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Promotional Distributors Have Role to Play in Engagement

The transition to engagement consultant, recognition specialist or incentive professional makes sense for promotional products distributors because they already have the contacts and relationships in place
By Paul Kiewiet, Executive Director, MPPA
More and more promotional products distributors are discovering that the key to differentiating themselves means finding new areas of specialization and expertise – and engagement, recognition and incentives provide new avenues for growth. 
The old value proposition of being able to find product was eroded by the internet and has turned the purchase of “stuff” into a commodity business. Distributors have therefore found it necessary to discover a new value proposition that solves customer problems and creates customer loyalty. 
The transition to engagement consultant, recognition specialist or incentive professional makes sense for many distributors because they already have the contacts and relationships. Many of their buyers are already decision makers and are also great sources for inter-company and inter-departmental referrals. They also already have resources in place for the products that support programs. Their suppliers often provide more than product, but also valuable knowledge and experience in related disciplines.
Safety incentives have long been a popular niche for distributors. The need for reminders, for communications, training and rewards fits nicely with the products and services offered by promotional products professionals. Complete Source, a distributorship in Grand Rapids, MI, made a major commitment to this niche market, participating in safety industry trade shows, creating online safety programs and writing an ISHN and ASSE award-winning safety engagement program. 
Increasing healthcare insurance costs and the direct human resource costs associated with poor lifestyle choices have created a dramatic increase in wellness engagement programs. Many promotional products distributors have been able to capitalize on this trend by learning how to help their clients engage with employees and recognize positive lifestyle changes, including smoking cessation, weight loss and exercise programs. In order to become a client resource, distributors have found it necessary to learn about the motivations and structures necessary to affect such changes.
Employee-wide or enterprise engagement opportunities also abound for distributors. Hillary Feder, owner of Hillary’s Gifts in Minnesota, began the transition to engagement and recognition specialist in the late 1990s. “I asked a lot of questions and when I began querying clients – how what they wanted me to do fit into the big picture of nurturing their employees, clients and customers,” she says, “and I often received blank looks. For all of the financial planning, marketing plans, etc. my clients had, they weren’t really thinking about how to truly care for a key asset. They had maintenance plans for capital equipment and their facilities, but they didn’t think the same way about people.” 
Feder identified the need and began attending seminars and subscribing to publications from the Enterprise Engagement Alliance and the Incentive Research Federation. Over time, by nurturing her position as an engagement thought leader, she has become known as an expert in this field. She writes monthly education-based articles and sponsors a monthly and quarterly events to engage clients and prospects. These people began looking to her for strategic planning, thinking and program development, rather than just another vendor of gifts and promotional products.
For many of the major retail brands, the traditional premium/incentive channel of distribution disappeared as companies eliminated the premium buyer position. It became more and more difficult for special markets departments to find who buys premiums and develop long-term relationships with them. In recent years, the premium incentive industry discovered the promotional products distributor as the person who owned those key relationships. The challenge was bridging the gaps between the two distribution channels. Through education, outreach and a greater presence at promotional products shows, distributors are now discovering that they can profitably offer their clients branded retail merchandise for use in a variety of programs.
Distributors are learning about sales incentive programs, channel partner incentive programs, length of service programs and other things that their current buyers need. By positioning themselves as full-service promotion agencies, distributors can offer their customers a one-stop shop and single source for all of their promotional merchandise and premium incentive needs. By offering program design, research, measurement and reporting, they can also find additional sources of profit. It all boils down to becoming an indispensable resource to their clients.
Promotional products distributors have literally thousands of products and thousands of creative suppliers at their disposal. Custom awards, unique promotional products and high-end premiums are all tools they can use to execute engagement programs, incentive programs and recognition awards. The learning curve for the distributor is their investment – successful distributors have changed their value proposition from being a source of “stuff” to being a problem solver and program designer. 
Clients buy solutions to problems – employee retention problems, rising insurance cost problems, motivation problems, training problems. Distributors who are learning how to solve those problems are selling a much broader array of “stuff” to create positive change and enduring results.
Paul A. Kiewiet, MAS+, is the executive director of the Michigan Promotional Professionals Association, an industry speaker, consultant and coach. A 30-year industry veteran, former PPAI Chairman and sales promotion agency founder, he was inducted into the PPAI Hall of Fame in January of this year.
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