Relationship Goals

  • Feb 20, 2017



Relationship Goals


As a promotional products
distributor for more
than 34 years, I’ve learned to
consistently hit the bullseye by
delivering promotional products
that meet or exceed our clients’
expectations. It’s a process that
includes the crucial elements of
proper branding, choosing safe
and ethically sourced products,
and delivering on time.
In my experience working with
suppliers, the six steps described
below have helped me hit the
mark on client campaigns and
projects again and again.
1 Choose suppliers
carefully. At age eight,
my mom enrolled me in group
guitar lessons. I had no idea at

the time how much learning
to play the guitar, and then
being part of a band, would
help me later in life. But think
about it: every time you act on
a request from a client, you’re
the conductor of an orchestra—
choosing products, ideas,
packaging and decorating from
a number of trusted resources,
and putting them together
for a big finish. Our company
subscribes to SAGE and we
utilize its tools to filter products
based on quantity, budget and
delivery time. Another tool
enables us to filter suppliers
who can meet specific needs.
All things being equal, I prefer
to work only with suppliers
that have a “B+” or higher

rating, because my reputation
hinges on the quality of the
suppliers with whom I work.
2 Build trust. Like
marriage and family,
relationships are important.
Over the years I’ve developed
solid relationships with suppliers
who are as committed and
conscientious about quality as
I am. Some orders are simple;
some are complex. A simple
order is when a customer
orders a single stock item
with their logo and/or copy.
Many suppliers offer 24-hour
turnaround at no extra cost. Our
team frequents this service on a
regular basis because a quick-


turn order ensures the order
is completed quickly and the
customer gets delivery faster.
Other key benefits are improved
cash flow and efficiency. In my
world, there’s nothing better
than successfully completing
orders and getting paid fast.
Being able to trust your supplier
partner is especially important
when working on complex
orders. About three years ago,
my No. 1 client called me for
help with a request for custom
bags to promote a grocer rewards
program. The client, a large oil
company, had partnered with a
large national grocery chain to
boost fuel and grocery sales. For
every $100 worth of groceries
purchased, the shopper could
save 10 cents a gallon when filling
up at the client’s gas stations.
Custom bags were to be given to
customers while they were filling
their tanks. The challenge was
production time and logistics. My
client needed more than a million
bags and they needed them in six
weeks. The order request came
toward the conclusion of the
Chinese New Year, when factories
in China are typically closed.
Fortunately, I had an ace in the
hole: a long-standing relationship
with a supplier partner who
frequently travels to China. We
discussed the project and the
customer’s budget and then put a
moving timeline together working
backward from the in-hands date.
We knew what date the goods had
to be at the client’s distribution
warehouse—what remained
was working out the logistics of
ordering the material, getting the
manpower to sew and decorate
the bags, and securing a time slot
and a shipping container to load
the bags on a ship.

With the major details worked
out, I met with my client and
discussed the cost and logistics
needed to meet her request.
We got the order! I closed my
eyes, took a deep breath and
submitted our purchase order.
This was the largest order of
my career and I was scared. If
things worked out well, I’d be a
hero, and if they didn’t, I’d be a
zero. Ours can be an unforgiving
business and we’re usually only
about as good as our last order.
Fortunately for me, I’d done
my homework and chosen the
right horse to run this race. Every
aspect of this six-week project
came off perfectly, including
my supplier flying one of his
managers to China to check
on the progress of the project.
The result was exceedingly
successful—we delivered on
time and on budget. Besides
the promotional bags building
revenue for my client, the icing
on the cake was being invited
to a vendor recognition event
where my client presented us
with an award. It pays to trust
your intuition, and also to do
your homework.
3 Start with good art.
To save time, we always
submit camera-ready artwork
with every order. Our company
specializes in rush orders, which
inherently have more risk built
into them. Submitting cameraready
artwork on the front end
eliminates getting stuck in an
endless loop of going back and
forth with the supplier’s art
department, which often results
in an order either not shipping
on time or our having to upgrade
shipping, which increases costs
to us or our customers. Our top

