5 Things to Know About Engaging Clients and Prospects Remotely
When the coronavirus first emerged as a threat, Lisa Greyhill remembers trying to chip away at a frozen marketplace. Contacts were being laid off, so the president of Chicago-based Firebrand Global Marketing had to think fast.
“We had to be super proactive to stay in touch with, and ‘meet,’ replacements of buyers,” she said. “They didn’t know what was going to happen with their businesses, so there was a ton of ‘wait and see.’ With clients across the U.S. and around the world, we found that regional responses to COVID affected purchasing and planning.”
Roughly 11 months later, vaccines are inspiring hope and a return to some semblance of normalcy—though right now, it’s anything but. Hospitals are grappling with the post-holiday wave of patients. Long-term unemployment is rising. Travel is strongly discouraged.
At the time of this writing, industry professionals are typically catching a flight to Las Vegas, where the annual PPAI Expo is held. This year, they’re viewing the latest products and technology from their electronic devices. Screens also remain the primary meet-up spot for sales calls, plant tours and the like.
By now, salespeople have picked up a few tricks to make virtual interactions successful. Still, there are always lessons to learn. Here, Greyhill and two other distributors discuss how COVID-19 has impacted business and share their best tips for overcoming obstacles and making connections remotely.
1. Embrace the Technology
For Stacy Garrett, senior account manager for Portland, Oregon-based Ideation Creative Promotions & Apparel, sending emails and making occasional phone calls is nothing new, since many of her clients are not local to her. The term “virtual,” she said, is what has really changed.
“Now there are a lot more actual virtual meetings via Zoom or Teams,” she noted. “I had never heard of either until the pandemic.”
It didn’t take long for Garrett to engage with customers in a non-selling way. She used virtual happy hours to create a relaxed environment for catching up. Ahead of each one, she sent attendees a wine tumbler that was imprinted with the saying “You’ve Got This” and her company logo just below, along with a color-changing straw and the fixings for a signature cocktail that she created to reflect current events.
“People were so wowed by the package, and we had some wonderful discussions about life and working from home, etc.,” Garrett said. “It was hard to think of investing in things like these tumblers and shipping during a time when no one knew what things would look like, but I have always been a big believer that you have to dig in and get creative when things are tough, because you want to make it through the tough times.”
The pandemic has also forced Naomi Bodway, owner of The Source House/iPROMOTEu, Osseo, Wis., to up her tech know-how.
“Zoom lover here,” she said. “[I] have also been learning Trello to keep track of larger projects.”
As a member of an ad hoc group of iPROMOTEu affiliates who refer to themselves as “Swag Sisters,” Bodway collaborated to host a fall virtual event for clients. The 200-plus end-user attendees participated in an engaging meeting complete with educational sessions featuring industry speakers.
“The Swag Box we sent to those that registered for the event was a crazy success and sparked lots of ideas among clients for kitting projects,” Bodway enthused.
The group is planning a winter event that will model a trade show format. Attendees can check out new products and learn strategies for adapting to the ever-changing business playing field.
2. Invest in Your Brand—and Yourself
By now, we all have found our go-to spot for video calls or conferences—whether out on the porch or at the kitchen table. The change in scenery was a nice break from that grueling commute and those drab cubicle walls, right? But now the lines between personal and professional space have been muddied, making every day feel the same.
For this reason, Bodway likes to keep her background fresh.
“I invested in a professional branded backdrop so that my presence seems more professional, and that has received a lot of positive response and feedback,” she said. “I still dress professionally and try to engage in a fun, but intentional, manner that we are still ‘working’ on our branding and moving forward.”
Self-care is another important area to maintain. Hair and makeup comprise Garrett’s video meeting to-do list. So does giving herself grace when disruptions occur.
“It depends on the meeting, but I make sure that I have planned for any distractions that can happen at home with my dog—I am not always successful, but it just helps my clients see that I am a human being,” she said. “I then make sure any emails or files are open on my secondary screens, so that while we are talking, I am not distracted looking for the files for the meetings. I rarely share my screen because I think that is a great opportunity to follow up on the meeting by sending something, but of course there are exceptions to the rule. I think the main thing is to do what feels right for that customer. These kinds of meetings sure have made it even more obvious how human everyone is. I have seen my clients working from a dining room table covered in kids’ clothes, and clients that are always so put together with their hair in a messy bun.”
3. Check in Without a Motive
Perhaps the best piece of advice from all three distributors was to be mindful and sensitive of how existing clients might be feeling right now.
