With roots dating back to 1984, CE Printed Products, a trade-only envelope printer, has learned a few tricks along the way. But with success comes challenges. Like so many others, the Carol Stream, Illinois-based company has survived in an industry where hungry conglomerates, protracted economic growth and technology continue to threaten its livelihood. As a result of the new normal, competition has never been higher, so when obstacles show up in the day-to-day, it becomes even more crucial to succeed, and CE Printed Products knows that.
Not too long ago, the supplier was hard at work developing a stationery program for a client. The program required a cross-platform XML integration and a rather specific workflow. All collected data had to be reported back to the distributor partner’s system—a task further complicated by the distributor’s decision to use multiple software vendors. Quite simply, the end-user’s needs were not in-line with the company’s, or the reseller’s, standard process.
The story could have ended there. After all, think about your own business dealings and the amount of times you have heard: “That’s out of our element,” or, “Sorry, we can’t.” Instead, both parties came up with a better strategy. By coordinating efforts at multiple levels of their organizations, they were able to provide the desired solution. Today, CE Printed Products fulfills “hundreds of orders a week,” and feeds the necessary data back to the distributor and end-user, according to Adam McNeill, the company’s vice president of marketing and sales.
It’s the kind of outcome that McNeill loves. “[The most impactful moments happen] when you share a victory with a distributor partner,” he said. “I’ve been involved in many long sales cycles, and when you finally put the right technology solution in place and dial in the other logistic needs, it’s very fulfilling.”
Long gone are the days when end-users strictly paid for product. Now, that price point better include an experience, complete with flexibility, fast turnaround and solutions. The key to success begins and ends with the supply chain partnership. “Developing relationships with your customers is so important,” stressed Bruce Kolbrener, vice president of sales for Quinn Flags, Hanover, Pa. “Getting to know their clients and their specific needs, being responsive, and coming through on the most difficult and time-sensitive projects helps you develop bonds with your customers, and they respond by coming back to you for all of their needs that fit your line because they are confident that their clients’ needs will be satisfied.”
In order to fully leverage the capabilities of supplier firms, it is best to involve them early in the sales cycle. “When we have an opportunity to hear the needs of the end-user and provide input based on our product line and experience, it opens up the conversation to collaborate,” McNeill shared. “In that situation, it’s no longer just working up a quote, but working on a solution for both our customer and their customer. Not every opportunity can take shape that way, but when it does, it certainly is exciting and showcases the manufacturer and distributor partnership.”
For Kolbrener, it’s about taking those discussions to the next level. “We seek conversations with distributors that help fulfill client needs and projects,” he said. “We love when distributors mention that their client is looking for new ways to promote and advertise, because we specialize in innovative ways to bring new products and ideas to their clients.”
Kolbrener is referring to Quinn Flags’ diverse product line of custom flags, banners, display hardware and pennants. Not only does he spend time educating distributors on how they can pitch these items more effectively, he also explains how their clients’ branding and advertising campaigns can benefit. “[Show] ways that you can partner with distributors by providing marketing support, rush capabilities, virtuals and samples to help them close deals and sell more,” Kolbrener instructed.
One particular job stood out to Kolbrener. A large corporation was undergoing a rebrand, which turned into a major project. “A rebrand is so important to a company, and you want to do everything physically possible to make it successful and memorable,” Kolbrener said. “We first developed virtual fliers with the new logo on various promotional products, providing the distributor [with] many ideas to take to its client. After the client decided on [the] products, we expedited multiple pre-production samples for approval so they looked just right before manufacturing them for use in their rebranding advertising campaign.”
In addition to creating samples, Quinn Flags provides educational training for the distributor sales force and accompanies representatives on calls. “We’re willing to do just about anything our customers need us to do to help increase business and close sales,” Kolbrener remarked.
CE Printed Products’ sales tools are a direct result of distributor feedback. “In a customer service environment like we have at CE, we receive many calls and emails,” McNeill said. “We challenge our team to identify the needs of the customers that might not be obvious. With that in mind, we will provide education, go on calls and include our operations and technology team to solve challenges for our clients. We continually review and update our internal training and ongoing education, so we can refine the business solutions we provide our customers.”
The supplier even developed an educational video series, called “Paper Clips,” as a more efficient way to address common questions. The series, which can be accessed at www.ceprintedproducts.com/paperclips/, covers topics, such as how to measure a window envelope, how to store paper products and how to submit artwork.
But these relationships cannot be one-sided—distributors have a part to play beyond enjoying vendor capabilities. When asked about common problems they encounter in their partnerships, both men pointed to lack of communication. “There’s nothing more frustrating than working on a special project with a distributor, getting things done in a timely manner, [and] then hav[ing] to rush things through because there was no response from the distributor on specific things needed to move forward,” Kolbrener said. “Distributors expect good communication from us, but it’s a two-way street to complete projects successfully.”
McNeill would like all purchase orders to contain consistent, accurate specifications. “We see our distributor partners involved with so many product categories that it has to be difficult to know exactly what each manufacturer needs to produce their order,” he said. “As a result, we see paper specifications, pricing, color and size discrepancies regularly. The gaps in the information are hard to pin down at times. Turn times are tight and it requires quick feedback on both sides to bridge that gap.
“Our goal is to process the orders with as little pushback to the customer, but often we do need their input to make sure we have the jobs right,” McNeill continued. “We want to make it easy to do business with our company, but, at times, will need help clarifying all the details.”
In every opportunity, win or lose, there are important takeaways. Kolbrener has learned from his past relationships that not all distributors are created equal. When it comes to conveying urgency, for example, some distributors are interactive and expressive; others, Kolbrener said, are more reserved. “I’ve learned that one distributor’s need is not greater than another’s because of the way it was communicated,” he said. “I make sure to get all the facts and that decisions are made on factual needs. In the past, I may [have] discounted the needs of the more reserved distributor.”
McNeill had his own opinion on the matter. “It’s not about one specific lesson as much as building a team that looks for ways to learn from everyone’s experience,” he said. “Then, sharing those lessons, so we can all learn from them.”