suppliers who offer free 24-hour
production require cameraready
art and have specific email
addresses to use. We have an
established relationship with a
reliable artist who consistently
and accurately produces and
delivers camera-ready artwork.
Additionally, my son, who works in
our business, learned to use Adobe
Photoshop and is quite good at
preparing camera-ready artwork
and virtual mockups to show
clients. If you don’t have an artist
on your team, check out SAGE’s art
services. However you choose to
do it, create a relationship with an
individual artist or an art service
you can rely on.
4 Establish an
expectation for
strong communications.
I’m a big believer in two-way
communication with our
suppliers. When I submit
any order, I expect an email
confirmation. When I email a
purchase order to suppliers, I
always include the words “Please
confirm receipt.” Recently, I
was working on a small order of
lapel pins with a firm in-hands
date. The customer service
representative assigned to my
order didn’t acknowledge my
purchase order and I had to call
her more than once to make sure
we were on the same page. (I
just realized the in-hands date is
tomorrow and, again, I need to
contact the supplier to confirm
the order shipped and get a
tracking number—frustrating!)
Lack of communication eats
up time, and I loathe wasting
time going back and forth
with suppliers. I’m attracted
to suppliers that acknowledge
my orders when received, send



order confirmations with ship
dates and then provide me with
tracking numbers. Tracking
numbers are especially important
to our clients, particularly when
an order ships to a hotel or event
outside of the corporate office.
I also think it’s critical
to develop and maintain
relationships with customer
service representatives (CSRs)
and I use a tool in the supplier
portion of SAGE that enables me
to store notes; this also where I
save my CSR’s name, extension
and email address.
5 Be ready to handle
any mistakes. Recently
we sent a large rush order to a
supplier and the order shipped
on time but somehow the
shipping department messed
up the shipping labels. Nobody
on the supplier end noticed
when generating the label on
the FedEx software that it was an
invalid address (or they noticed
and didn’t make the correction).
The order was supposed to ship
to a client in Washington for
an event but the label had our
company name, the client’s
address in Washington, and our
city, state, zip. Luckily, the next
day we received a call from the
FedEx depot, about an hour
from our office, stating they had
five boxes with a bad address.
I realized it was the rush order
that had to be delivered that
day. Fortunately, we generally
include a fudge factor of one to
two days in every order giving us
a margin of safety for unforeseen
circumstances. We contacted our
supplier who immediately went
on the defensive and instead
of focusing on remedying the
situation started with “we rushed

the order and wouldn’t have done
it for anyone else.” I stopped him
right there and told him that the
focus is always on the customer
and to please help re-route the
packages and I requested to use
their FedEx number. As an aside, I
wasn’t happy to see the boxes this
supplier used were falling apart.
We got the boxes redirected, the
client received her merchandise
in time for her event and we
voluntarily discounted her invoice
for being late. We also requested
and received an adjustment to our
invoice from the supplier.
Nobody is perfect. Mistakes
happen and when they do
my policy is to address the
situation head on and take
responsibility. As a manager
in our company, I don’t blame
my staff, my supplier or the
shipper—I apologize on behalf
of all parties and strive to make
things right with the customer.
I learned a long time ago from
Bart Christensen, a former
manager at 3M Promotional
Markets, about the lifetime
value of a customer. My first
account, established in 1982,
is a family-owned lumber
company in Los Angeles. I’ve
been providing their calendars,
pens and coffee cups for the past
34 years. Look at your customers
as an annuity—if you treat them
right, they’ll keep coming back.
Consistency is a good thing.
6 Thank your supplier
partners. I’ve
heard more than once from
supplier principals how some
distributors are consistently
abusive and ungrateful. Before
entering the promotional
business, I worked with my dad,
a glazing contractor. I watched

how well he treated his suppliers
and paid his bills on time. To
show my gratitude to a CSR for
going above and beyond the call
of duty, I’ll send a handwritten
note, and for extraordinary
service, I’ll send a nominal
gift with a thank‑you card.
My recommendations to
you come from many years of
experience. I’m reminded of a
motivational speaker named
Charlie “Tremendous” Jones,
who gave a presentation about
how he built a large and viable
insurance company. After
the speech, an anxious new
salesman, striving to succeed,
asked Jones how he became so
successful. Jones replied “Good
judgment.” The young man
then asked, “Well how do you
get good judgment?” He then
replied, “Experience.” The young
man, eager to learn all he could,
pressed on. “Well how do you
get experience?” Jones replied,
“Poor judgment.”
Our business is a challenging
one and is not for the faint of
heart. Unlike other jobs with
schedules, we’re on call all
the time. Ours is a business of
constant interruptions. I wish
it were more predictable but
it is not. When a client calls
and says, “I need to place
an order for an event next
Tuesday,” it’s important to
respond quickly. Every step
will flow more smoothly if you
already have solid relationships
with suppliers who have the
inventory and production ability
to make things happen.

Ken Tuvman, CAS, is
national sales manager at
distributor A.K. Rose, Inc., in
Chanhassen, Minnesota.








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