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Q&A: How to Build a Promotional Products Business From Scratch

Erin Myers
March 16, 2016

How do you build a promotional products business from scratch? How do you grow without spending an arm and a leg on marketing? How do you keep your customers in an age of increasing competition from online vendors? These are questions that everyone in the promotional products industry has pondered, and the best person to answer them is someone with a deep understanding of the industry and its customers.

We sat down with Jeffrey Wasserstrom of JAW Enterprises, a business owner with 15 years of promotional products experience. He shared some invaluable insights about how to build strong customer relationships and succeed as a distributor, whether you’re new to the industry or a seasoned veteran. Stick around until the end for a list of Jeff’s best tips.

OutboundEngine: How did you get started in the industry?
Jeffrey Wasserstrom: I went to work selling printed apparel, T-shirts and embroidery. I did that for a few years until I started realizing a lot of my customers needed more than just apparel, so I started adding promotional products on my own. Once I knew the business, I decided I could do this myself and just contract out the printing. I don’t consider myself the typical old-fashioned salesperson. I’m more of a customer relationship person. All of a sudden, I was stuck out on my own with zero customer base and had to find all new customers. That’s not really my forte, so that’s where my struggle has been off and on for the past 15 years.

What did you do to build your business from nothing?
When I first started out I did a lot more cold calling, knocking on doors, and I can honestly say there are a number of customers that I still have that I got from knocking on doors 15 years ago. It’s a great feeling to realize one, that it did work, and two, I’ve been able to develop relationships with them and they stuck with me all the way through. That’s what I enjoy most about the business — building relationships and trying to figure things out creatively to help my customers increase their business and make more of an impression with their prospects.

Where does most of your business come from?
Very much referrals, often from my established customers. I was also lucky enough to be named the Ambassador of the Year from the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. They pick one each year, and that’s already been paying dividends. I’ve had a number of customers contact me after seeing that I was the ambassador of the year, and realizing there’s somebody right here who’s active in the community.

Since referrals are important to your business, what’s your strategy for seeking them out?
Write handwritten notes. When I meet people, I send a handwritten note. If I get a referral from somebody, I write a handwritten note, just saying thank you. A lot of times I’ll even give them a 10 percent discount on their next order. With a new customer I get as a result of a referral, I’ll do the same thing. I’ve tried to get back to writing handwritten notes that take a lot more time because people really appreciate that. And then, of course, I rely on you guys to do all the social media and email stuff.

What role do you think online marketing has in driving customer loyalty?
I’ve been looking for someone like you guys for years. I wanted to do my own emails on a regular basis, but I’m not very savvy on the computer. And I don’t really have the time to do all that. I first reached out and got started with OutboundEngine’s email program about two years ago, and then a little over a year ago I added the social media.

What kind of response have you had from clients in regards to your marketing efforts?
I do get a number of people who come up to me and say, “Man, you’ve got one heck of a marketing program!” They think of JAW Enterprises now as an up-to-date marketing company, not just this little operation, and that makes a big difference for me.

How do you provide value to customers beyond just taking their orders?
I try and make sure that they’re being thoughtful when deciding on a promotional product. Some people come to me and just want something to hand out. Instead, I try to stress the importance of the three U’s. Give a product away that’s 1) Useful, 2) Unique and 3) Unforgettable. So now you’re going to stand out a little more than your competition. And that’s how you make a lasting impression.

If a client expresses interest in one of the products mentioned in an email newsletter we send for you, what do you do from there?
Before reaching out to the customer, I’ll spend a little bit of time searching supplier sites, looking for things that I think would be of interest to them. And then I go ahead and utilize suppliers that I’m comfortable with and know I can rely on. Some companies are just set up better than others for turnaround. Bullet is one that has an incredible customer service program.

How do you keep past customers coming back to you and establish lasting relationships?
I really do care about my customers. It goes back to the win-win thing. There’s a vested interest to make sure my customers are successful if I want them to come back to me. My living relies on making sure they get the best possible outcome.

What effect does staying top of mind with past customers have on order frequency?
It’s amazing how many people are now aware of what I do because of the email and social media outreach that OutboundEngine does. I’m sticking with it because it’s valuable and a great way for me to stay in front of these people and get them to see me as a primary promotional product company and not just a small business.

What are some of your favorite product trends right now?
For me, it really goes back to the “useful” thing. There are certain products that have been successful since the beginning of promotional products. If you look at the list, with the exception of technology items, it’s pretty much the same today as it was 20 years ago. You’ve got your pens, notepads, T-shirts and polypropylene totes that you use at the grocery store or beach — they get a huge number of impressions because people save them and use them. You can get a huge logo on them, and they get used over and over again.

What kind of changes do you see happening in the industry?
The biggest change is the added element of all these online promotional companies. That’s what has hurt a lot of us because they usually work with much lower margins. With that said, I don’t think you’ll ever lose the opportunity to do business with customers who want to build relationships and work with someone they know and trust.

What advice would you give to someone who’s new to the promo business?
Get active in the community and various organizations and give back, too. It does make a difference. If you help other people, they’ll return the favor and help you too. Building relationships through community outreach is a great way to set yourself apart.

What advice would you give to a distributor who’s not using email or social media marketing? If you’re a small company, you’re limited with hours. Social media is just a much more effective way to hit the masses. You want to become an expert in your field — that’s the new way of selling today. You put out the information, but don’t expect everything in return right away. And when the time comes, they want to contact you because they’ve seen all this information you put out there. You brand yourself as an expert so people trust you, and that’s what you guys are helping people like me do.


From our talk with Jeff, we got three great takeaways that can apply to anyone in the promotional products industry:

  1. Nurture your relationships with relevant, engaging content marketing. Your customers will see you as an expert in the industry and will remember you when they want to refer a friend.
  2. Provide value beyond just product. Use Jeff’s “Three U’s” to give customers the best possible experience and ROI.
  3. Get involved in your local community. You’ll meet new prospects and establish your professional reputation, especially if you’re building a business from scratch.

Thanks for the tips, Jeff!


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