when selling? Here’s what Bill recommends:

  • Get comfortable with silence. Don’t “show up and throw up.” People can only process so much information at once.  Give your customers time to absorb and digest what you’re saying.
  • Stop multitasking. No one is good at it! Especially when you’re talking with a client, give them your undivided attention so you don’t miss any important details or concerns they may have.
  • Communicate with clarity. Clients don’t always expect things to be perfect, but they do expect your honesty. Be human and candid with your customers, and they’ll appreciate it.
  • Challenge a client. If they’ve been sending in the same repeat order for the last 5 years, suggest something new within the same budget. Explain you want to help them achieve more with a new idea they may have never considered.
  • Ask for Feedback. Asking for honest feedback from your clients shows that you care about how things are going. Give them permission to suggest areas where you could improve. Even a small issue left unresolved could lead to lost business if a competitor were to approach them.
  • Be passionately curious. Think of yourself as a doctor or investigator, rather than a salesperson. Ask questions like, “what happened” and “how?” and consider  running some tests or case studies to come up with the best solution.
  • Show genuine empathy. Listen with your heart when working with your clients. Maybe someone’s job depends on the success of this promotion. Showing compassion builds a great rapport.
  • Aim to serve. Great sales people always make the needs of the client their top priority. If you don’t have what the customer needs, refer them to someone who can help, rather than taking a quick sale.

4. Tell a good story.

“Storytelling is a form of currency,” explained Bobby Lehew, Cheif Branding Officer (CEO) at Robyn. “Stories are the currency of human contact. If you want to move peoples’ behaviors, you have to emotionally move them.”

People make decisions emotionally and justify them rationally. So how do we connect to our customers through story? We must make the customer (not the product) the hero of the story. For suppliers, the distributor is the hero of the story. For distributors, the hero should be their end user. And the truth of the matter is that powerful storytelling is hard. But stories can be found everywhere. Investigate your company’s history. Talk to your coworkers. Look at past purchase orders. Reach out to repeat customers, and ask why they keep coming back.

As promotional products professionals, we offer solutions for brands to connect with their customers, and mechanisms to capture leads and drive booth traffic at trade shows. Bobby encourages us to remember that “We’re not in the promotional marketing business. We’re in the emotional marketing business.”

5. Be omnipresent.

Multichannel marketing is key with a diverse market of buyers. “We must adapt to have an omni-channel presence, both in print and digitally,” explains Paul Bellantone.  We have to be flexible and able to do business the way customers want, whether that means online, at trade shows, or over the phone. A few suppliers noted that they still have the occasional order come in via fax. A distributor in the audience said she even received a purchase request in the form of a handwritten letter sent in the mail. These instances aren’t the norm, but its’ up to distributors and suppliers to adapt to the needs of their customers, and be present in multiple places in order to close deals and grow business.

6. Move faster.

Today’s buyers have Amazon expectations when it comes to their shopping experience. It’s a tough reality to face, but Tim Andrews recommends that in order to keep up with buyer demands and compete with other online retailers, suppliers must be open to offering lower quantity minimums and working towards faster turnaround times. “An object at rest stays at rest. Distributors must realize that they are the  external force that must set things in motion,” adds Bill Petrie. Distributors must move quickly to set transactions into motion and constantly present new ideas– whether that’s with a Facebook post, a virtual proof, an email, a cold call, or a face-to-face meeting with your customer.

7. Stay creative.

It’s not uncommon for us to lose our creative mojo as we get wrapped up in our daily routines. But that’s no way to live in this industry. It’s our job to stay creative– and it’s far more rewarding when we do. “Develop a vivid imagination, and brainstorm with everyone,” says Tonia Allen Gould. Take time off and set time aside for creative activities like painting, drawing, or writing if you feel like your head isn’t screwed on straight.” She also recommends keeping an idea journal by your bed, to write down ideas and dreams that come to mind before they slip away. Come back to them later, and you’ll be surprised what actionable items may stem from them.

What other lessons did you learn at skucon Chicago? We’d love to hear them – leave us a comment below!

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