“We need to keep in mind that everyone is struggling in some way,” Bodway reminded. “The physical health, mental health and economic ramifications have enormous [impact]. Everything is just plain harder right now. Be intentional. Be helpful. Solve problems. Make their life easier.”
As Greyhill pointed out, work-from-home situations can look vastly different from pre-COVID office life.
“I try to keep in mind that our clients are often working from home and that their resources and abilities to reach their clients and prospects look very different than [they] did at the end of 2019,” she said. “Many people are dealing with myriad distractions, crippled workplace capabilities and slashed budgets. We mostly have spent the year simply reaching out to say ‘hello’ and let them know we’re thinking of them.
“For the buyers that value our relationship, I feel confident that they’ll reach out to us when the time is right,” she continued. “Our social media postings and idea-generator emails have helped move some buyers toward purchases they wouldn’t have considered a year ago (think of all the great kits that have been created this year!). We’ve also been proactive in the PPE arena, generating sales volumes that have dwarfed the more ‘traditional’ product purchases.”
The frequency of check-ins depends on the client and their industry, as well as the state of their business, Greyhill said. She touches base with certain clients once a week or every other week. However, if a client’s buying activity fell off, she’ll reach out on a quarterly basis if she hasn’t heard from them.
4. Perfect the Presentation
From a sales perspective, the pandemic has made it hard for distributors to effectively present product ideas. Clients are used to having products in hand for examination. How do you make it work when you’re conducting meetings virtually?
Greyhill explained that, in her experience, prior to doing a presentation, it’s helpful to do some prep work. She talks to buyers to “narrow down the field of options.” After that, she’s able to set up a presentation in addition to virtual samples. But, Greyhill noted that one product in particular has been a true test: face masks.
“It would be ridiculous to assume that anyone outside of our industry would know anything about two-ply versus three-ply or what a dye sub mask feels like on their face versus cotton/poly,” she said. “And then there’s sizing, ear loop design and whether or not a mask contains a nose bridge wire. So, there’s a bit of education, plus actual samples that typically need to happen to ensure that clients end up with the product they’re expecting.”
Therefore, sending samples matters. Greyhill said that by doing this, clients are able to wear the actual face mask and understand how it performs. That’s important for an item that end-users will be using for longer periods of time.
“Samples are so important,” Bodway agreed. “I rarely take an order for something unless the client has seen and touched and used the product. [I have] sold some items that just don’t picture well, and [this has] saved me a lot of headaches over the years—people need to know what they are buying!”
Building your client base right now may be tricky. Some prospects feel a certain way about being sold to, so think about the message that you’re sending them.
“I will admit I think prospecting right now is a tough one,” Garrett said. “You will have to be really sensitive to the fact that a lot of people feel it is poor form to be ‘selling’ right now. No matter how you do it be sure to be mindful of approaching it with the attitude of how can I help them, not about helping yourself. I believe that philosophy in general, but I think it is even more important right now.”
5. Look to the Future
As vaccine programs are rolled out, it’s important to consider how the future of the print and promotional products industry might look. Will Teams or Zoom meetings still be helpful tools? What about virtual events? It’s impossible to predict the future, but our sources gave it a shot.
“The pandemic has forced companies to shift the way they interact with buyers, suppliers and employees, and video meetings are sure to be a part of the ‘new’ formula for engagement as the world moves forward,” said Greyhill. “One of the great benefits of this past year is that the entire world has been forced to get on board at the same time–which has never happened, and certainly not globally, since the advent of digital communication.
“We used to have a huge variety of platforms which we may or may not use, based on a company’s (or an individual’s) motivation to learn how to use it,” she continued. “People and businesses no longer have the luxury of saying, ‘No, we’re going to keep banging these two rocks together so we don’t have to learn how to use modern tools’—that attitude just won’t survive, and many of those people and businesses may have already opted to retire.”
As for events, Garrett is eager to return to an in-person format when it is safe.
“I definitely think the video calls will be something we do moving forward in the new normal,” she said. “I am not sure about the virtual events. I think maybe some of the education that has gone virtual will stay that way, at least I hope so because it gave me more access to cool classes without having the time constraints of going somewhere in person. With that being said, I don’t think live events will ever go away. Too much value comes from the personal interactions with clients and prospects and just basic networking. As a solid extrovert I know that I will be looking forward to in-person events coming back, but I might be a little more particular [about] which ones I go to.”