Build a solid supplier-distributor bond with these best practices.

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, supplier/distributor 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 camera-ready 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 camera-ready 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.