The #1 Training Method for the Promotional Products Industry (The Path to $10 Million, Part 6)


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Da Vinci apprenticed under Verrocchio from the age of 14 to 20, doing menial work in leather, carpentry, drawing, painting, and sculpting.Proof that even geniuses need training.Apprenticeship is an old word, but an apprentice is someone who simply works for an expert to learn a trade.That’s essentially what our employees do when they join our promotional products business; they informally enter an apprenticeship.Apprenticeship has proven to be the most successful method of training in our industry. 


 I asked Catherine Graham.We were both thinking through our experiences (and frustrations) of training employees through the years. She immediately replied, “It’s very hard to learn sales and product at the same time.”Truth.There is a supply side and a demand side to our profession, both of which are crucial to master.
  • Supply: Thousands (upon thousands) of product. Hundreds of imprint methods. Myriad complexity in manufacturing and distribution.
  • Demand: The multitudinous purposes our clients put to our product. Learning the nuances of managing customer expectations. Delivering a simplified experience to the buyer. Creating campaigns that generate results. The demand side of the business is as delicate, fragile, and complex as the supply side.  
In addition to learning supply and demand, there are specialty niches to learn, like importing, e-commerce, incentives, company stores.When you add to this, the challenge of adopting the crucial but intangible DNA of your unique value proposition and the importance of your culture, you realize that successful training is impossible without deep immersion. Gone are the days when a box of business cards and a catalog were sufficient for training a salesperson; “sink or swim” is no longer an option, they will sink. If Da Vinci needed training… 

An Apprenticeship Success Story

 At skucon this year in Las Vegas our Entrepreneur Jam featured three young professionals who posed their business challenge to a panel of experts. Joe Sommer of Whitestone Works posed the problem of a churning salesforce (scroll to 17:00). Immediately, the experts honed in on the resolution: apprenticeship.In a skucast episode with Ted Church of Anthem Branding, I asked Ted, “You are transferring Anthem’s unique DNA to your team, how do you ensure you replicate success?”Ted shared a story:
“Back when we started Anthem, my business partner and I were wearing all the hats, we were managing all the client relationships and getting repeat and referral business, plus working to figure out the solutions. We had a designer and a production person, but we realized we needed help. So we brought in our first account coordinators to help us, and they were involved in every communication as we talked through client solutions. There’s a pretty steep learning curve in this industry. You can learn the mechanics of sourcing products and finding solutions, but to go through every type of experience -from the acts of God to the crazy sort of Murphy’s Law that happens, to being able to see 3-4 steps ahead and anticipate things- that’s a pretty long learning curve.”“What we realized was that nobody could sell this business and sell the solution that Anthem provides better than my business partner and I …. what we needed was the execution of all those solutions that we’re providing for clients. So, we started slowly building these account teams out to manage those client relationships .. and went to a team approach. Building these teams out, building a really great customer centric culture, and working on the values of what we bring to the table every day, -the purpose of our agency and what we’re trying to achieve for our clients- that doesn’t happen overnight, that happens every day and at every level and every interaction. That’s how we put our DNA on this and how we started to lead the agency.”
Like masters of old, we recognize that it takes time. Some estimate that an average apprenticeship can last anywhere from 3 to 7 years. 

What does a full-immersion apprenticeship plan look like? Here are four models:

    1. The assistant model: Your apprentice works under you in some capacity (sales support role, admin role) and they learn the business from the ground up.
    2. Side by side: Your apprentice shadows you as you work through solutions for clients. This requires patience and openness, as Ted mentioned, every interaction is important.
    3. Peer-to-Peer training: Your apprentice works with you and  your key team members through a rotation of training, resulting in a broad experience.
    4. Industry events/resources: Industry shows, podcasts, articles. An abundance of training is available, be sure you make full use of it for your colleagues. Training without investment is wishful thinking.
The best training methodologies involve all four: working for, working with, and working alongside, you, your colleagues, and other industry professionals. Many think that if they hire a dynamic salesperson, that dynamo will succeed due to their tenacity, but without successful onboarding, your odds of success are nil. The industry overwhelms even pros who have practiced for years; for new people, the complexity can quickly consume determination.

Since apprenticeships take time, how do you know the person you are training will work out? Two key factors:

  1. Do they remain curious? Curiosity is a key trait. Probably one of the most repeated phrases in this profession is: “OK, I think I’ve got this business down now,” until a curveball comes from a client, and you learn again. Curiosity is the trait that helps every pro in this business thrive. Are they picking up on imprint process, order processes, nomenclature, attitude/passion, and the soft skills of working with colleagues and the industry? If they are bored, they should move on. Curiosity is a strong indicator, it sustains interest and drives hunger for more.
  2. Are they challenged or overwhelmed? Being overwhelmed is normal, but when enthusiasm gets suffocated by impossibility, the industry might be too much for them. It’s normal to be overwhelmed, but it should not cripple optimism. If they meet the complexity of this business with optimism, it’s a good indicator they will succeed. As our friend Danny Rosin states frequently, “The best salespeople love complexity.”
This industry is complex, but many seemingly simple things we admire are profoundly complex. Think of the incredible advancement of Elon Musk’s Tesla or Apple’s iPhone: Complex ideas made simple. Our ultimate purpose is to transform complicated processes and product and evolve them into experiences for our customers that generate results. The only way to achieve this is to focus our training on long-term sustainability, not short-term success.The #1 secret to sales training success in the promotional products business is to not take this complexity for granted and embrace apprenticeship as an intimate art form that requires dedication, time, and a purposeful plan.

“A long apprenticeship is the most logical way to success. The only alternative is overnight stardom, but I can’t give you a formula for that.”

- Chet Atkins

This post is Part VI in our series "The Path to $10 Million." Previous posts include, Unvarnished and Unconventional: Bold Ideas on How to Build a Better Promotional Products Support Team4 Mistakes to Avoid When Hiring Promotional Products Salespeople7 Questions That Help You Focus and Find Your Personal Path to Success3 Critical Roles in a Promotional Products Distributorship: The Architect, the Sales Driver, and the Nurturer, and The 5 Stages of Business Growth.
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Photo credit Alice Grace