Stir The Pot

The Dilemma

Is self-serve eroding the Promotional Products Industry?

I entered the promotional products industry by accident, recruited by a lovely woman who was impressed by the way I sold her a nasty plastic buckle while I was designing leather belts and handbags for a private retail label. Shock and disappointment were the only two words to describe my feelings when I entered that office the first day and was confronted by a world of boring white mugs and black pens. I soon realized that the promo industry desperately needed a shot of creativity—something I knew I had to offer. A year-and-a-half later, I opened Red Scarf Promotions, selling what I loved and providing personalized, creative solutions to a corporate customer.

In the 25 years I’ve been in the industry, corporate clients have come to better understand why expertly chosen items are important to their bottom line and their company’s reputation. 

But I’ve noticed a disturbing trend that’s chipping away at that: self serve. Instead of providing personal service, vendors send their clients online to filter though endless websites and product selections. Without a care about clients’ individual preferences and business needs, vendors are promoting a one-size-fits-all solution. This is a clear illustration of complacency and lack of creativity on the part of the vendor. Where are the salespeople who should be providing product options, creativity and discussion? They’ve been replaced by account managers whose job descriptions don’t include these vital tasks.

Without a salesperson’s expertise and personal service, disappointment is bound to happen. How is a client supposed to know what imprints will and won’t work with certain items? How can they confidently choose a gift without a sample? How do they know if delivery dates are reasonable?

In corporate gifting, it actually the thought that counts: the experienced, knowledgeable thought of a professional who understands the impact of a well-chosen gift—and who knows that a poorly-selected item can damage a business relationship or send the wrong message about the giver.

We need to put greater emphasis on the customer experience and return passion and creativity to product selection. Technology certainly has its place in the process, but let’s not allow it to replace the magic that happens when a client and salesperson really get each other. That means picking up the phone, grabbing coffee and really communicating and listening. Yes, this process does take time initially, but is well worth it. Please, let’s not go back to a world of white mugs and black pens!

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