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Partners for Incentives: Roadmap for Distributor Success in IRR Market

Joy SmithAs one of the few incentive companies that only sells through promotional distributors, 70-year-old Partners for Incentives highlights how the distributor marketplace profits from the incentive, rewards, recognition, and gifting market and the importance of proper design, implementation, measurement, and overall culture. 

Two Basic Types of Distributors in the Market
The Importance of Meeting With Clients

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Kristian BurgwaldFew people in the incentive, rewards, and recognition market have worked supporting promotional products distributors longer than Joy Smith, Vice President, Sales and Marketing, and Kristian Burgwald, Director of Client Relations for Ohio-based Partners for Incentives (PFI).  Smith has worked for PFI (often known by its original name Schaeffer Partners) for 41 years, and Burgwald for 16.
PFI is one of the few incentive companies that has built its distribution model selling through distributors, according to its principal, Mary Anne Comotto. It has five full-time managers who do nothing but support distributors on sales and client support, not to mention the company’s technical, fulfillment, and administrative teams who handling billing and payments so distributors don’t have to.
Here are the views of two veterans on the role of distributors in the market and the best paths to success.

Two Basic Types of Distributors in the Market

“There are basically two types of distributors in the market,” explains Smith. “Those who have been in the industry a long time and already have a strong command of the market, the different types of programs, the questions to ask, and what goes into effective program design and implementation.”
Then, explains Burgwald, “there are the many more who are not in the market but are asked by a customer if they can provide a solution for a recognition, length-of-service, or a sales or channel program.”
According to Smith, “the most successful distributors only need to get us involved during the implementation process, when it’s important for all hands to be on deck. Otherwise, they usually handle the sales presentations and other fact-finding necessary to implement and manage the program.”
For Burgwald, it’s a different story. “Many of the people who call me have received a request from a client and know very little about the market. They often are not sure about the right questions to ask, and some are hesitant to bring us in on the call because they don’t know us well enough to be certain there is no chance we will try to take their client. Until we gain their trust, the challenge becomes educating them enough to ask the right questions and hopefully along the way building enough trust that they ask us to meet with the client.”
Making matters more challenging, “A surprising number call us as little as 30 minutes before a sales call and wish to be briefed on everything they need to know, when we don’t know anything about their client’s needs or what they know or don't know about the field.”
Explains Smith, “The promotional products business is very competitive, and many distributors have been burned, so they are hesitant to bring us into sales calls until they realize there is a much better chance of making the sale if we do meet directly with the clients. When distributors discover that we go back seven decades and were probably the first to start focusing on distributors 30 or more years ago, their comfort level goes up.”

The Importance of Meeting With Clients

PFI says it is happy to serve on a white-label basis until the distributor feels comfortable, but most realize that’s not necessary, says Burgwald. “Eventually most realize that their clients already know they work with third-party vendors, notably brands like Yeti, Patagonia, and others. Few of them manufacture anything that they sell.” He adds, “Not only does our experience help close the sale, it helps retain the client because unless the program is properly designed, managed, and measured on an ongoing basis, the program will run out of steam.” Another benefit: “We not only know the right questions to ask about the program they are asking about, over time we know the types of questions to ask to open up cross-selling opportunities.”
Smith points out, “Many of our customers come from other companies that haven’t spent the time necessary to design a program with impact and monitor it all along the way. It’s just a matter of time before these clients start looking for an alternative. We’ve received calls from distributors whose clients are using even the largest recognition and incentive companies who simply are not providing that hands-on service on program design, management, and measurement.”
For Burgwald, one of the biggest challenges is getting all the information necessary to build an effective program. While Smith emphasizes that the information to be gathered differs by the type of program, Burgwald notes that in general, it’s necessary to understand the purpose of the program, “what are they trying to accomplish? What are the characteristics of the people they are trying to motivate? If they are running a program now, what is their area of pain?  What has worked in the past, what hasn’t?  Do they have a technology platform?  How are they measuring the impact of the program. What vision do they have for the program?”  
The second challenge is that once the “distributor gets us in front of a customer, it’s often a lower- or mid-level manager who sometimes doesn’t have all the information either, including about such important issues as how the program’s impact is being measured by senior management.”
Concludes Smith, “We do everything we can to help our distributor partners make the best recommendations to their clients, and, when in front of their clients, to do our best to serve them. And thankfully this is working as our business continues to grow. At the same time, what we have often learned over the years is that many programs could achieve even greater results if the senior executives seriously understood the value their employees, channel partners, and customers create and the hidden costs of failing to engage them. That’s one of the biggest benefits of getting us involved with clients. If we can get at the heart of what is really going on, we can do more to help create measurable valuable or avoid disappointment.”   

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