Sales is a huge, daily part of the decorated-apparel business. In fact, it’s arguably the part that makes or breaks your bottom line. Whether you have a dedicated sales team or you’re the sole salesperson, you need a robust client list and pipeline of prospects. However, just how strong are your connections to your clients? For example, if another screen-printing shop came along, offering better pricing or more imprinting options, would these clients still be loyal to you?

“Our shop has benefited from having multiple points of contact within a school or a team. This fosters word-of-mouth referrals and mitigates turnover issues.”

Alison Banholzer, Owner of Wear Your Spirit Warehouse

Many shop owners, probably including you, point to their strong, long-term relationships with clients as evidence of their success. Yet, the reality is that having only one contact at an organization leaves you vulnerable to being ousted as your client’s preferred decorated-apparel vendor. Even if you’ve spent countless hours nurturing the relationship, sometimes you could find yourself in a situation where that priceless contact might end up leaving that business. That could cause you to lose your advantage with that company and start over cultivating a relationship them from scratch. 

This scenario often happens when decorators work with schools, clubs and teams. “Your contact isn’t required to use any one vendor, so if they leave their position, you might lose the account,” says Alison Banholzer, owner of Wear Your Spirit Warehouse. “Our shop has benefited from having multiple points of contact within a school or a team. This fosters word-of-mouth referrals and mitigates turnover issues.”

Growing relationships with more than one person at your client’s company will serve your business for the long run. Obviously, you’ll always nurture your main point of contact at a client’s company, but you should also network further within the organization on behalf of your shop. 

Building a relationship with the whole organization

“It’s true: Never put all your eggs in one basket,” says Kristine Shreve, a decorated-apparel industry expert. “You’ll naturally have the person you deal with most often, but cultivate others in the organization as well.”  

“The more people you connect with in a client’s organization, the more perspective you’ll get on what the client wants and needs.”

Kristine Shreve, decorated-apparel expert

In fact, Shreve says, you can usually enlist your main contact as a partner in this endeavor, simply by asking them who else you should get to know in their company. “Touch base with these other team members, so they know who you are and feel comfortable contacting you if they have a question or concern,” she says. “You can get a variety of valuable information by having conversations with people from different departments in your client’s business.” 

This approach is helpful to you as well because you’ll get a well-rounded understanding of what the company wants and needs. “Many times when I talk to apparel business owners, they’re so focused on pushing out their agenda rather than trying to understand what the customers really want, and things get missed,” says Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and co-founder of Shirt Lab Tribe.

Aim to establish a long-term relationship with a company by having conversations with key contacts in these four departments:

  • Marketing Director: This person can give you a better overview of what they want from their decorated apparel. Do they want staff polos for trade shows? Do they want T-shirts for customer giveaways? Do they want higher-end apparel gifts for top performers? How they plan to use these goods to market their company will guide your decisions on the products and decoration methods you’ll recommend. A marketing director will also give you a better idea of their available budget and what they want to achieve from partnering with you, whether it’s more brand awareness or lead generation.
  • Art Director: From this relationship, you can learn more about the company’s graphics, colors, logos and branding. All of this will help you create designs that incorporate their current branding, while still providing a fresh take.
  • Sales Rep: Here, you’ll learn more about the business’s client base. Ask about their key buyer personas and some of their demographics. That way, you can recommend the right styles and decoration options for giveaways or thank-you gifts.
  • HR Director: If your client’s employees will wear the decorated apparel, this person will be the best resource for gathering information. You can find out what types of products they’ll need for their program, or if they need an online store. You can also get ideas about items you can package with their orders to help create a stronger relationship.

“The more people you connect with in a client’s organization, the more perspective you’ll get on what the client wants and needs,” Shreve says. “Also, specific people will have access to specific information that you may need. If you know the art director, you can go directly to the source for artwork. If you talk to sales, you can find out what sorts of material they’re lacking and what they think would help them do their job better.” 

Getting your foot in the door

So how do you get established within a company to create relationships with different departments? “Seize opportunities as they come,” Shreve says.

Try these five tips:

1. Let them know you want to be introduced around. When you first connect with a new prospect, explain that your process is to “meet” other department heads, so you can better understand their company and their needs.

2. Check out staff websites and directories. It’s easy enough to find out online who you’d like to network with at a client’s company. Ask your contact to introduce you or reach out directly.

3. Use holidays or special milestones to stay in touch. “Sending a simple note or email in recognition of a company achievement, anniversary or holiday is a great way to make contact with multiple people,” Shreve says.

4. It’s all about education. If your shop has new products or imprinting options, send out multiple copies of the info to everyone who should be in the know at your client’s company.

5. Finally, don’t neglect the gatekeepers. “Connecting with the receptionist or the owner’s assistant can give you access you might not otherwise get,” Shreve points out. 

Your clients appreciate when a vendor like you becomes a solutions provider. Using decorated apparel as marketing tools isn’t their area of expertise and they really don’t have time to learn what they don’t know. They want to look to you for the answers to their decorated-apparel needs. “That’s why it’s important to find opportunities to make contacts in a way that doesn’t look like you’re shoring up your network or working on ‘just selling something,’” Shreve says.

One thing you can do is suggest a brief, group Zoom meeting, so that everyone can be on the same page, know who you are and how you can help them. Investing this time with a new client can mean coming away with four to five contacts from that one business. Becoming visible throughout their organization will help them to see you as more than a vendor. They’ll see you as a partner. 

Be your clients’ trusted brand advisor

“Remember, service and relationships matter,” Banholzer says. “It isn’t just about delivering a T-shirt. We always ask ourselves how we make our client’s job easier as it relates to this purchase.” That means you can offer to pre-sort orders, or deliver the product to an office or another location. “The rule of thumb? Offering services that make your client’s day easier will keep them purchasing from you for a long time to come,” she says.

By taking the steps above, you’ll become your clients’ trusted brand advisor, which means you’ll be able to:

  • Work on all their campaigns. Whether it’s an internal employee motivational campaign or an external customer swag drive, you’ll be in the heart of conversations and can educate, while also encouraging us.
  • Pitch ongoing apparel ideas all through the year. You’ll have your finger on the pulse of what the company celebrates and can use throughout the year. Learn what it is they think would surprise and delight them, and then propose those items to welcome ears.
  • Create a quick, easy way to sell to them. Design a web store for them to switch styles and designs, or to become inspired without having to set up a meeting with you, saving you both time. Giving customers this kind of freedom is a great way to help them take ownership of their products.

When it comes to running a decorated-apparel business, you won’t be successful if you don’t build relationships with your customers. Anyone can take someone’s money in exchange for products. But to score return business, you need to cultivate a close working relationship with multiple members of their business team so that you can provide them with the best imprinted products to meet their business goals.

“Always operate from a place of genuinely wanting to be helpful and make things run smoothly,” Shreve says. “If you’re simply cultivating people to make a sale, they’ll realize you’re not genuine, and it may turn them off.  Approach every interaction with a spirit of helpfulness and a real desire to make the relationship better, and you’ll be much more successful.”

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